Is it becoming acceptable to use headphones (and listen to music) in the workplace?

I am seeing this become more and more common practice, and (at least for me) it does reduce distractions...

But is it acceptble and professional? If I apply the rule of 'would higher mgmt do it?' then I'd think it fails, but are times changing? Obviously mobile phones are changing the world.

Whatever happened to the Audio blog, maybe this woud have covered it?

ashdenver's picture

I rely on my iPod to block out distracting conversations when I need to focus and concentrate.  When I started here six years ago, headphones were NOT permissible however we've become much more condensed.  It can get quite loud in here and we're all working with numbers that can have large ramifications so attention to detail is critical. 

A caveat: we have a phone system that flashes on the computer screen when a call is incoming so it's less likely that we will miss a call because we didn't hear the phone ring (or see the little tiny speck of a light on the phone flash when the phone is ringing.)  The thought of missing an important call from a client was the key reason we were originally prohibited from headphones.  (ANY call from a client is automatically "important" by the way.)

I think that cubicle dwelling and the tiny earbuds have made it less off-putting.  The volume inside a cubicle haven can be quite disconcerting at times and the tiny earbuds make it less obvious that someone is tuning the world out (which could be construed as rude behaviour.) 

Besides, most "higher management" sit in offices where they have the luxury of closing their office door when it gets loud in Cubicle Land!  (LOL - just as I added the "!" a VP just shut his door so he could concentrate on his conference call.  I could hear him/his call and I sit two rows away and three cubes up the row - that's how lousy (or good?!) the accoustics are.)  So yeah, point made.  The "front line managers" are usually in the thick of things where leadership above that level are usually safely ensconced in their own Cone of Silence.  

I would defy anyone at the Director or VP or three-layers-from-the-client/customer to sit out in the open and try to concentrate on the budget with umpteen conversations swirling around their head.  Cubes are great space and cost savers but they're hell on the actual people sitting in them.

smgraham2's picture

Ultimately, this depends on the culture of your company.

I am one of the VP's that the last poster mentioned that has the luxury of closing his door.    I also realize that not everyone has this luxury and I think nothing less of people that plug in their headphones when sitting in cubes (our cubes are 6X8).      However, we are a Software company where the rules of what is professional are a little more lax than other industries.     Conversely, I used to work for a consulting company where this would have been and still is completely unacceptable. 


To fully weigh in, I would have to know:

What do other people do?

What is your company culture?

Does your company have a policy it?

Are you worried about what other think if you do it?   


basking2's picture

Hi Iann22,

Every company I've been at (4 startups, one government agency, and an insurance company) has enjoyed iPod (or similar). I find that, not always, but sometimes, some music is very effective at focusing me or reving me up after my natural 2:30/3:00 energy-drop. I've always looked around at what corporate culture is first, though. You never do know. :)

Some caveates from experiencing this:

  • Don't blast the tunes so I can hear them outside the head phones.
  • If you listen to political or religious podcasts (I love theology debates, they get me thinking), be sure you won't pull the plug on your computer accidentally and offend your neighbors. :) These are best left on a device without a speaker (iPod). Any audio clip without a context is just deadly. :)
  • Do not stream audio from the Internet unless you are sure it is OK. Pandora is great, but it's a huge waste of resources given what the internet connection is supposed to be earning the company. :)
  • Do not listen to M-T podcasts. They are interesting and distracting. ;)

That last bullet is really the most important. If you have the luxury of listening to music at work, realize that it can be very constructive and very destructive. Know thyself and turn it off. I find that usually drowns out the distactions well enough and it doesn't cost the company more bandwidth than the initial page download.

Hope this helps!


Cdavies-uk's picture

Our company has two sites - one is a call centre where iPods are not allowed for obvious reasons, the other is predominantly (by population) IT, and quite a few have headphones on a lot of the time. As a project manager, while I recognise that it can help in certain circumstances, it's not always a good thing. I do regard it as rude and a lot of the time team productivity comes from collaboration. Shutting oneself off from the rest of the team doesn't help communication.

DeMarco and Lister had some thoughts on the subject in their book Peopleware. In essence, the effect that music has depends on what (else) you are doing. Since music is processed by the right-brain, which controls intuitive, creative thinking, that part of your brain has no further capacity for doing creative tasks, like problem-solving or writing computer programs. On the other hand, if you are studying, or doing repetitive tasks that simply require you to work uninterrupted, music can be beneficial. Then again, while listening to Mozart, Handel or Bach can have a very positive effect in aiding concentration, AC/DC or Led Zeppelin probably won't.

thaGUma's picture

It isn't professional.

You isolate yourself from your collegues.

Have you seen your CEO doing it?

It isn't appropriate to most workspaces. You are introducing a personal factor that can usually be correctly blamed as a distraction.


smgraham2's picture

for calling people under 40 younger :-) 

ken_wills's picture


Iann22: If you're likely to be considered for advancement to CEO, then maybe this is a valid yardstick regarding whether you should use headphones to block distractions in your work environment.


If that's not the case, it may turn out that your CEO would be impressed that you're finding ways to stay focused on your work.


You're getting some great advice here (ash is a terrific poster who ALWAYS thinks things through...).  And the questions/considerations that smgraham22, basking2, and MD144 ask are great.  That's what I've enjoyed about these forums for such a long time...


I really can't add to their value - except to suggest reading them again!


jrumple's picture
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It wasn't long after I found podcasts that I found I couldn't listen to them at the office. They were so interesting that I couldn't split my attention between them and the work I was getting paid to do. I set up a specific office playlist that had instrumental music. I use it to cancel out the distractions around me. For as long as I can remember I've used music as a background noise, and I know that there are some people who don't like this. I like the recommendation above of using white noise to cancel distractions and will try that tomorrow. (By the way, "There's an App for that.")

I work with software development, so the culture is accepting of people listening to their iPods in their cubicles. The project I'm currently on has a policy where you're not allowed to wear headphones or earbuds away from your desk. Our customer is on site and we want to provide a professional appearance. I think it is an effective policy. I can still tune out the Dilbert-ville conversations, but interact with teammates in the halls.

This policy got me to leave my personal cell phone silenced at my desk. Before I was carrying it in my pocket and susceptible to being distracted throughout the day by leisure items. Now I don't notice these things happening until after the clock has stopped.

I hope it is clear that effective listening rules apply here. When you're talking with someone, turn off the music, take off the headphones/earbuds, put the device in the corner, and focus your attention on the other person so you can listen to what they are saying.

SteveAnderson's picture
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When I started my current job, my supervisor suggested the use of headphones since the work environment was...well, let's call it "less than conducive to concentration."  I came from an environment where I worked from 2:30 PM to 12:30 AM so seven and a half hours of my shift was by myself.  I was able to concentrate on work and solely work from about 6:00 PM onward.  I moved to an environment where I spend 8 hours sitting in a small conference room lined with desks for five other people.  And, lucky me, my neighbor (about nine feet away) prefers to have loud telephone conversations, think out loud, and get chatty.  Needless to say, it's a big contrast and making the adjustment has been difficult.  Since my work involves primarily research and analytic writing, I've spent quite a bit of time in vacant offices and (when my boss will let me) away from the office.  But when I have to be in the office, headphones (even if I have nothing playing - it minimizes the likelihood I'll get irrelevant interruptions) have been a must to drown out the other noise.

Don't get me wrong - despite being inclined to analysis and logic - I'm very much a people person.  There's nothing I love more than a good conversation...just not when the goals of my organization need to come first.  Just my take on things.


cvanduyne's picture

One of the main reasons I wear headphones is to avoid being distracted by the irrelevant conversations around me.  But I was uncomfortable ignoring people when they came to visit, or making them carefully interrupt me.

So, as a geeky engineer, I made an iPhone app.  It uses the camera to look for visitors to my cube and pauses the music.  It works great, and I have been enjoying my music ever since.  Its free, and in the latest version, I've added more features for use in the office.  Check it out here: iPauseMusic



mfculbert's picture

Hi folks,

I know that younger folks want to argue that listening to music or podcasts is acceptable in today's environment. Whether it is or is not, it is simply not effective. About once a week I will be listening to an important cast as I get to work and don't unplug for a while. It is always bad. I either don't work well, or I don't follow the cast. Do not "multitask." 

dennis_sherman's picture
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There are studies that demonstrate benefits to listening to music while working. 

See (that's from the journal Psychology of Music) for one easily accessible example, see it's references for others.  The sample size isn't large, but the data are pretty clear about benefits found in worker's feelings about their work, the accuracy of their work, and the time they are able to remain effectively on task.

The study doesn't address perception issues of colleagues and bosses.  It also doesn't address listening to anything except music.  And it finds a clear negative correlation between the effectiveness of listening to music and age - the older you are, the less effect it has, generally.

I'm not arguing that we should all be listening to music all the time - but the blanket "No, never, it doesn't help" in some comments above isn't rooted in facts.

Dennis Sherman

jrb3's picture
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Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister have spent the last three decades figuring out what makes production software projects and teams, and writing about their results and the results of others doing the same.

In their mid-1980's essay "Bring Back the Door", they cite a 1960's study at Cornell.  The experimenters tested the effect of listening to music on computer science students' productivity and results.  It made no difference whether there was music, as far as speed and accuracy was concerned.  That wasn't what was really tested, though:  rather, did hearing music interfere with programmers making creative leaps and insights (e.g. this Fortran program actually outputs exactly what it is given).  If the room was quiet, many participants reached insight;  if music was playing, practically no-one did.

This matches with my own experience and with that of dozens of friends and colleagues throughout the years.  If fulfilling my role means I need to make and build on creative insights, I start by finding or creating a sufficiently-quiet place with no music.  Often that means, not head-phones, but noise-suppressing head-gear, such as pistol shooters use on gun ranges, or trades folk running mowers and blowers and other power tools.

"Bring Back the Door" comes from DeMarco's and Lister's well-regarded collection of essays "Peopleware".  (ISBN 0-932633-05-6)  These two have plenty of other insight into crafting an effective environment for software teams, some of which can apply to other types of work.

-- Joseph

crowe83's picture
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I can't add much to what everyone else has said, but my opinion is that it's not professional. Part of the reason your coworkers and you all work in the same building is that you need to collaborate and work together. Wearing headphones puts a barrier between you and anyone else that needs to talk to you. When you get on an airplane and you don't want the person next to you to talk to you, what's the first thing you do? Put on headphones.

I'm sure there are different cultures and norms I haven't seen. But this one seems similar to taking notes on a laptop in a meeting. It may make you more productive individually, but it's unprofessional and is perceived negatively by at least some of your colleages.

crowejim's picture

I have 75 software developers in my organization. As a former developer myself, I can attest that these people are a different breed. Sort of a cross between an artist and a mad scientist.

Some wear ear buds for music, some don't, and some wear industrial ear plugs for silence. I used to wear the ear plugs for silence. Most people, when writing software, need to get into "the zone" where the logic flows from their finger tips. People have various ways of accomplishing this. Most of them like working with most of the lights off.

Most of these people will run away quickly if you mention that they could become a manager. It's not something that they want to even get close to. Others are obvious future management material. My approach is to let them each create an environment in which they can be the most productive, as long as it does not disturb anyone else and doesn't prevent them from communicating and collaborating when needed.

leanne's picture
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Define unprofessional.

I'm a software developer. For me, the headphones make me more effective when there's lots of noise; I immediately respond by taking them off when someone comes up to me; I keep the music set low so that it doesn't drown out what's outside me, just makes it easier to concentrate - so it doesn't bother anyone else, because they can't hear it. (I really do find it hard to concentrate with 7 people, several of them high D, standing in the front of my office having an excited, energetic conversation about something related to their project.) I don't *listen* to it, per se, although it does need to be 'my' music so I'm comfortable with it and don't get distracted by *it*. I couldn't tell you what's played while I'm working. I use them about once every two-three weeks.

So. If it makes someone more able to get their tasks done, and *doesn't* make it harder for someone else to get hold of them, is it unprofessional?

Trust me: no one in my group takes it as a 'go away and don't bother me'.

Now, I *do* feel that for managers, it is somewhat off-putting, in that I *am* unwilling to interrupt them because it does send a 'go away, I'm busy working here' message. I do anyone if I think what I've got is important enough, but I'm not quite as comfortable as I usually am.


duplicate_account_MarkAus's picture

The core issue around why headphones are considered "unprofessional" is that it makes a statement to the world - specifically, that my tasks are more important than my relationships.  

I don't want to rehash the arguments for and against* - but the truth is that there are certain instances where people choose not to bother a person with headphones on (whereas they might have bothered them if the person was sitting there with ears open) - even if it was just to make an offhand comment or a joke.  That's just a fact.

It is those little harmless (and even non-work) interactions that build relationships - if you minimise them, your relationship will be less deep.   Although admittedly, your output of tasks may increase.

I say this against the background of another fundemental truth - you need good relationships to get the unusual or challenging work done in an organisation.   The less deep your relationships, the less effective of a professional you are.

*High Cs and Ds will intellectually disagree with what I've said, but if they take a minute to evaluate the way people respond when they're not thinking about the entire factual picture (which is usually), they might agree with me.

leanne's picture
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I'm not trying to rehash any arguments for or against, as such. I'm not making my point well.

My point is: 

Being managed - or labelled - as the same as 95% of people, without giving the person the opportunity to demonstrate if they're in the 5%, feels counter - to me - to all of what I've learned from MT about managing people as individuals.

95%: You walk up to Joe, who's wearing headphones. You hesitate, and start to turn away. He kind of glances sidelong at you, so you know he's seen you, then goes back to what he was doing.

5%: You walk up to Jack, who's wearing headphones. You hesitate, and start to turn away. The motion catches his attention, and he turns around, reaching up to take off his headphones as he does so. He says, 'hi! What's up?'

95%: People who might come up to these people are pretty sure that, with headphones on, they don't want to be talked to.

5%: Have strong enough relationships with their coworkers that the coworkers know they're perfectly fine with someone coming up to them if they're wearing headphones.

And yes, that 5% does exist.

BariTony's picture

Wow, I'm surprised by many of the responses about how unprofessional they think it is. Our company actually provides headphones as part of the regular equipment at each cubicle. Our organization encourages collaboration - headphones aren't seen as a barrier to communication. If someone calls your phone, or if another employee shows up at your desk, it's assumed to be urgent and the headphones come off. Otherwise, it's generally assumed that whoever's wearing headphones is concentrating on their work and doesn't want to be disturbed.

It's kind of a necessity. My team of writers sites directly across from the project managers who are usually on the phone with clients all day long, producing a significant amount of noise. Most of my directs listen to music to drown out the chatter. There are one or two individuals who bring their own noise cancelling headphones but don't actually listen to any music (because they find THAT too distracting).

The relationship between background music and productivity is interesting. The research that's been published has shown it's not that simple. The evidence seems to point to the conclusion that while listening to music might cost you a little bit in productivity, it actually keeps people at their task for longer periods of time. Of course, you have to balance that with the level of distraction caused by a noisy cubicle environment, so taking the productivity hit for a direct who's listening to music might be better than the loss of productivity caused by all of those distracting conversations around them.

Breanna_Ileen's picture

In an IT environment specially software developing, they allow the use of headphones and it actually helps them to avoid distraction. But there are other offices that does not allow this, thinking that it is unethical. My stand is it depends on what kind of company you are in, if you are working in a law firm or a bank I don't think it is right to use headphones.

If it makes someone get their job done then it is fine with me, but if it would be hard to get hold of them then I won't allow it.