Just Wear Headphones

In the comments people have written in response to my posts about open plan offices, a common theme was that of headphones (or earbuds) and how they are oversold as a solution to office noise.

In this post, I want to elaborate on a few issues with headphone use that hold them back from being a silver bullet.

Developers using headphones and earbuds

Physical Hearing Damage

There are permanent physical consequences from prolonged headphone use. The effects accrue gradually, and as such people don’t notice that it’s happening.

From the American Osteopathic Association, Dr. James Foy explains:

I stress to my patients and the parents of my patients that if you can’t hear anything going on around you when listening to headphones, the decibel level is too high.

As a rule of thumb, you should only use [personal audio] devices at levels up to 60% of maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes a day. The louder the volume, the shorter your duration should be. At maximum volume, you should listen for only about five minutes a day.

ENT physician, Dr. Michael Seidman, continues in an article from the New York Times:

If you listen to music with earbuds or headphones at levels that block out normal discourse, you are in effect dealing lethal blows to the hair cells in your ears.

When you’re working in an environment so noisy that you have to pump music (or white noise) into your ear canal so loudly that it blocks out the other noise, you are doing permanent damage to your hearing.

Music Is Distracting

This is one of the trickier issues to discuss, as people love music and have a hard time separating the pleasure they get from listening to music from their effectiveness while listening to music.

If you ask software developers about what they blast out of those ubiquitous headphones, you’ll get answers like this:

"It's not just something in the background to help me concentrate; it's a source of inspiration, a door to free my mind from our day-to-day routines, and, at the same time, it's a way to memorize an experience," says Ortali. "I play tracks in a loop, sometimes the exact same track all day long. It's a way to connect with the lyrics, and move the tempo beneath my skin."

Scientific minds get very un-scientific when it comes to their favorite music.

In a terrific article from The Atlantic,How Headphones Changed the World:

In survey after survey, we report with confidence that music makes us happier, better at concentrating, and more productive.

Science says we're full of it. Listening to music hurts our ability to recall other stimuli, and any pop song -- loud or soft -- reduces overall performance for both extraverts and introverts. A Taiwanese study linked music with lyrics to lower scores on concentration tests for college students, and other research have shown music with words scrambles our brains' verbal-processing skills. "As silence had the best overall performance it would still be advisable that people work in silence," one report dryly concluded.

If headphones are so bad for productivity, why do so many people at work have headphones?

That brings us to a psychological answer: There is evidence that music relaxes our muscles, improves our mood, and can even moderately reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. What music steals in acute concentration, it returns to us in the form of good vibes.

Headphones give us absolute control over our audio-environment, allowing us to privatize our public spaces.

People conflate the positive psychological effects of creating a cocoon of their favorite sounds in an environment of noise they can’t control with positive effects on their productivity.

Feeling of Vulnerability

As I touched on in a previous post, seating people with their backs to a high-traffic area leads to a constant sense of unease and vulnerability.

Back to the action

People in this position have lost their sense of sight to detect when someone is approaching them. When you add headphones to the equation, they’ve now also lost their sense of hearing.

Headphone use in a noisy open plan environment can be a catch-22. The noise is so oppressive that you want to block it out, but then you have to deal with the feeling of vulnerability and frequent startles of people approaching you from behind without hearing them.

So What to Do?

Headphones are not the new walls. Give people a quiet place to work or let them work from their own.


Side Note: Noise-Cancelling Headphones

I want to quickly address “noise-cancelling” headphones in particular, as they are mentioned often as a quick fix for the problem of office noise. The technology at use was designed to cancel the low, constant rumble of aircraft engines. So while it may work to cancel the noise of your office air conditioner, it’s powerless against the voices of your co-workers (the real noise you’d want to cancel in an office environment). Read some of the reviews for the popular Bose QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones, and you’ll get the picture.


Neil said...

I use my earbuds to cancel out the noise. I wear them all day without playing any sound through them.

Last week I forgot to bring them to work and the noise around was so distracting. Nothing particularly loud. Just people taping on their keyboards.

Arthur Bugorski said...

If you listen to music with earbuds or headphones at levels that block out normal discourse, you are in effect dealing lethal blows to the hair cells in your ears.

I find this claim dubious. I use large cans which are also noise-cancelling. They often suffice to block out the ambient noise without any music at all. Now, if it gets a little louder, I put on some quiet background music, but according to this reasoning I am doing irreparable damage to my ears. Heck, I'd be doing irreparable damage without playing any music!

So, I think the quote is a bit of mis-statement and can be restated as: block out the noise with headphones not volume, apply a little white noise if necessary.

Anonymous said...

I hate when people tape on their keyboards.
Duct (duck?) tape is especially bothersome.

Anonymous said...

I work at a top Fortune 500 company and they recently (in the past year) moved to an open work environment. As a developer, there's a time to collaborate and a time to focus, since the move to an open work environment, the time to focus has completely disappeared.

While I use headphones every day, it's definitely not a solution, especially when trying to work on complicated solutions.

Not to mention the horrible seat planning, putting most of the developers next to the PM's who are on the phone 90% of the day, it's just mind numbing. Likewise I can hear someone clear across the floor (not a small building) talking about what they did over the weekend when my earbuds are off, down with the open office!

Dave Newton said...

Headphones are a temporary solution; I haven't found a pair that I can wear comfortably all day (wearing glasses doesn't help), I can't listen to music all the time, I can't listen to (various white noise and nature sounds) all day, I can't block out the gaggle of guffawing geeks, it just doesn't work.

Temporary fix, sure. Long-term solution? No.

Anonymous said...

That "feeling of vulnerability" is the main issue I don't appreciate open plan offices.

Anonymous said...

if you listen to music with earbuds or headphones at levels that block out normal discourse, you are in effect dealing lethal blows to the hair cells in your ears.

This isn't really true.

I have a pair of Shure SE215 in ear monitors. With the foam tips they block out all sound and put you in your own world at the lowest volumes due to the sound isolation. People have to physically tap me on my shoulder for me to realise they are talking to me. Listening with a pair of cheap headphones on full volume with no isolation to block out the noise isn't good but good IEM's help your earing as you don't need to listen at high volumes.

At the end of the day though, headphones are just a temporary fix regardless

William Payne said...

The "feeling of vulnerability" is a killer.

My mind is usually quite active (My anxiety levels are naturally quite high), and it takes a lot before I can calm down enough to get into a productive flow-state, so I find my performance is highly sensitive to the office environment.

Anonymous said...

'No more than 60% of their maximum volume' - well that's hardly scientific...

I much prefer noise isolating earphones. I can comfortably wear them all day long, and even playing music, I would estimate there's probably less sound energy going into my ears than without them (thanks to conversation, keyboard clatter and aircon white noise). I sometimes leave them in with no music playing. I do also sometimes pump up the volume for a track I like. As a hobbyist sound engineer, I'm aware of the dangers of long exposures to high decibel levels - and do worry for people who's headphones are so loud that they can be heard from a few feet away. Had my pair of SE210's for 6 years now, and still going strong (cosmetic wear and tear). Far more preferable to isolate unwanted noise than drown it out.

Brent Noorda said...

Another reason to wear headphones is it sends a signal to others: "I'm busy, leave me alone!" I often wear headphones in the open space office. I'm not even listening to anything. Just wearing headphones to be left alone.

Dmitriy Likhten said...

You can always use ear plugs.

One solution I heard of is having a high quality PA playing a constant "white noise" or something similar. This should ensure that anyone more than 15 feet away from you becomes completely incomprehensible. The advantage is that since you can't understand them you don't need to block them.

Also my co-worker has adopted noice-canceling headphones. The kind that literally blocks noise from entering your ears (not the ones that play the inverse wave). They don't do audio at all. They work wonders and are super comfortable.

RobertMeta said...

I HATE open offices, but man is this article full of absolute nonsense. I mean that in a very literal way -- it has lots of stuff that can not be made sense of because it lacks context or any actual meaning.

> I stress to my patients and the parents of my patients that if you can’t hear anything going on around you when listening to headphones, the decibel level is too high.

This is just stupid. It ignores type of headphone entirely. IEMs like the ER-4P (https://www.etymotic.com/consumer/earphones/er4.html) have insane noise isolation (up to 42 dB). When using them, I can't hear someone talking to me, standing right next to me, with no music! They physical block the ear canal and create a seal blocking outside noise.

> As a rule of thumb, you should only use [personal audio] devices at levels up to 60% of maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes a day. The louder the volume, the shorter your duration should be. At maximum volume, you should listen for only about five minutes a day.

Again, idiotic. "60%" is entirely meaningless. It might as well be "Don't listen above FALASFDABURAGA". Headphones vary in sensitivity vastly, on some sets of IEMs -- 60% would be ear bleeding, deafeningly, painfully loud. On a high impedance, low sensitivity set of big headphones, 60% is a whisper. As a "rule of thumb" all it does is reinforce that the person who gave that quote is an idiot.

> If you listen to music with earbuds or headphones at levels that block out normal discourse, you are in effect dealing lethal blows to the hair cells in your ears.

... again, quotes from people who have no understanding that there are different types of headphones. MAYBE you could claim with fully open headphones this to be the case... but what is the level of "discourse"... *sigh*. Again, literally nonsense because it is impossible to make sense of...

> ... Music Is Distracting (entire section) ...

There exists multiple categories of music WITHOUT WORDS! Shocking I know. Most developers I know listen to these types of music because, lyrics are distracting. That isn't a cut against headphones.

> ... Feeling of Vulnerability ...

Getting to some sad points. Again, I hate open office plans, but come on -- really -- the feeling of vulnerability being caused by headphones? It is caused by an open office layout.

@Bunjiweb said...

I have considered ear plugs because although listening to music helps, I actually find it more distracting and spend more time sorting out my playlist or deciding upon my next song than concentrating on the work I should be doing.

My biggest problem is misophonia, and trying to get myself over it. Since working in an open-plan office environment I have become acutely tuned to the most annoying of noises, and have started to develop a literal hatred for certain sounds that I hear throughout the day; be they mobile phone ringtones, people whistling or humming, or perhaps even just annoying squeaks of chairs and other unavoidable sounds that make me want to go postal and smash people's heads into their screens.

It's even worse when the sounds come from the other side of an office divider. I can't see the sound and sometimes don't know what it causing it, which makes it infinitely more annoying.

I'm clearly crazy, and suffering from some kind of disorder which has developed after spending 10 years in a noisy, busy retail environment, and now moving to a relatively quiet office, where I can now analyse every little sound I hear.

I now find that listening to music without lyrics such as film scores or ambient music at a low volume is about the best cure for my neurosis...

For the record, I also hate ticking clocks.

Anonymous said...

For these reasons I have been using ear muffs (similar to the ones you would use for lawn mowing). Currently I am using Howard Leight Sync. It's basically an over the ear ear plug when it's not on.

Anonymous said...

if only more people were able to face the truth, and not hide behind blanket statements based on 'the new research says...'

of course this differs between people. some are quite susceptible to noise and conversation as a distraction and others thrive on it or are able to psychicly tune it out somehow. I am of the former kind. My current noisy work environment has rendered my output to almost nothing because my co-workers are fastidiously talkative. c'est la vie.

a better solution might be to offer an option, you can be in the quiet room, or the hustle bustle room, take your pic, or better yet, move between the two as what you're working on dictates..

Vicki said...

Matt -

1. you addressed noise canceling headphones, but not noise isolating headphones. This is what Anonymous mentioned a few minutes ago (June 22, 2015 at 11:52 AM): ear muffs (similar to the ones you would use for lawn mowing).

Please add this information to your "Side Note". So many people think the two things are the same; they're not. There are plenty of comparison article online. Here's one: http://blog.shure.com/noise-cancellation-or-sound-isolation-whats-the-difference/

I wear noise isolators (full over-the-ear cup) over Howard Leight "33 Db" foam ear plugs. The combination mostly works; at least it works for sound more than 10 feet away.

2. You skipped over one of my personal objections to wearing headphones all day - I get a headache and a neck ache if I wear headphones for more than about an hour. It's the thing on my head plus the pressure on my ears.

Noise isolating earbuds don't give me the headache but then the sound dampening isn;t good enough. I toggle back and forth and try valiantly to be able to work from home.

3. I think you are missing a word (or have a typo) in the sentence about remote work. The link text is "work from their own.". Should it be work from their own space? Or work from home?

Anonymous said...

I hate Open Office plans, working in a Dutch company this is even more so of a problem as it seems most of my colleagues have no idea how to talk at a normal volume which gets louder when someone brings up a topic that induces a nerdgasm in the group!

Even wearing headphone in this environment has failed to reduce the distraction. Whilst no of us can really get away from office noise, not having to hear the entire company all trying to out talk each other is unacceptable. Maybe it even exceeds the health and safety regulations on noise in the work place.

Anonymous said...

you can use these. They are cheaper, and no electricity needed to have silence: http://jurnal.drona.ro/2014/04/cheap-noise-suppression-headphones-diy/

Anonymous said...

Honestly, even with headphones, the visual noise of an open office is just as bad for me. If I'm anywhere near a medium to high traffic area, I get incredibly distracted. I am adhd, which I'm sure contributes, but it's unbelievably frustrating for me.

Vicki said...

Re: visual noise -- yes! My "final" cube at LastJob was on the connecting aisle between two major east-west aisles on the floor. I don;t think it had been meant to have cubicles, but they were "pressed for space". It was also 20 feet from the breakroom, 20 feet in another direction from the elevator area / stairs, and close to a meeting room.

Constant. Traffic. All. Day. Long.

And then, of course, the breakroom. Who lowers their voices in a breakroom?

Anonymous said...

Headphones on, concentration gone.

Anonymous said...

open plan offices destroy the ability to communicate with coworkers as well.

Anonymous said...

My co-workers are noisy, they play music all day, and are juvenile in demeanor. Being the only programmer in a room full of younger desktop support people is pretty horrific. I've tried noise canceling headphones, nature sounds, lyric-less music, politely asking them to turn the music down, etc. Nothing works. I've talked to the boss about the issue be he finds their antics amusing and charming. This is their culture and I'm a new hire, so there is no way I can change this. I'll be looking for a new job shortly.

Warren Myers said...

Seems like a good option, then, would be the earmuff-headphones you can get :: 20-25db external noise reduction plus being able to listen to music, podcasts, etc without bothering others

Paul said...

protective earmuffs. $8 on amazon. SNR 26dB rating. slide them over earbuds if you must. most effective way. it turns yelling into whispers.

Anonymous said...

Work from home.....

Christopher Castle said...

Did you work for Donald Rumsfeld when he was trying to convince the public that there was a valid security threat from Iraq?

Yeah, I realize that is incendiary, but so is this whole blog post. Almost every single claim suffers so obviously from some major logical fallacy that I found myself wanting to continue reading only to get to the "did you like my experiment in constructing bad arguments?" part. Hasty generalization, false cause, straw man, over simplification, and generally misinterpreting scientific studies to support your claims.

While I agree that an open office can be very disruptive and that headphones used improperly can damage hearing, your attempt to prove these points reminds me of my younger self during 9th grade debate class and, more importantly, does not add anything constructive to the open/closed office or headphones/no headphones discourse.

Vicki said...

^^^ To +Christopher Castle

"does not add anything constructive" -- except for the fact that many of us actually think it was a well-written and constructive post, on Matt's own blog.

If you can't say something nice... read something else.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if you mentioned this in your posts already but what I really hate the most even more than the noise is the visual distraction of people coming and going. It's even worse when you know them so you have to greet them or worse do small talk (outside of lunch and breaks) and lose concentration.

Anonymous said...

Working man's noise ear protection muffs works very well. But you should look at the freq response chart.
I used 3M Peltor series.

I used two layers - 3M Peltors on top and small earbuds with very quiet music. Result - somebody could say my name next to me and I would not hear it. Only muffs don't work.

Soon a coworker moved also from headphones to ear muffs, seemed to like it a lot.

The downside is that management expects to see and feel teamwork. If you have created your own world then that is probably considered as difficult. If the open office limits communication then that means management is wrong, either by personnel or open office choice.

As a more happy thought, the place I work for had in coffee corner: "EU recommendations to reduce amount of mental health problems in work space" that claimed the amount of sh* sorry stressful working conditions related absenses are an expensive burden for the company.

Anonymous said...

If you're using something like a stock iPod earbud that blocks no noise itself, I suppose you have a point.

Most people are wearing noise-isolating headphones or IEMs. The device is what's used to block the sound, not cranking up the volume to a damaging level.

Vicki said...

I don't think it's correct to say that "Most people are wearing noise-isolating headphones or IEMs." I think "most people" are wearing wither noise canceling headphones or regular headphones or earbuds.

And given that I hear noise bleed from a LOT of people on public transit, they're definitely cranking the volume.

Ian Cooper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Cooper said...

Headphones really...perhaps time to consider acoustically treated furniture and mitigation not elimination of some of the noise. With headphones you are missing out on diffused collaboration. I suggest looking at focus pods.

See reference http://www.iqcommercial.co.nz/home/10-principles-detail/3/