Do Headphones Negatively Impact Coworking Communities?

Do Headphones Negatively Impact Coworking Communities?
If your coworking members are wearing headphones, is your overall community at risk?
  • From facilitating focus work to blocking out background noise, headphones have become the ‘walls’ of shared workspaces
  • Coworking members frequently wear headphones to prevent distractions, but is it counter-intuitive to building a healthy coworking community?
  • The Farm co-founder, Lucas Seyhun, and Headspace Group’s Community Assistant, Danielle Tinsley, along with three members of Headspace, share their thoughts

Open-plan offices have long been blamed for killing productivity. Noise, chatter, phones ringing, loud talkers, coughs and sniffles, even loud eaters contribute to a fragmented working pattern splintered by distractions. Not exactly a proven recipe for productivity.

In a joint study with Haworth, Dezeen slammed open-plan offices for “sabotaging” employees’ ability to focus at work. The study states that on average, office workers lose 28% of their productive time due to interruptions and distractions at work.

And yet, shared offices and coworking spaces continue to soar in popularity. Deskmag’s latest research suggests that 1.7 million people will be coworking by the end of 2018. The benefits of coworking are clear – but every shared workspace has its fair share of noise and distractions.

The classic solution is to work with a pair of headphones or earphones.

Dubbed the ‘new walls’ of shared or open-plan offices, headphones allow workers to block out background noise during tasks that require intense concentration and focus.

Danielle Tinsley, Community Assistant at Headspace Group in the UK, says it’s very common to see coworking members using headphones throughout the day. “There is a pretty even split. Probably around 50% of our coworking members are regularly using headphones.”

Likewise, Lucas Seyhun, co-founder of The Farm in New York says the majority of their members use headphones, typically listening to music while working on tasks that require focus.

“Layer of protection”

Often it’s the act of wearing headphones – in addition to the music itself – which helps workers concentrate.

“It acts as a layer of protection,” explains Seyhun. “People often wear headphones to say ‘don’t interact with me for the time being’. In open coworking spaces you are vulnerable to distraction, it can come from anywhere. Headphones facilitate focus work.”

At Headspace Manchester, coworking member Yan McNamara from AND Digital, sometimes uses headphones as a signal to others. “I’ve just left them on without actually listening to anything but just to show that I don’t want to be disturbed.”

However, Hayley Goodsell from That Lot, a member in one of Headspace’s London spaces, listens to music to “neutralise the overwhelming feeling of being in a busy office with lots of conversations and music happening all at the same time.”

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Likewise, fellow Headspace member Juliette Barrett from Freeformers says: “Quite often in a coworking environment, there can be many distractions … coffee machine in the background, group conversations, the odd delivery, the list goes on. Sticking in a pair of headphones and putting on some relaxing tunes allows me to zone out the background noise for a bit and concentrate.”

Are Headphones Anti-Social?

If 50% or more of your coworking space is blocking out conversations by wearing headphones, and missing out on chatter and friendly banter, could that spell trouble for your community?

Anne Kreamer, writing for Harvard Business Review, believes it does.

Kreamer suggests that workers can miss out on important details and “the collective high” that’s often experienced in workspaces – or in other words, the shared experiences that help build a strong coworking community.

“It’s just that kind of loss of daily osmotic information exchange and collaborative bonding that ought to concern 21st century employees and employers. It’s about information exchange, resource exchange, idea generation and on and on.

“If an employee is glued to her desk with headphones on, immersed in music and G-chatting with her best buddy, she is missing the opportunity to create relationships with people on the job who might be launching a project for which she’d be perfect, or who’s kicking around the idea to launch a new firm that needs precisely her talents. It’s a huge and real loss in terms of career development.”

“Anonymous in public”

Aside from missed opportunities, does a roomful of headphones reflect poorly on a coworking space? Does it signal a community discord, an overly disruptive workplace, or an anti-social environment?

For Seyhun, the sight of people wearing headphones is simply embedded, and accepted, in our culture.

“It has become the typical look of a coworker or a digital nomad. It’s part of the ‘brand’, part of the community. Some people don’t get it, but then they’re unlikely to use the space anyway.”

For Seyhun, coworking wouldn’t be as desirable without the option to use headphones. “If you want to talk, you go to the kitchen. Headphones allow people to be anonymous in public.”

Similarly, Headspace’s Community Assistant Danielle Tinsley says their breakout areas and meeting rooms provide a place for people to socialise and collaborate, while the workspace itself is fairly low-key and focused.

As for the anti-social side of headphones?

Headspace member Yan McNamara said, “At the very beginning of my career, I found it rude. But now people (including myself) are using them for practical reasons so I feel indifferent to it. Especially in a coworking space and also people working remotely these days, it’s almost impossible to not have headphones at work.”

Asked if headphones are anti-social in coworking environments, coworking member Juliette Barrett added: “Definitely not! We all have our own way of working… it’s simply part and parcel of coworking.”