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Headphones are the new office walls and bring about many challenges

I don't always wear headphones at work, but when I do, I leave them in long after the music or video has ended

Image: www.quickmeme.com

Open-plan offices were first introduced in the 1950s and quickly became a popular way of arranging workspaces. Businesses have implemented the open-plan office to save space and money, to foster communication and collaboration, to allow for creative thinking among workers, and for some, to remove the imposed hierarchy (status implications of office type, e.g., the corner office) created by closed office spaces. However, it turns out that sometimes an open plan office means too much communication and a loss of privacy, leading to undesirable effects.

Dr. Jack Lewis, a neuroscientist who conducted a test recently as part of the U.S. television show, The Secret Life of Buildings, stated, “If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background it ruins what you are concentrating on. Even though you are not aware at the time, the brain responds to distractions.”

A colleague of mine sent me an article from the New York Times titled, “From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz.” This article indicates that despite office walls tumbling down, workers still find ways to barricade themselves in their cubicles or open office spaces by using towers of books, plants and file cabinets. These days, they are using a more subtle method: headphones.

Increasingly, workers are wearing headphones to block out background noise and distractions around them.

And, it is so true!

In my own workplace, with no workspace partitions, several workers have headphones in their ears and it is clear that it is to shut everybody else out, including the surrounding noise so that they can concentrate and do their job.

According to the article:

Scientists, for their part, are measuring the unhappiness and the lower productivity of distracted workers. After surveying 65,000 people over the past decade in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of “speech privacy,” making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere.

“In general, people do not like the acoustics in open offices,” said John Goins, the leader of the survey conducted by Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment. “The noisemakers aren’t so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy, and designers are finally starting to pay attention to the problem.”

The author thinks the solution is having some form of background noise such as a pink-noise system that masks sound: a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system, but is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voices.

Really!?

So noise, of any kind, seems to be the main issue for most. My problem is more privacy and the need for stillness around me when I work, for focus and concentration. It’s been 12 years since I worked in an office with a door. If I could, I’d ask for my walls and my door back. That whooshing sound or workspace partition would not work for me!

However, that is not going to happen, and the open office space is far from being something from the past.

Hence, the best solution, at least for me, is simply to work from home when I need to concentrate and focus. When I need to see or “hear” my colleagues, I go to the office and sit at my open space cubicle, knowing full well I will not produce as much as if I was home.

But going back to workers who use headphones to mask noise. I personally cannot handle having them in my ears. In addition, I find this work habit annoying and a health and safety risk.

It is annoying because everytime you approach a co-worker sometimes you are not aware they have headphones and you look like a fool when they are not responding to you. Other times, when approaching them, you just feel like an intrusion because clearly they want to be left alone and there is no way to know if they want to be disturbed or not. You assume they don’t because of the headphones, but you must because you need to discuss something with them.

It is a health and safety risk because headphones make noise that could damage hearing. According to safety experts, most headphones/earphones can produce a louder sound at the eardrum than all but the largest and most powerful studio monitoring loudspeakers, and can easily give noise exposures well above accepted safety limits. With headphones/earphones, people can get an excessive dose of sound without themselves or anyone else realizing it.

Employers who find this habit harmless and a solution to sound in open office spaces should think again. As far as the law is concerned, loud music or speech coming from headphones/earphones can still be hazardous. They can still lead to hearing loss. If someone standing nearby can hear what the earplug/headphone wearer is listening to, the volume is too loud.

Other potential hazards have been identified from the use of headphones. The headphone cord could be caught in a piece of work machinery, and experts indicate that some of the media players used could influence the path taken by electricity in the same manner as wearing metal jewellery. In addition, during an emergency or incident, headphones could prevent employees from hearing alarms, calls for help and so on.

Employers must realize they are still responsible for this risk in their workplaces. Employers need to assess the injury risk and must monitor the use and effects of headphones by employees during the course of employment.

Setting a clear policy on the use of players and headphones in the workplace is a first step. Searching online, I found a good example of a policy in the University of Queensland’s “Audio devices – Safety Guideline.” Although based on Australian law, the policy still has good information worth using as a template.

Putting controls/measures in place is the second step. The policy suggests that employees consider using a single ear piece and mono sound whenever possible, as this will help maintain awareness of what is happening around them. Using a headphone that sits flat outside the ear, rather than an earpiece, is another good practice.

I bet a lot of employers have not thought about the use of headphones while working. Has the information in this article changed your mind about the unmonitered use of headphones in your workplace?

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 15 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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