When Headphones Get in the Way of Office Communication

A new colleague needs to communicate with the team throughout the workday. Unfortunately, she’s always wearing headphones, making simple interactions awkward. How can you break the sound barrier?



Headphones and earbuds have of course become exponentially more popular at work as the so-called “open plan” office has spread. Even if collaboration or connection results from that obliteration of workers’ privacy, sometimes we all need to block out everything (and everyone) and concentrate. Thus, as others have observed, for people like your new hire, headphones are the new walls.


But they can also complicate routine office life. And there are a couple of ways to think about that, depending on the details.


As a practical matter, interrupting a colleague wearing headphones involves only slightly more effort than interrupting someone who is working without them.


Forget the headphones for a moment: You already know that if you just burst into someone’s space and start talking, she might miss the beginning of what you were saying because she was, for instance, completing a thought in an important email, or entering complicated data in a spreadsheet. That’s why you might say, “Hey, Smithers?” and wait to be acknowledged before proceeding.


For the headphone-wearer, get in her field of vision, or knock on her desk, or say “Hey, Smithers?” in a slightly raised voice. (I would avoid touching or tapping — or, of course, full-on shouting or loud banging or anything else startling.)


Then clearly communicate this thought: I need to be able to approach you for quick work conversations; what’s the best way to get your attention when you’ve got headphones on?


Just asking this question makes it clear that the priority is work, not catching every nuance of “Radiolab.”

If her headphone habit is actually causing work flow or collegiality problems, address those directly, and impose whatever parameters you see fit. There’s definitely a case to be made that self-isolating workers can miss out on useful collaborative opportunities, and this column has noted in the past that for an office newcomer in particular, heavy use of headphones can send a “don’t talk to me” vibe that’s not great for a career.

But try to strike a balance. While it may be annoying to deal with a headphone-wearer, it’s also annoying to have little to no privacy. Handle some communication with messaging, and insist on maintaining some face-to-face contact. If things move too far in one direction, adjust. Keep the lines of communication open.

By Rob Walker

Source: nytimes.com