Music at the Office

can you listen to music at the officeReader B has a question about music at the office — specifically, whether headphones are ok.

I have a question about my upcoming legal internship this summer. I’m working at the Chief Counsel’s office for a branch of the government starting in May. I am also the only summer intern at this particular location, and I will have my own office. I was wondering whether or not it is appropriate to listen to music on headphones while I am working. I usually listen to music when I need to power through some serious work in law school, but I’m just not sure if it is appropriate in an office setting. For what it’s worth, I will be working in a very casual city, and my (very much older) boss has a visible tattoo.

I’m curious to hear what the readers say. My gut tells me this is one of those “know your office” type situations — and when you try it first, be aware if and how your colleagues react. For example, some bosses have a habit of sticking their head in their office and begin firing off ideas/barking orders immediately, and the extra 5-10 seconds that it may take you to realize “Hey, boss is talking, so I should turn off my music now” may be something that annoys that particular boss. I’ve seen that kind of personality in creative fields as well as conservative fields, so I really think it comes down to personalities rather than professions, but that’s just me.  (Pictured:  UrbanEars Plattan Headphones, available in 18 colors at Amazon.com for $59.99.)  The one thing I would advise, though, is to keep your door open if you’re going to otherwise tune out (particularly if that’s the office culture).

For my $.02, I find it next to impossible to work with music on (organizing/cleaning, yes, but writing/reading, no)– I’m a lyric-driven listener and am easily sucked into the music and out of my own head, and even have too big of an emotional response to classical music for it to be white noise. Furthermore, I’ve had some colleagues who’ve played music quietly in their offices before, and I keep earplugs in my office for those times when I can hear the music. So to me the headphones are key here. But even as someone who considers myself sensitive to distracting sounds, I wouldn’t care if someone else is working quietly with their headphones on.

I thought a poll might help us get a quick read on people — I really am curious if you DO think less of someone with headphones, so please comment if the answer is “sometimes” or “always.”

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Readers, what do you think? What are your thoughts on music at the office — does someone working with headphones on seem less professional to you than someone working quietly?

Comments

  1. I vote keep the music low and don’t wear headphones. Pause it if someone comes in your office.

    • I’ve been doing that for the 2.5 years I’ve been in my job and it has worked fine.

    • agreed

    • I listen with one ear bud in and one out to hear if someone is coming. On weekends/at night then i’ll play it out loud but not during normal working hours.

    • I’m a senior associate in BigLaw and this is one of the things I tell first years at orientation: NO EARBUDS. It may not make sense to you, but senior people find headphones (especially earbuds) unprofessional, and they do NOT want to have to “get your attention” during business hours.

      I feel free to turn on the music after 6pm and on weekends, no headphones, just speakers. I pause it when people come in.

      For all those posting that you just can’t concentrate, go home and turn on the music. It’s made so easy in many workplaces now to work at home, and it’s honestly better for your career not to be seen at all than to be seen working with headphones.

  2. Anonymous :

    This is specific to the OP since she will have her own office –

    Why not just listen to music w/o the headphones? I’ve worked in a few offices where headphones were negatively perceived, but if someone wanted to play music softly in their office (so that it could not be heard in the hallway), no one ever said anything. I’m not quite sure why this distinction exists, but it has held steady over a few different workplaces. Obviously, this won’t apply to anyone in shared space, but it’s a thought for OP.

    • My issue is that I find gauging whether music can’t be heard in the hallway kind of stressful; I suppose if I did it every day it’d become instinct, but in the meantime . . . .

      • Oh, and also, it makes me worry about colleagues mocking/judging my taste in music. This post is bringing out all my issues, apparently.

        • I have both of the same problems, Lizzy! Plus, I’m slightly hearing impaired (and prefer not to keep my hearing aid unless someone’s actually talking to me), so I really have trouble judging the volume issue.

      • 1. Turn on music.
        2. Walk into hallway.
        3. Determine whether you can hear the music.

        • Yeah, but my hearing isn’t as sharp as a lot of people’s and then the speakers get jostled and I have to repeat the whole process. I mean, I’m not saying it’s brain surgery or that I can’t do it, but it does create an extra level of difficulty.

          • Get real; listening to music in the office that other people can hear (unless they want to) is very unprofessional and childish. You are there to work, not spend the night at the nightclub. I love music and blare it in the car as soon as I start it (but not loud enough to disturb others outside my car). It is an issue of respect and whether you are a diva.

    • Diana Barry :

      I have actually had a comment on my music from the HR person – I was playing classical choral music and I guess someone could hear it (and objected!). Since then I always use headphones.

      • This. I’ve had people complain about my (very softly playing – srsly) music when I’ve had my door closed. Ppl will find a way to complain about anything, especially in high-stress environments. I only use headphones nowadays.

        • Complain about “anything” or things that distract them from work? I hate hearing any music in the office.

          • Anon for this :

            THIS. I have a colleague that plays jazz music all day, every day, on days when she’s in the office. You can’t hear it in the hall, but you can hear it through the shared wall. Thank goodness we both travel a lot.

    • In my office people don’t like headphones but having music playing on your computer or speakers is okay. Both my boss and I listen to music on speakers. People walking by can tell we are listening but can’t make out the lyrics and it seems to be fine. I’ve asked both the assistants who have cubes right outside my office if it bothers them and they’ve always said no.

      Also, I take a lot of heat on my bad music choices, but honestly the sooner you own them, the sooner people stop giving you heat. :)

    • I know I’m going to sound like a real grump. But I think it reflects kind of poorly to be listening to music in the workplace. It makes it seem like you need entertainment. I also think it is distracting (or distancing if the listener has on headphones) when there is a need to “pop in” for a conversation–unscheduled meetings tend to be the biggest fires at my office.

      Fine if you are the boss. But probably not fine if you are the intern. You’re not doing yourself any service with the impression you may be leaving with some folks (at least grumps).

      • “It makes it seem like you need entertainment.”

        I was surprised by this remark. I work in cube-land, and my colleagues are chatty and talk loudly. (Is this socializing not also indicative of a need for “entertainment”?) As I have ADHD (unmedicated, as I’ve had some terrible reactions to drugs), it would be impossible to concentrate without my discreet earbuds and classical or jazz music to tone them out.

        My boss was forever popping into my cube with requests, and I could easily and quickly remove the earbuds and focus on her needs. She was super picky about having a professional presentation and demeanor, but never commented on this practice. I’m not sure if that was because it did not bother her, or because I was the most able to turn on a dime, research any topic, and deliver what she needed.

  3. Geezerette :

    This is a pet peeve of mine. Our interns seem to wear earbuds non-stop, and it’s annoying to have to wait for them to realize I’m talking to them — and I feel as if I’m interrupting THEM, when they’re supposed to be working for ME. I realize I’m old, but their constant listening to music makes me think they’re not fully focused on their work.

    • i’m 23 and this annoys me too!

    • This. Yes, I agree.

      For someone who has their own office, why not listen to it quietly without headphones, as Anonomyous recommends above?

      If you’re in a shared office (i.e. cube or open space), no listening to music with or without headphones.

      • Re: listening quietly without headphones – is this with the door open or closed? I think it’s more rude in many (though of course not all!) office environments to keep your office door shut unnecessarily. And I can’t imagine it’s appropriate to keep a door open with your music playing.

        • I’m sure it depends on your office, but at my firm lots of people play music with the door open or ajar. You just have to be respectful of the volume you play your music at. My speakers are right next to my computer so I don’t have to play it very loudly at all.

        • this really depends on one’s office. I work in a small office, half my walls are glass, and I am always freezing so I feel fine with my door closed regardless of whether I have music going.

      • I’ll not listen to music with my headphones if my office-mates agree not to make phone calls or talk to other co-workers.

        Seriously, it’s hard for me to concentrate when the person I share a cubicle wall with is on the phone. He has a voice that carries and makes really bad jokes. He is very hard to tune out, and a lot of my work involves reading long, technical documents that require focused attention.

        I do higher quality work when I can focus and not have to listen to him. So I would prefer to have headphones on (as many people in my office do) than turn in substandard work, or have to take work home so I can concentrate.

        I do think it’s a “know your office” thing, and if I had my own office, I would either not listen to music or listen to it softly without speakers. I would probably need it less, since there would be less to drown out.

      • Anonymous :

        Ear buds drive me nuts. At least if the person is wearing headphones, I can tell her to remove them before I start gabbing away. Incidentally, when I say something to someone in a shared office, I always assume the other person also heard. Many times, I later realize the other person was wearing earbuds and didn’t hear. I hate that. Frankly, I think wearing earbuds at work is rude, unless the person is listening to a recording or lecture as part of her responsibilities or unless her door is closed so no one will walk in.

    • For me, it’s actually the opposite – the music somehow takes up the part of my brain that would be wandering and allows me to be much more focused. People in my office seem fine with it (we have a high tolerance for eccentricity at my workplace anyway), but in the end, I kind of figure they’d probably prefer me to listen to music and look weird than do slower or lower quality work because I was more distracted and scattered.

      • I am the exact same way. I am in my mid-thirties. The problem with “just put music in your office and keep it low” is that then you can still hear other people’s loud conversations outside your door. With the earbuds in, I can’t hear the distracting noises, and I get my writing done a lot quicker and more effectively. My boss, when I first started working here, was a little taken aback at first, but now she’s fine with it. At my husband’s work, it’s a bunch of software developers sitting in one big room and people rarely take their headphones off.

        I have to say, I don’t understand why someone would see someone having earbuds in as “disrespectful” but consider it to be perfectly fine if said employee’s coworkers stand outside their door talking and creating a distraction. Do you want the work done and done well, or not? We all have ways we work most effectively, and those are not the same for everyone. The only other thing I’ve tried to keep me focused on my writing without earphones in is Adderall, and as I’ve now seen a couple of acquaintances go into rehab for Adderall and similar drug abuse, I am not going to use it again. I don’t think I should have to medicate myself when I could just put in my earbuds and listen to music while I write.

        Oh, and as for the whole “I’d listen to the lyrics instead of working” – that’s why I have a ton of classical music, instrumental jazz, and world music in languages I don’t speak on my iPod.

        • Litigatrix :

          I completely agree with Lizzy. I find I need to wear headphones in order to focus at work because people are constantly wandering by or popping their heads in, and I won’t get anything done otherwise. It’s probably viewed as a little rude (or even unprofessional by the more senior partners), but my take is that I’d rather come across a little rude than not get the work done or get it done sloppily. I have my own office, but we have an open door policy (closing the door sends a more antisocial message than having headphones on) so listening to music without headphones isn’t really an option. Plus, like Lizzy, putting in headphones really forces me to tap into my productivity, as opposed to having ambient music. I think the trick is to listen to music you’re very familiar with, to ward against getting distracted by chords/lyrics you don’t know. I only put them on when I really need to get something done, and I will continue to do so until someone raises it as an issue with me. So far, no complaints…

        • Agreed. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

          An open office environment (in particular) is very distracting by its nature. If you can mitigate that fact in some way, in order to ensure your continued (and I would argue for at least some people, better) productivity, grumps be darned.

          Tap me on the shoulder if you need my attention; or, better yet, send me an email with a request to meet. Doing this helps me to manage my time more effectively; and, as a result, I can do a better job for you. North American office culture has created this expectation that people can successfully do numerous things at once (i.e. the multitasking fallacy) and it’s making us frazzled and dumb. It is also making people like Ann resort to medicating themselves to keep up.

          Let’s stop the insanity. Please.

        • I am considering seeing my doctor about suspected adult ADD to try a rx. Would you mind telling me more information about whether the drug worked and how it became addictive? Thanks.

          • I only took it once, and I ended up with heart palpitations. It was good at helping me concentrate – CRAZY good – for the first couple of hours or so, but then the palpitations started and I thought, if I have a heart attack and die at my desk, the extra concentration isn’t going to help. I felt like I had just sprinted flat-out for a mile and all I was doing was typing. Adderall is an amphetamine and amphetamines are addictive to some degree; it also has an antidepressant effect. A couple of people I know casually started out with Adderall and then started using other stuff in conjunction to “keep going,” aka do way more than a normal human could accomplish, and one ended up having a seizure.

            I have a friend who believes she has had ADD her whole life and it’s just recently been diagnosed; she uses Adderall occasionally and does fine on it. I think there CAN be a legitimate need but I am seeing a disturbing number of adult professionals using it casually as a way to enhance their productivity, when they don’t have ADD, which I think is a pretty terrible idea. I’d see what your doctor has to say.

          • This is one of the most annoying things about law school. I’m still in law school, so I don’t know how I feel about adderall in the work place, but I despise adderall in school. I wondered how other students could focus for 12+ hours in the library with very few breaks until my friends told me they were on adderall. Unless you need it to function, it is academic steroids! I think of it as cheating. Anyone can sit there and study all day and night if they take a pill!

          • operaghost :

            I started taking Ritalin in law school and switched to Adderall a few years later. I felt like Ritalin made me really jittery but I don’t have the same problem with Adderall. I’ve been on it for several years now and have had no problems with addiction – I never take it on weekends/vacations and don’t have any withdrawal symptoms. It has ABSOLUTELY helped, without it it’s a constant struggle for me just to stay engaged in one task long enough to complete it.

          • anon for this :

            I also thought I had adult ADD — couldn’t focus, my thoughts were pinging around the inside of my head at like 25 mph. I saw a shrink and we tried Adderol first and Ritalin, and both of them changed the pinging thoughts from 25 mph to like 90 mph. I tried taking half pills, lower doses, etc, and then we decided I just didn’t have ADD. (He wound up thinking I had anxiety, and he wanted to put me on a daily SSRI (Zoloft or whatever) and I resisted — he wound up just giving me Xanax to take occasionally when the pinging thoughts were too much.

            I did read some helpful books on organizing for ADDers, though, and I’d recommend one of them — “ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.” It was really helpful just in general — time blocking, avoiding procrastination, etc.

        • Agreed! My cubicle is right in between two (loud) printers that are shared by about 12 people, so there are always folks walking by. Putting on my headphones is what helps me get work done. If someone needs me, they can knock on my cubicle wall “door” (I don’t turn it up so loud that I can’t hear them). My boss usually IMs me when she needs me, so it doesn’t really affect our working relationship (or her respect for me).

          That said, when I’m doing regular work (not deadline or too mentally taxing), I keep the headphones off. That way folks know if the headphones are on, that I’m serious.

      • Completely agree. I work from home, and actually prefer the way headphones feel to listening to music through speakers. There is something very focusing about it to me.

        When I was in law school, I worked at a very old-school firm. One of the associates remarked that I may want to be careful about my use of headphones, because while it didn’t bother him, he thought the more old-fashioned partners might be annoyed. I thought about what he said, but since nobody else there ever said anything about me using them, and were happy about my work product, then I didn’t stop.

        I don’t get the big deal. So you have to wait a second for them to take the earbuds out. If someone is truly hard at work, they aren’t going to be able to look up or respond in the split second after you pop into their office anyway.

        That said, I think walking around the office with them in is unprofessional. Desk only.

        • Original Lola :

          Right. Headphones focus you on your music and your work. The tune out the rest of your office.

          That’s the problem. You should be tuned in to the rest of your office. And your supervisors and colleagues want you to appear to be tuned in to them. Low music (not heavy metal/techno/dance) in your own office with the door open creates a welcoming environment for others, and invitation to collaboration. Headphones do not.

          I would not recommend any legal intern to use headphones. It puts a visual and auditory barrier between you and the rest of the office. I know that’s your goal – but it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, with an economy like this, if the intern wants a job or a good reference later, you don’t want to be known as the intern that wanted to tune everyone else out.

          • I agree with this. I don’t necessarily think headphones and/or music in the office are unprofessional, but headphones are isolating and in my view (with my team at least), I expect people to be aware of what is going on around them and not be shutting team members out. It’s important to be available and be part of an open work environment. None of us do this by ourselves; we are a team. I keep my office door open so as to not shut people out; by the same token, I expect my staff to not shut others out by isolating themselves with headphones.

            I have heard complaints that it’s difficult to work if you can hear those around you. My office moved a couple of years ago and the staff went from having small offices with doors that closed to having open workspaces (not even what I would call cubes). The idea is to foster teaming and sharing. There were a lot of complaints about not being able to hear phone calls due to outside noise, etc. I told that to my husband, who has worked in IT call centers, and he laughed. Working with noise around you is just something you have to (and should) adapt to.

      • Same here. I can’t write with music playing, but if I’m doing something requiring low brain power (like data entry) it keeps my brain busy enough to not get distracted like I would be otherwise.

        • anon for this :

          FWIW, being tuned in at your office can be too much. I have a crazy boss who likes to wander around screaming about random things, ranting about other things, and sometimes just cackling about whatever she thinks is funny. It’s all fine and good but there’s only a few of us in the office and we all sit within 15 feet of each other. If she’s having an extended convo about opera or wine or what her mid-20s son is up to right now, right outside my office with another person — hello, I don’t need to be distracted by that. So I wear earplugs.

          As for the suggestions that people just “listen to music quietly” — I have like a sixth sense for hearing music playing anywhere in my vicinity. I know that I’m not normal, but I really do find it distracting and I haaaate to have to ask someone multiple times to turn down music that’s already barely audible. Again, so I wear earplugs, but then even the sound of earplugs distracts me (like the whooshing of my own blood or something? Not sure) … maybe I’m just not cut out for my current office. Sigh.

      • Kandi-STYLE :

        THIS!

    • 24 and super annoying. In fact, I just ranted about a temp who wanders the building with her earbuds in. There’s no WAY she’ll be brought on full time.

    • I had an intern ask me if it would be okay if she listened to headphones while she worked, and I told her that absolutely wouldn’t fly with the bosses. She was working in a cubicle, and when I stopped by to check on the status of what she was working on, I saw she’d put an ear bud in the ear facing the wall. I was furious that she had so clearly disregarded what I had told her, and even more so when I saw the quality of her work. It was riddled with mistakes and seemed like she did a very careless job with the work.

    • I agree, walking up to one of my accountants and waiting until they realized I am there and remove their headphones, is a negative and impacts how they are viewed. As an intern, why risk it?

    • Basically, if you have to ask the question, the answer is no. Don’t do it.

      If you know your office culture well enough to be absolutely sure this would be received okay, then go for it.

    • As a former HR professional in the Employee Relations Department of a large corporation, the one ear bud solution was what we recommended. Most bosses would consider it rude to have to wait for someone to notice them and fiddle around with their player to stop their music so the boss could talk to them. Whether others in the office listed with full head phones or radios isn’t the point. The point is to make sure you are attentive when they want you. Let others worry about their own image.

      • Thanks, Pat – the one ear bud strategy has always been okay in my various workplaces (I’m 26 and have been at big law firms and in smaller offices).

    • Don’t feel old! I am 25 and this is a huge pet peeve of mine too!

    • This is my reaction too. I’m 20 years out of law school and am not supervised by anyone, so I can and do listen to (classical) music (not on earphones/buds) when I’m working.

      I think an intern choosing to do, especially using earbuds, this is a horse of a different color. At that stage of one’s career, the point is to be responsive, available, and to soak up all information coming your way. Earbuds send the opposite message.

    • Interns should not listen to music on the job! Unless you have paid your dues for a few years, then no music. Once you have been there and proven yourself, then okay.

    • This. And I’m not at all old. There are so many problems with earbuds. They make you look like an unwelcoming person to have a conversation with. When you’re at work and I need something, I shouldn’t feel like I’m interrupting you. Additionally, some people have annoying music tendencies with earbuds because they don’t realize how insular they are – they’ll sing, tap along, hum, or make other distracting noises because they can’t hear themselves and don’t know they’re doing it. Or they’ll turn them up way too loud and presume that others can’t hear them just because the thing is stuck in your ear. I can still hear it.
      It also just looks immature. Not a vibe you want.

  4. Same reaction as Geezerette (and apparently same generation, too). A number of years ago, I had a staff member who wore ear-phones and SANG ALONG, probably not realizing that everyone in the vicinity could hear her. This was a problem. Also, I have an office where we have a number of outside visitors, so the earphones/headphones are a problem for that reason, too.

  5. I have my own office where I work and listen to music about 1/3 of the time using earphones. However, I only put one earbud in (and play the music at a low volume) so that I am still accessible and can hear immediately when people enter my office. There’s no awkward “is she saying something” moment when someone walks in.

    At this point, everyone I work with knows that I do it on ocassion and are not surprised when I pull the one earbud out of my ear when they come talk to me.

    I think the earbuds are a courtesy to those in neighboring offices or cubicles right outside my door so they don’t have to hear what I listen to and I have explained it to my superiors that way along with a joke that it’s a habit I developed in law school (5+years ago) from long hours studying at coffee shops. At least to my face, no one seems to have any objection to it.

    • This is exactly what I do (except that I don’t have my own office). I don’t listen to music all the time, but sometimes I just prefer to. Afaik, nobody has a problem with it.

    • This sounds like a great compromise!

      Also, I hate it when my co-worker’s play music without headphones in their office. It doesn’t really matter how loud they play it. If it’s soft, half of my brain starts straining to figure out what it is, and if it’s loud it’s just annoying. I need silence when I work.

      • Yeah, someone listening to music w/o headphones would bother me far more than someone sitting their with headphones in.

      • Anonymous :

        I’m the same – if a neighbor is playing music without headphones and with their door open, I can hear it enough to be distracted by it. I would much rather have to wait for someone to take out their headphones than think that they were distracting the people around them.

        As for the interns, I think it depends on where they are being asked to work. If they are packed in an office with 2 or 3 others, or in cubicles in noisy areas, I expect that some will need to block the noise around them, and I’d prefer headphones to earplugs – it’s much more likely that I will see the headphones and not begin talking to someone who can’t hear me.

    • This is what I do too. I share an office with a very talkative woman, so I put one earbud in and can pull it out very quickly to either chat with her, or respond to anyone entering the office. Some co-workers do play music through speakers, so I don’t think it’s a big issue. I have a good set of earbuds (not Bose noise-cancelling, but in the $150 range ) so I am not concerned about noise leakage, which is something that drives me crazy in public places with cheaper headsets.

      I can see some people coming across as less professional if they are very obvious about the music, or if it has an negative impact on work quality or communication with co-workers. But done carefully, I have no issue with it.

      I actually prefer listening on headphones, because I tend to only put it on when I have downtime (quite often), and I don’t like to bother worrying about whether my music is too eclectic for the office, or that my audiobook might bug someone.

    • I do this, too! I think so long as you’re accessible, that’s the main thing. I know lots of offices don’t have a way to control it, but one thing I’ve done to “compensate” for knowing that my supervisors might find earbuds unprofessional (and to make sure I’m really as attentive as I can be!) is to turn my desk/computer screen so that I’m facing the door – or, at least, without my back to the door. That way, I don’t feel self-conscious about having one earbud in, and I can easily notice if someone comes in.

      • I was going to suggest turning to face the door! And how loud are people playing music if they can’t hear when someone starts to talk to them with their earbuds in?

        I can’t stand having music (or worse–talk radio) turned on all day long in the office. I would go crazy in retail where that’s a requirement. I’m with those of you who have said that soft music makes you strain to hear what it is.

        But it seems to me that if your job is to know every nuance that’s going on in the office (as an admin, an assistant, a receptionist, an HR person, a manager), your job depends on you having one ear and part of your brain on the office at all times. Headphones and earbuds probably use up that one ear and part of your brain.
        If, on the other hand, your job requires concentration on spreadsheets, documents, reports, correspondence, or whatever, then headphones or ear buds with music that helps you concentrate might be a good idea. Unless, of course, your boss doesn’t agree. Then you do as he/she suggests.

  6. I voted “sometimes.” I think headphones are fine but in an office where things are generally fairly quiet (I have my own office and can still hear the analyst outside and a few cubes down typing away) the volume should be low enough that you don’t have to have a visual cue to realize someone is talking to you. I rarely listen to music in my office, but when I do the volume is so low I can still hear outside conversations with ease. Bonus: better for your eardrums.

  7. LadyLitigator :

    I am sorry, but if any of the lawyers in my firm wore headphones OR listened to music in the office (other than perhaps those times late at night when no-one is around, and even then, with sensitivity to the fact that someone might walk in and wonder why you are listening to Rage Against the Machine/Katie Perry/smooth jazz/your choice) it would get a big thumbs-down from me. Headphones send the message that the wearer prefers being in a private world and views the outside world as a distraction, and just don’t send the right message in a team-player environment. The transition to working in a noisy office may be tough, but there are upsides. First, as a summer associate or intern, you need to hear the buzz and get a sense of who knows what and who the players are around the office. Second, you are first to hear when an opportunity is out there – and no-one wants to miss that.

    • Maddie Ross :

      I agree with this. I listen to music when I am at the office late at night or on weekends, as I need a little white noise / distraction or I get crazy. Between 8am – 6pm, it is never necessary and I think my co-workers would find it rude (I know I do). Depending on the night and the reason I’m staying late, I usually turn on the iPod with headphones around 6:30 or so.

      • This makes a great point for an intern or someone new to an office–you want to hear the buzz and what’s going on. Now that I think about it, I really don’t care that the 20 year partner down the hall works with headphones on sometimes, but I find it annoying that new associates would rather walk around with headphones than interact with the people in the workplace.

  8. Katherine :

    It’s not just a generational thing! :)

    As an associate at a small firm, I listen to quiet classical or jazz music on my computer (I have my own office, and the music is so quiet that you can’t hear it from 3 feet away.) I would never wear headphones for the reasons you list here, and I would find it inappropriate for a subordinate to do so.

  9. I’m a “sometimes” voter. For context, I work in a cube environment in a decidedly low-key (and non-legal) environment. I don’t think it’s polite to keep your headphones on outside your office/cube, e.g, on your way to the kitchen. That’s an especially bad idea as an intern, as it undermines opportunities for casual networking. But I definitely use my headphones and Pandora to block out some of the other sounds of the cube world if I’m really bearing down on a spreadsheet and don’t be distracted by other people’s (business) phone conversations.

    • Oh yes, please take your earbuds out when you walk around the office. Leave the ipod at your desk. Do not visibly fiddle with your ipod — I should not look up every time to find you searching for a new song/Pandora station. I’m talking to you, Paralegal who sits outside my office door.

    • This. I’m an attorney and I work in a cubicle environment as well. I sometimes plug headphones into my computer when I need to focus. Many people who work in cubes at my office (attorneys and staff) wear headphones while at their desks. I do agree that I find it annoying/off-putting when people walk around the office constantly plugged into their music player. My supervisor (who has an office) almost always has music playing quietly in his office. It’s JUST loud enough that you can hear it when you’re in his office, but not so loud that you can hear it outside.
      As for those concerned about not noticing if someone walks up to your desk/office if you have headphones in, my question would be exactly how loud are you playing your music?? I’ve never had the problem of not being able to hear what’s going on around me when I have headphones on. There are so many people who listen to headphones cranked way too far up. As someone who has multiple close relatives with premature hearing problems (think spending years around noisy factory machines or jet engines) I know the damage that constant, loud sounds can cause.

  10. I voted sometimes too. If your headphones make me feel like I’m interrupting you, that’s bad. Also, please, no visible rocking out to your tunes — no drumming on the desk… (yes, I’m serious, we have a secty who does that and I just about want to kill her every time she starts…hmm, actually we have a baby atty who does this too and I also want to kill him).

    If you’ve got your own office, I would certainly go with the speakers–point them away from the door and keep it low. It will still give you the “music as background noise so I can crank out the work” but without the problem of earbuds/headphones. Good luck!

  11. Like I’ve said umpteen times, I’m in engineering, so our offices are not as formal as law. My various supervisors and head honcho boss say it’s ok to wear headphones, since we’re in an open cubicle environment but I think it looks really unprofessional. I never used to wear headphones until someone really loud (and persistently annoying) moved into the cubicle next to me and I cannot drown him out. He drives me up the wall so I plug in my ears with music.

    My added twist to this scenario (because hijab makes everything more interesting) is that people can’t tell that I’m wearing headphones because my scarf covers my ears and they talk to me for a while before I realize they’re standing next to/behind me, yammering away. Some days, I just suck it up and listen to my coworker’s blather but when I really need to get stuff done, I plug in and churn away. I was thinking of getting huge DJ style headphones so people would get the message but eh.

    • You could get those huge Bose headphones, and wear them outside your hijab! :)

      • I could, lol. I’m trying to be mature and professional as possible about this, especially since annoying coworker is double my age and has no idea how annoying he is. He’s kind of a character in our office and everyone knows and commiserates with me, especially since he’s sensitive about being slighted (oh awkward engineers). I’m going to be a big girl and try to deal with the situation as is but if I can’t, I will be rocking those mongo red headphones Kat posted.

    • or one of those mirrors that goes on the top of your monitor so you can see if someone’s standing behind you!

    • In my office, the only way to get work done is to wear big, visible headphones that signal to everyone “I’m working, leave me alone.” I’m in engineering, open-plan office (shared cubicles). I wear headphones all the time for that reason, and never actually listen to music – I just wear them to muffle the noise a bit and look like I’m seriously concentrating.

      So I agree with: Look around, ask around, and figure out what’s appropriate for your office.

      Also, if you want to listen to music but aren’t interested in totally blocking out the outside world, headphones (the big over-ear kind) come in two varieties: open (you still hear the outside world) and closed (you don’t). So you get a choice there – if you want you can get the open kind where you’ll still hear when your boss asks you a questions.

      • “I wear headphones all the time for that reason, and never actually listen to music – I just wear them to muffle the noise a bit and look like I’m seriously concentrating. ”
        I do the same thing! LOL, I thought it was just me. ;-)

  12. As a lawyer who works at a Big 4 who is not yet senior enough to merit her own office, listening to music via headphones is almost a necessity. It is very difficult to focus on analyzing tax law in a cube farm without something to drown out various conversations/distractions going on around me. For what it’s worth, my cube walls are only 3.5 feet tall, so I don’t even enjoy a modicum of privacy.

    I think there is a negative perception that people wearing headphones are slacking off, but in my experience, most people use it as a tool to get engaged with the task at hand.

    • Headphones are a great way to get across the, “I’m working, leave me alone” when you have an overly chatty coworker who has ample non-business phone conversations and chats with you as well.

      That said…when I were a summer intern, I didn’t feel I had the luxury of deciding who was or wasn’t worth listening to. Keep the headphones off and be fully available for everyone around you – especially if you want a job there or a solid recommendation.

      Currently, I have my own office and I play music so low that I can still have an intelligent conversation without the person I’m talking to even noticing the music.

      And NEVER EVER wear your headphones two steps outside your office. Not even just two feet down the hall to the printer.

      • Agreed that headphones need to stay at the desk. Perhaps I really think that the headphone-wearing-rules may differ in a cube-farm culture.?

        • this.

          • Anony non :

            Ha, also had experiences in Big 4 land, which is such a weird mix of cube farm/corporate environment. I think something about the fact that most people work on teams in client spaces constantly, or in really teeny tiny cubes in the “home office” means that earphones are a necessity when you need to focus on your own work or review something detailed (especially excel spreadsheets). My firm actually used to give out fancy earbuds (bose) to new hires at our yearly connectivity event, so I can’t imagine anyone had big issues with them!

  13. Anonymous :

    I worked in an office where wearing earphones was the prerogative of the department supervisor. I felt this was blatantly unfair and often resented my colleagues who were allowed to wear headphones when working and who walked around the office unable to pay attention to anyone else around them. I worked in a group office of four people, and once one office-mate began to train a new employee all day, every day I found I was unable to either have my music on low OR concentrate on my work. Since my supervisor had not directly banned earphones, I began to wear one earphone in the ear closest to the trainee and my productivity went up. I continued this practice until I was explicitly told to stop.

    Now, keep in mine that I only ever had one ear phone in, would have had to pause my music either way (whether it was on a radio or my ipod) to listen, and worked in a very independent position.

    I think it’s a toss up, but really I prefer to be able to get my work done.

  14. Totally fine in my finance (open) office. I use the same headphones as the ones I’m constantly wearing for webcasts/conference call replays (which also look almost the same as the headset attached to my phone) so no one can tell anyway. Other people use Apple earbuds, and that’s fine too. I always take my headphones off once I’ve started some music to quickly check that it can’t be heard by anyone besides me.

    On a related note, it amazes me how many people on the subway play music wearing earbuds that either don’t work or are set to such a high volume that I can hear the music perfectly. Super annoying for me, and probably not good for them either. I’ve sometimes considered telling these people that I think their earbuds are “broken,” but I’ve never actually done it.

    • I totally agree. You may like Ke$ha at 7 am, but that’s way too early for me, especially if I can hear it over my own headphones.

    • If I were to do things over again, I’d become an ENT doctor, because the number of teens and 20-somethings now who are going to be suffering hearing loss in the next few decades is going to be astounding….

  15. I don’t think headphones are necessary if you have your own office. In fact, I’d advise against headphones, because they make you seem a bit antisocial and you can’t hear if someone speaks to you. I listen to NPR all day in my office; so long as no one can hear it outside your office it’s fine.

  16. I think it’s a bad idea for an intern or anyone hoping to be brought on fulltime, because this is clearly a divisive topic and will likely annoy someone. I agree that, when you have your own office, listening quietly without headphones is hugely preferable to using headphones. To me, it isn’t a matter of bothering others — you should be careful to avoid that either way — it’s about being perceived as disengaged from the office and those around you.

  17. CaribbeanGirl :

    I recently had to tap someone on the shoulder because they couldn’t hear me after saying their name 3 times at different decibel levels. It was embarassing for them and made me feel weird having to practically yell their name and then nudge them to turn around. The person had an earbud in one ear and the other earbud was hanging out so perhaps they’re experiencing hearing loss?

    I work in a relatively conservative office in the south and have yet to see someone at a high management level with headphones (other than web designers and the creative marketing teams). It would look very strange if I did see someone but I’m keeping my office culture and norms in mind of course.

    I love listening to music when I’m working out, dancing, etc. and have had multiple birthday parties at Asian Karaoke places. That said, I find it off-putting to approach someone at work who is in their own world listening to music.

  18. I think it’s ok, but only sometimes. I often have filing to do or mindless data entry and music can help me stay more focused (played on low volume, with headphones). However, I try to stay extra aware of people coming and going (in case someone is approaching to speak to me) or if the phone may ring.

    I NEVER want to have a situation where someone would feel they need to say something about my using headphones (ie I never want anyone to feel like it’s taking away from my work quality or ability to be available. I never want the music or use of headphones to detract from me being a good employee.

  19. I listen to music most days when I need to focus, but in my current office my desk is next to the kitchen and bathrooms; I would rather choose the background noise than listen to people stomp around the office all day.
    I’m fine with listening to music, but would advise you to select what you listen to carefully. The music I blast while driving home is not what I would listen to in the office. My basic rule is that if my parents would have problems with a band, I don’t play it at the office on the chance someone asks what I’m listening to.

  20. I listen with just one earbud in. That way I can still hear people talking to me, but music helps me focus. I always studied or wrote papers with music on. It keeps my mind from wandering.

    But please, use headphones if you’re in a space where people can hear the music. The cubicle next to me at my current internship always, always has the radio on. It’s 3 people that share a large cubicle, and I guess they’re all ok with it, and for the most part, I am, too, but sometimes if I’m on the phone, it’s very annoying to have the radio playing in the background. I don’t want to ask them to turn it off because I’m just the intern and only here for a few months, whereas they’re full time employees. But really, how do you not realize that can annoy everyone else that can hear it (which has to be more than just me)?

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