Wearing Headphones at Work: Do You Need a Company Policy?

Wearing Headphones at Work: Do You Need a Company Policy?

Some people claim not to be able to work without music, some like to turn on the tunes when they’re doing something monotonous or repetitive, whilst others prefer peace and quiet and can’t concentrate with a background soundtrack.

But with more people than ever before plugging in the headphones at work, does your company need a policy on headphone use? Because for every person who finds that listening to music makes them more energized and productive, there is someone else who finds the wearing of headphones in the workplace unprofessional - or possibly even rude.

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And that’s what makes it a bit of a tough call for Human Resources. After all, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, as the saying goes. And like other contentious office issues (we’re talking about you, air conditioning) however you call it, there’s always going to be someone who isn’t happy.

two men, one wearing headphones and the other looking annoyed
With that in mind we’re going to take a look at some of the plusses and minuses of headphone use in the office to help you decide if you need to implement some sort of policy, no matter how formal or informal it is.

Wearing headphones at work: Do you need a company’s policy?

First of all, let’s consider why you may want to permit the use of headphones whilst your people are working.

Why wearing headphones at work can be a positive thing

Music helps some people be more productive

Quite simply, some people find that listening to music helps them focus. This is particularly true when the music is familiar and almost becomes a background noise, albeit a pleasant one. If someone is working on a task that is long, arduous or the sort of thing they can do with their eyes closed, then music (or a podcast) can help them stay on track. Of course, the added bonus of this is that they can then move on to other more important tasks more quickly.

woman wearing headphones whilst using laptop
Listening to music can lower stress levels

Music can have a soothing, calming effect. So whether someone finds their happy place in jazz, soul, or through dolphin sounds or rain pattering on leaves, if your people are less stressed out surely this can only be a good thing? It will lower employee burnout and make your workplace a more pleasant place to be.

Music can help drown out distractions

The death of the office cubicle (in many organizations) has led to large, open plan offices. And while these are generally more convivial and less oppressive places to work, it can mean that noise levels can become distracting. And that’s where headphones or earbuds can be beneficial.

Wearing headphones can indicate when someone is busy

We’ve all had those days when we just don’t want to be disrupted. Maybe you’re ploughing through a hideous amount of copy and pasting, perhaps it’s time for some hardcore data entry, or maybe there’s a deadline fast approaching you need to get a report written or accounts tallied up. This is where headphones can come in useful as they signify that you’re trying to get your head down and work and aren’t really up for a chat.

man in business attir with two computers wearing headphones

It has to be said that all of these positives pretty much have a negative counterpart. So let’s get into that.

Why wearing headphones at work can be a negative thing

Wearing headphones makes you look unavailable

The opposite side to the ‘indicating someone’s busy’ coin. There are always going to be people who will see headphone wearing as unprofessional or antisocial. More junior, or shyer, members of the team may be loath to interrupt a coworker who is wearing headphones, and this can be detrimental to the department and to the task in hand. It can also be frustrating for team members who are bouncing ideas around and not getting any input from the person who can’t hear what they’re talking about!

Headphone wearing can be harmful to teamwork

In a similar vein to the point above, if the team is working on a joint project but one or more people have their earbuds glued to their ears, it’s not going to benefit anyone or anything - least of all your customer and the end result. Collaboration requires communication and conversation and it will quickly become a source of great frustration if half the team are brainstorming or problem solving and the other half are bobbing their heads and tapping their feet at their desks.

coworkers around a table with two wearing headphones
Loud headphone music can be extremely annoying

For non-headphone wearers, the last thing anyone wants to hear is the tinny noise of music coming out of a coworker’s earbuds. This is annoying enough when you’re on public transport - it’s doubly annoying when you’re trying to get work done, particularly if the office is otherwise a quiet one.

Wearing headphones at work: Do you need a company policy? Conclusion

You may not need something as rigid as a total ban on listening to music in the workplace, but it could be a good idea to have some sort of guidelines in place should the practice become an issue.

Having said that you may decide to implement a strict no headphones policy. But If you do allow your people to wear them, you might want to offer them a few simple pointers, such as:

  • Keep music to a low volume so it can’t be heard by neighboring coworkers
  • Perhaps only wear one earbud to signify that you’re available if needed and so that you can still hear what’s going on around you
  • Let coworkers know you’re going to be in the zone for a while - but ensure they know they can interrupt you if needed

smiling man talking to coworker with his headphones round his neck
Finally, it probably goes without saying that managers should exercise a lot more caution when choosing to listen to music while at work. An unavailable manager is not a good manager - and nothing says unavailable quite like a separate office with a closed door and drawn blinds…or wearing headphones and ignoring the team!

Eve Jones
I'm a UK-based content writer here at Hezum. I've an interest in all things HR and company culture.
United Kingdom