Managing Millennials Q&A: Why Are My Employees Always Wearing Headphones at Work?

managing millennials headphones at work


Note to readers: This is the second post in my new series based on questions I frequently hear about managing millennials — those ongoing management challenges that can really hinder workplace relationships.

Each month I’ll tackle a question and provide some advice for managers and millennials (and millennial managers!). I hope the advice I share is helpful for all generations.

Have a question you’ve been dying to ask? Shoot me an email and I will try to cover it in a future edition!

This month’s millennial management question: Why are my millennial employees always wearing headphones at work?

This is a common question I receive, both from managers who feel ignored by their ear bud-wearing young employees and by millennial professionals who don’t understand why headphones are a problem. Whichever side of the debate you’re on, it’s helpful to step into the shoes (ear canals?) of both perspectives.

Advice for Managers: There’s a Reason They’re Wearing Headphones

Let’s face it, offices can be distracting. Noise — in the form of overheard phone calls, coughing colleagues, ringing cell phones or nearby construction — is a real problem, especially in modern open office layouts. One study from Oxford Economics found that the “the ability to focus and work without interruptions” was a top office concern for two-thirds of respondents of all generations. Realize that for a millennial, popping in earbuds serves much the same purpose as you closing your door (if you’re one of the few who still has one).

Some studies indicate music can help workers concentrate, especially on repetitive tasks. Whether you buy the evidence or not, many millennials truly believe that music helps them work better. This is, in fact, the top reason younger workers tell me they wear headphones: because it helps them to be more focused and productive.

Background music is literally the soundtrack of millennials’ lives: In fact, a recent study found that millennials listen to 75 percent more music on a daily basis than boomers. While people of all generations love music, those of us in previous generations didn’t have access to personal headsets until we were much older. (The Sony Walkman wasn’t invented until 1979.)

Okay, so millennials can make a good argument for why they listen to music at work. What if it still bothers you?

As always, it is perfectly okay for you to set boundaries and let your employees know you’d prefer they not wear headphones at certain times; say, when clients are around or when you’re working on a team project with a lot of conversations happening all the time. The important thing is to explain why you want your employee to be earbud-free. For instance, you might say, “When you’re editing a spreadsheet or working on data entry, it’s totally fine to listen to music. But today while we’re working on this sales deck I really need us all to be available to each other.”

I also recommend reminding younger professionals that availability is an opportunity. If I am a boss and want to brainstorm with someone on a new marketing idea, who am I going to ask to join me — the person who is available and attentive or the one who is lost in her music?

Finally, make sure you aren’t promoting the loner norm by closeting yourself in your own office. If you aren’t walking around and interacting with your team, there’s little incentive for them to take those earbuds out and participate in the ambient office action.

Advice for Millennials: You CAN Wear Earbuds — If Your Company Allows It — But Be Strategic

If you are the one craving music at work, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep your music at a volume where you can still hear what’s going on around you, and where others can’t hear your music.
  • Let your manager know when you’re putting on your music and share why: “I really need to concentrate on this spreadsheet, and the earbuds help me tune out distractions. Is there anything I can do for you first?”
  • Devise a signal that your team can use so they’re not shouting at you to get your attention. Maybe they’ll knock on the desk in front of you or wave their arms. Make sure that you look up every now and then to be aware of what’s going on around you; you can have your music on and still be responsive.
  • Watch the lyrics in your music. Yes, everyone in the office is an adult, but there are still some lyrics that might be offensive to some, and you wouldn’t want to lift out your earbuds and have your supervisor hear a slew of obscenities.
  • Only use headphones when you really need to for concentration. A lot of learning happens when you’re just listening to overheard conversations and the buzz around the office. Being on high alert also allows you to know if there’s a situation where you could jump in to help.
  • Remember that even though having earbuds in constantly is normal to your generation, to others it signals that you are not involved or are tuned out — not the message you want to send your supervisor. If you’re always in your own world, it can be hard to build the working relationships that occur naturally just from small talk as someone walks by.

Readers, what’s your experience with earbud-wearing employees? Does it bug you? Millennials, what do you wish your supervisor understood about why you or your friends wear them? I would love to hear comments on both sides below.

Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

7 Responses to “Managing Millennials Q&A: Why Are My Employees Always Wearing Headphones at Work?”

  1. Claudia Allen

    I worked in a newsroom when I first started out. Newsrooms were incredibly noisy–people talking (or shouting), phones ringing, machines clacking–and learned to concentrate in spite of the noise. At the same time, I learned a lot about my craft by listening to other reporters make phone calls for information and do interviews. I was lucky to work with some very talented writers and listening to the questions they asked and how they asked them helped me develop my skills. Headphones may be appropriate for some settings, but people should be sure they’re not shutting out the opportunity to learn from more experienced colleagues.

    Reply
  2. Celeste

    Hi Lindsey

    This blog post made me smile because I was very judgemental of younger people wearing headphones at first. I mainly put it down to being ‘rude’ and ‘antisocial’. Until one day when a millennial pointed out (showed me) that he was listening to a TEDTalk about the topic we’d covered earlier. I felt quite embarrassed to say the least. The reason I’m happy I made this mistake is that it reminded me to not judge and make assumptions about what I’m seeing.

    On the flip side, I like what Claudio said … keep your ears to the ground and stay tuned to what’s happening around you. Having your earphones on all the time might mean a missed opportunity.

    Reply
    • Matt

      Celeste,
      While I agree that listening to a TED Talk would be a great thing for them to do, if that is being done as background to other work, I would argue that they aren’t really concentrating on at least one of the tasks (either they are working and not really engaged in the TED Talk or vice-versa).

      I admit, the headphones thing is a pet peeve of mine simply because, in the business i’m in, much like Claudia’s comment, there is so much learning that can happen from over hearing the conversations others are having with their customers. We actually had the seating chart filled out in a way that we deliberately put more experienced individuals next to less seasoned employees for that very reason.

      Reply
      • Celeste Stewart

        Hi Matt

        Lovely to meet you. Thanks for your comment. I agree, all the exciting work happening in the brain-based development area does suggest that there is value in single tasking. I think the insight for me (based on my initial story) is how judgmental I was and quick to assume without testing my assumptions first.

        I like the seating plan arrangement you’ve mentioned, cool idea!

        Reply

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