Headphones: Are They The New Private Office?

The demise of the private office was win for flat office hierarchies; the fall of the cubicle has been a welcomed workplace upheaval; and the open plan has been their replacement. But in this new environment, the need for privacy and focus still exist.

A recent NY Times article noted that privacy and acoustics of open plan offices is inadequate. One quote stuck out in my mind, “Headphones are the new wall”. But are headphones an adequate replacement?

An Unsuitable Environment

Stefan Camenzind of Camenzind Evolution, a design firm which has completed offices for Credit Suisse, Google, and Unilever believes that headphones do not represent the right answer – especially since the open plan office is meant for close interaction and collaboration:

“Headphones are not the answer as they also are excluding you from being part of your team and absorbing what is going on”. To Camenzind, the frequent use of headphones would indicate that the work environment is possibly unsuitable for the people using it.

Rather than using a strictly open environment, he advocates an activity-based work environment designed to best support the types of work being completed. These can offer a variety of work areas from traditional desk solutions to private booths. He adds of these types of environments, “if you need to shut yourself off, [you can] get up and work in a quiet area for a while”

‘Do Not Disturb’

While some companies might look to supply different workspace options, Denise Cherry of Studio O+A – designers of offices for Facebook, Aol, among many others – explains that “headphones have truly become the symbol for “do not disturb” within an open office environment.”

Because many companies have adopted open plans and enjoy the energy they create, headphones can play an important role in such an office. Cherry adds, “I once heard someone refer to working in the open plan as like “chess in the park” and that seems like a very apt analogy.  Headphones allow you to concentrate on the focussed task at hand but still appreciate the healthy buzz of activity around you.”

“We have worked on projects that include headphones as part of the move-in kit. This is especially useful for companies transitioning from an office intensive space into a more open environment.”

The New Walls?

Travis Arnold, the head or marketing for content marketing platform Kapost, recently transitioned his team to an open environment. Of headphones, he notes that “[they] are still great tools for my team when it comes to focusing and having ‘quiet’ time.  Even though we sit in an open environment, headphones allow for concentration when noise can be an issue.”

Distraction doesn’t only come audibly but also visually. To protect against visual noise, Arnold explains, “To reduce visual distractions, I try to put a monitor, small divider etc… in the way to avoid getting thrown off task.”

“However, visual distractions do happen from time to time in an open office layout and I’ll chalk that up as a small tradeoff.  The collaboration and interaction benefits for marketing teams far outweigh the negatives.”

Thinking of going headphones+no cubicle walls?

Here are a few tips from Travis Arnold:

  • Keep the music level normal.  You may like blowing your eardrums out, but others not rocking Skullcandys don’t appreciate it.
  • For non-headphone wearers; It may seem fun to sneak up and tap on someone deep in ‘the zone’, don’t.  It’s startling and has been known to cause workplace tension.
  • Avoid using other’s headphones.  It’s just gross.

Photo by Jasper Sanidad of the 395 Page Mill Road project by Studio O+A