The Sign of the Times: Earbuds Have Become a Part of Our Work Attire

Company Culture, Opinions Posted Mar 18, 2014 by Jennifer Torode

I recently read an article titled, “Too Distracted to Work: The Dark Side of Open Offices” by Karen Klein at Business Week. 

One comment that hit home was that “people use headphones (earbuds) as walls.” That is so true! Look around your office and I bet nearly 80 percent of the people are sporting earbuds. Most listen to music or white noise to block out the noise and distractions while others aim to bury the awkwardly quiet atmosphere where even the faintest sniffle can be heard 10 feet away.


At my last job, the company occupied two massive newsroom-style floors with shoulder high cubes so you could see the entire office if you spun 360 degrees in your chair and often the office sounded like a busy night at the Cheesecake Factory.  In a way, I loved it because I was surrounded by colleagues who were also my pals and there was a sense of community.  On the other hand (“The Dark Side”), I could hear all the sales reps and other departments—one guy bounced a tennis ball on the floor non-stop while on the phone, there were several extremely loud talkers, a few that typed so loudly that you could hear them from the other side of the floor, one guy clipped his nails once a week and one gal had that high-pitched laugh that most will remember 20 years from now. Other things that come to mind when I think back at working in such an open environment was that there were a dozen people who affixed little bike mirrors on their monitors so they could see people approaching from behind. The only rearview mirror I used was the one in my car when I pulled out of the parking space at the end of the day.  And, if you had a personal phone call, you’d have to scramble to find an empty conference room and you can bet everyone knew that you got a personal call. There was virtually no privacy.

Ooen office floor

Back then, I definitely had days where focusing was a major challenge due to all of the above “noise” but thankfully, for the most part, I was able to get adapt and into the zone… listing to music via  earbuds or course.

When I joined CHEN in 2011, I had the best of both worlds. CHEN had a semi open concept office space to allow collaboration between the PR teams but there were also several offices along one side of one wall and the cubes were in-line with the offices.  When we moved from Waltham to Boston last May, the Partners kept a similar floor plan, building a few pocket size offices but this time with glass doors and some with all glass walls—creating a feeling of openness.

One thing that has spiked over the last few years regardless of office layout is that we all seem to nestle those earbuds into both ears to get our jobs done. And this is not a bad thing as long as we get in the habit of unplugging often from the white noise and music and socialize face-to-face so relationships continue to blossom, teams continue to grow stronger and productivity continues.