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Headphones at work: 'Are you listening?'

Posted by Elaine Varelas  March 2, 2011 10:00 AM

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Q. What do you think about the use of headphones at work?

A. While there are many jobs that require headphones, I don't think you are asking about the appropriateness of wearing headphones to perform the duties of the job. Unless there are legal requirements for you to wear headphones, or not to wear headphones, the person who gets to make the final decision is your boss.

Many people are quite convinced that they can multitask effectively, and listen to music, books on tape, or something else on headphones while they work. People will play the radio or music through the computer at their desk, through their phones, or ipods. Yet almost all studies suggest multitasking does not increase effectiveness or productivity. Whatever plays over the headphones serves as a distraction from your primary responsibility - your job.

Headphones also serve to distance people from what they are surrounded by. Headphones serve as a message not to intrude. They act as a barrier to interaction with people who might feel they are interrupting. If you are on the job, your role is to be available to people you work with, without distraction.

This need to be totally connected is new to the workplace. A new generation has grown up electronically connected somehow for most of the day. If they are asked to focus, or pay attention, they remove one ear bud. Separating from this connectedness may be a challenge, and many places of work will require that separation.

If you are in a company - perhaps a software company, or a firm whose focus is music, you may find a more accepting culture. This is a situation where you don't want to be the leader. Look around. If you see headphones being used, and you believe you can work without distraction, have a conversation with your manager. Let him or her know there are times you'd like to wear headphones to eliminate noise that may come from your work space. There might also be times when you'd just like background noise via headphones, and want to make sure you don't appear unresponsive to colleagues. Gain approval, and make sure you respond to phone calls, and interruptions, and that no one can hear what you are listening to.

There may be tasks where using headphones might seem to work. If you are involved with repetitive work that has no people interaction, for instance. But working with distractions often has a negative result, and this is not how you want your performance impacted.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.

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