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  • April 5, 2012

I'm Really Listening

I remember the day I got my first pair of headphones. I was five years old and the Easter Bunny brought me a Smurfs walkman radio. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I spent hours with those things on—in the car, Decorative Illustration in the house, outside riding my big wheel. I can’t really remember what I was listening to back then. After all, I was five, and it was an AM/FM radio, so suffice it to say, it was probably nothing that anyone else in my world wanted to hear. Well played, Mom and Dad.

Fast forward thirty years and I still use headphones every day (though they don’t look like this and I no longer ride a big wheel), and music is still a huge part of my life, filling every available minute. It inspires me to work faster, helps me concentrate on a task, or drowns out activity that I need to ignore for the sake of a deadline. I know I’m not the only one who works this way. What fascinates me is how we use headphones in the workplace, and what it says about us.


At Happy Cog in Philadelphia, we have an open, shared space. It’s a space that fosters conversation, collaboration, and teamwork. I took a quick poll across Happy Cog, and it was unanimous: we all work to music when the task allows. That said, there is almost always music playing throughout our office over AirPlay. Right now, DJ Diamond Dave DeRuchie is bumping some R&B. (My headphones are on.) Later on, someone will play the new Shins album or maybe we’ll do a round robin and each select a song from the 80s, or some other theme. We’ve even toyed with creating Rdio playlists for days of the week.

While interviewing candidates for an open position, we often ask, “Are you a headphones on or a headphones off kind of person?” Symbolic really, but the answer gives us some insight into how the candidate handles distractions at work, and if they are social. Can you concentrate when you’re at one long desk and have music playing, and possibly 14 other team members chatting about work or occasionally laughing about a YouTube video?

The question seems simple, but it can speak volumes (zing!) about how someone might fit into our work environment. At the same time, it’s a way for us to let candidates know, “Hey, we work in a small space where every team member is invited to join a conversation, collaborate on work, and listen to music. Does this environment suit your work style?”

There’s a lot one can learn working with colleagues that only headphones can teach us. For some, “headphones on” means they are heads down, uninterruptible. It’s a clearer message than any IM status can communicate. For others, it just means they are indulging some musical urge (ahem…Adele, Katy Perry) that they don’t want to subject others to unnecessarily. Also, the way we use headphones varies wildly from person to person. For instance, I’ve found myself with headphones on for hours with no music coming out of them. That’s concentration. And, of course, some people don’t use them at all, because the white noise of music playing in the background works just fine. What I’ve never witnessed, though, is someone wearing their headphones all the time, without interruption. There may be times when a little white noise is necessary, but there isn’t a person on our team who isn’t available to collaborate and communicate openly throughout the day. And that is what matters the most—being available and not shutting yourself off to the team.

What does “headphones on” mean in your work environment? Do your team members have any other “tells” you look out for to indicate what they’re doing, or working on?

The Bonus Track

What do you listen to while working? I asked the folks of Happy Cog to provide some tracks they like to work to. What’s most interesting to me is that it ranges from metal to instrumental. We all work to what doesn’t distract us. Check it out and feel free to add a track and leave a comment.

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