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In one ear and in the other: Firms debate headphone use

By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / May 7, 2012
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For some people, wearing headphones in the office is a way to block out chatter and get work done. For others, they are big “do not disturb’’ signs on their coworkers’ ears that make it harder to share ideas.

As companies do away with offices and lower cubicle walls to create a more collaborative - and noisy - environment, more employees are popping in earbuds or clamping on noise-canceling headsets. Frequent users swear by them as a way to increase concentration, but earphones can also promote isolation, underscoring a growing debate on whether plugging in to your own personal soundtrack increases productivity or undermines communication.

“Would you interrupt a guy who’s pushing a large piece of wood through a saw? Headphones are the engineer’s way of saying, ‘I’m in the middle of sawing something here,’ ’’ said Brian Kelly, 35, vice president at the Tewksbury software firm TimeTrade Systems, where engineers receive three things on their first day of work: a laptop, 27-inch monitor, and noise-cancelling headphones. “The only downside is the look of sheer horror when I put my hand on their shoulder and tell them I want to talk to them.’’

Elaine Varelas, managing partner at the Boston career management firm Keystone Partners, said headphones can discourage employees from connecting with co-workers.

“It’s counterproductive,’’ she said. “It’s been proven that those informal relationships and informal interactions make for stronger teams. And stronger teams make for higher productivity and higher morale.’’

But earphone advocates say shutting out distractions allows workers to get more done. A study from Loughborough University in England found it takes people an average of 64 seconds to recover their train of thought after an interruption by e-mail, and interruptions from co-workers can have a similar effect.

When she needs to focus, Katie Kennedy, 23, wears an earbud to listen to the Dave Matthews Band and John Legend at her job at Version 2.0 Communications. She usually just wears one, she said, so she can hear what’s going on with her other ear.

But her boss, Maura FitzGerald, who has a three-quarter-walled office beside Kennedy, finds that’s not always the case.

“I can’t just think of something and call her name out,’’ said Fitzgerald, 60, a partner in the public relations firm. “I did it for a while and wondered, why isn’t she answering me? Has she forgotten that I’m the boss?’’

Most of the employees in the 15-person office wear headphones. Fitzgerald said she has no policy against the practice because it keeps employees happy and work gets done. But it does not mean she likes it.

“We have a collaborative team-oriented environment, and I do feel from my perspective that when I see someone wearing headphones, they’re kind of under the cone of silence,’’ she said.

Dimitry Herman is not a big fan of headphones, either. About three-quarters of his 60 coworkers at the Boston software company FreeCause wear headphones - and he worries it could spread.

“Before you know it,’’ said Herman, 40, a director of business development at the firm, “everybody’s tuned in to their own world and not interacting in the way that was originally intended by the open floor plan.’’

Studies on the effect of music and background noise on productivity have yielded conflicting results. A British study in 2010 found that listening to music impaired people’s ability to recall information, while the famous “Mozart Effect’’ studies in the early 1990s showed that listening to Mozart improved people’s ability to find solutions to complex problems.

A study released this year showed that a moderate amount of background noise helps people think more creatively. The amount of sound roughly equivalent to what you would hear at a restaurant distracted and relaxed subjects just enough to help them think more broadly and find connections they might have missed if they focused too intently on a problem, said Ravi Mehta, a coauthor of the study and assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois.

“Silence may not be good for creativity,’’ he said. “When people are relaxed a little bit, they think at a more abstract level.’’

Charlie Guerrero, a 27-year-old interactive designer at advertising agency Allen & Gerritsen, said listening to music or tuning into radio podcasts helps his creativity. If he were forced to listen to the drone of the ventilation system, Guerrero said, he would “space out.’’

“I kind of just need something else for my brain to be chewing on,’’ he said.

About half of the 20 employees at Fresh Tilled Soil, a Waltham Web-design company, wear headphones regularly, including chief executive Richard Banfield, 41, who listens in on conferences while he answers e-mails. But Banfield, who said headphones can put out a “buzz off’’ vibe, believes in moderation.

“If you’re wearing your headphones eight hours a day,’’ he said, “the message is you don’t really want to be here.’’

Some see pervasive headphone use at work as an extension of the way electronic media are changing corporate culture, with instant messages replacing water cooler chitchat and earbuds putting distance between employees who might otherwise help each other out - and even become friends.

“A lot of what you learn is by osmosis,’’ said Panos Panay, the 39-year-old chief executive of the music marketing website Sonicbids, where many employees’ ears are filled with the sound of their personal playlists. “Headphones are erecting emotional walls to some degree. I’m in my world, and I’m going to remain in my world until I give you permission to access it.’’

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

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