Workers, Take Off Your Headphones / by Anne Kreamer

Technology, for a free-lancer like me, creates a powerful and not entirely mad illusion that we work in a peopled environment of rich diversity and experience. As I sit to write each morning, I draw upon the vast network of people (many in active chat windows) with whom I've worked in the trenches over the course of a 35-year career, while also having the benefit of opinions and insight by expert strangers a click away. I sometimes even wear earplugs that allow me to immerse more deeply into my subject matter, creating a bubble that blunts distractions and sharpens my focus. For me, it's the best of both worlds. Alone, and yet truly interacting with people, even if they are across town or in a different country.


But what about younger people just entering a traditional office environment? The necessary and artful tango between inner-directed and outward-focused, first chronicled in David Reisman's landmark 1950 book The Lonely Crowd, has been problematically transformed by technology. There's a new lonely crowd in the workplace.

My informal survey of a dozen people I know under the age of 35, working in a range of desk jobs, all in the U.S. — law firms, big entertainment companies, small start-ups, publishing houses — revealed that whatever the design of their office spaces, most younger people in our increasingly post-telephonic office world wear headphones about half of the time they're working. And all but one of those I interviewed said that they had at least one G-chat or Skype window open throughout the day, every day — some of them checking in with as many as five non-work friends or family members every hour. And the majority of these young workers said that they felt far more connected moment to moment with people outside their workplaces than with any co-workers — the nearby colleagues, including bosses, with whom they communicate primarily through e-mails or chat programs.

This is very much a new world with myriad legal and security issues for both employer and employees, which are beyond the scope of this post. My focus, rather, is on the profound impact these new 21st century forms of divided attentions and isolation have on the psychology of individuals and company cultures, how they make people more than ever all alone among a group of nominal comrades.

Missing out on opportunities to contribute and advance

One person with whom I spoke told me that "wearing headphones actually makes me feel anxious a lot of the time, because I'm always worried that someone might ask me a question or say something to me and I'll miss it." This person is right to be concerned. Over the course of my earlier professional incarnations I worked in mission-driven organizations with more or less open office plans — Sesame Street, SPY magazine, Nickelodeon — where much of our successes were driven by the invisible but powerful sense of shared purpose generated by the news and information that was simply overheard. If I'd had headphones on, exclusively aware of the work in front of me, I would have missed out on important details, let alone the collective high that was experienced when a good piece of news rippled through. The more I participated in the ambient, informal life of the office, the more committed I became to the work of the company. A company spirit formed and evolved, and I shared in it unconsciously and consciously.

These days, by contrast, as one young interviewee put it, "usually whoever is talking to me will make sure they get my attention if I didn't seem to hear the first time. I've never missed something urgent, usually just part of a conversation that was going on in the office." Precisely. 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.

Companies also lose some of the opportunity to have employees contribute new ideas that might be percolating within the larger culture but under the radar of the organization. Because actionable cultural knowledge is now so diffuse, to remain competitive companies need all employees to bring fresh thinking into the workplace. Imagine an employee who happened, say, to be the roommate of someone launching a startup in 2010, and missed out on overhearing a colleague ask if "anyone knows anything about this new app that colorizes photographs so they look old-fashioned" — extreme, yes, but even short of missing out on an early partnership with Instagram, every company must be configured to into tap a workforce's collective informal knowledge base as much as possible.

Eroding employee loyalty

The image of legions of headphone-wearing employees sitting silently at their workstations, oblivious to the flesh-and-blood community around them but actively engaged with a virtual world, seems like a dystopian future envisioned in movies like Minority Report. But that future is here. A Wall Street Journal piece on the "officeless office" had a sidebar with six new rules for office etiquette which included #1, no sneaking up; #5, limit chit-chat; and #6 use headphones. That may increase a certain kind of productivity, but at what cost?

Management professors Sigal Barsade at Wharton and Hakan Ozcelik at Cal State Sacramento are among the pioneers in studying how employee isolation correlates with organizational outcomes. In a recent study, they found "because they feel more estranged and less connected to coworkers, lonelier employees will be more likely to experience a lack of belongingness at work, thus decreasing their affective commitment to their organizations." Something to think about before you decide to limit social chit-chat or put those headphones back on.

A drain on innovation

Isaac Kohane, co-director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School, has studied if and how scientists benefit from close physical adjacencies at work.

Even though scientific research obviously has been enhanced by internet connectedness (the web, after all, began 23 years ago as a vehicle for scientific collaboration), Kohane and his researchers found "striking evidence for the role of physical proximity as a predictor of the impact of collaborations." As Kyungjoon Lee, a research assistant on the study put it, "science is all about communicating your ideas so others can build on them." It seems obvious to me that not just science but most professional pursuits significantly benefit from this kind of perpetual accidental physical-world collaboration. But as my interviews revealed, when we put on our headphones and fire up our messenger client of choice, we effectively make ourselves remote telecommuters even when we are physically present.

Is there an upside?

Headphones can operate as a visual "do not disturb, I'm working" signal for employees who, in open-plan offices, need solitude in order to execute their work. As one interviewee told me, her headphones "put me in a 'get stuff done' frame of mind" and others reported that headphones made them "more focused" and that work was "more fun." Being able to achieve that sense of solitude when necessary is clearly important.

Organizational psychologists such as K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State and Adrian Furnham at University College London have studied the phenomenon. "If you have talented and motivated people," Furnham says, "they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."

And instant messaging at work can have its uses. As my editor at HBR says, "I instant-message with colleagues who sit next to me. It seems the best way to brainstorm headlines." IM can also cut down on the number of time-consuming emails sent and received, and help employees who are actually physically remote communicate more easily with people in the office.

But organizations need to develop protocols that avoid making isolation the universal default office norm, and that encourage face-to-face interaction. Some personal-bubbledom is necessary. But too much creates a lonely crowd.

How can you find the right balance? Accept the reality of our electronically networked workplaces and private digital media consumption. The new workforce, raised on perpetual multi-screen multi-tasking, would not be able to function well in a closed, 20th-century-style environment. Rather than creating unenforceable rules, employees and organizations should be helped to understand what's being lost in the process of mindless, unplanned mass capitulation to the machines. Create working environments that encourage physical interaction; have small lunches that cut across hierarchical levels; include people who tend to shy away from group activities to participate in the softball team or fantasy football or Oscar pools. And keep managing by walking around, even though text-messaging and email seem to make real-world encounters unnecessary. As Rachel Silverman and Robin Sidel reported in their piece on the officeless office, GlaxoSmithKline, which has saved $10 million in annual real estate costs by shifting 1,200 employees at one New Jersey site to unassigned seating, found that decision-making among their staff had risen by 25% primarily because e-mail exchanges had been replaced by good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations — conversations that never would've happened had all their employees been wearing headphones.