Surprising results about wearing headphones and productivity

A new study by of over 1,000 employees and employers on music at work found that well over half of employees regularly use headphones in the office.

You see it in practically every company environment, especially those with “open plan” offices: people wearing headphones. Headphone usage at work was much more controversial a decade ago, when most employers would likely have equated this behavior with not focusing on the job. But today, it’s a given at many organizations that a contingent of employees will opt to create personal focus and block out distractions by donning some form of earbuds.

Does this strategy help or hinder productivity, and why are people really using headphones while working? A new study by Cloud Cover Music of over 1,000 employees and employers on music at work found that well over half (56%) of employees regularly use headphones in the office. The research also revealed some truths about this behavior that you might not expect—and which might provide you with the fuel you need to request more workplace flexibility from your employer. Here are some of the top findings.

Tuning out colleagues.

Nearly half of people surveyed (46%) said they have used headphones to avoid talking to their coworkers, and just under a third (30%) use headphones primarily to cancel outside noise. Certain industries saw even higher percentages of people choosing to wear headphones as conversation blockers, including government and public administration employees (around two-thirds of these groups); transportation and warehousing employees (nearly 60%); and technology, scientific, and marketing/advertising employees (at least half of the workers in each of these groups).

It’s an interesting revelation, particularly when you think about the ramifications of working in open-office spaces. Proponents of open-office cultures often feel such barrier-free work zones will create greater collaboration and an ongoing opportunity for valuable information exchange among team members. The fact is, though, that if you’re responsible for specific workplace deliverables, at some point, the chatter must cease in order to actually produce anything. This study’s results suggest that many employees aren’t able to focus in their work environment without creating a barrier between themselves and others via headphones.

Getting work done.

The finding about using headphones to tune out colleagues also may be of interest concerning the productivity benefits of workplace flexibility. The study found that the vast majority of employees (nearly 80%) feel that listening to music increases their productivity at work, and around two-thirds of workers feel this way about wearing headphones in general.

People who are forced to engage in face time at the office have to choose between being able to zero-in on their work, or chatting with colleagues—and when the former is needed, it often leads people to try to block out the noise (and those around them) with noise-cancelling headphones or music. When you work from home or remotely, however,you have much more control over creating the right situations, at the right time, to connect with colleagues without having to worry that it means not getting the job done.

If you’ve been looking for an angle to request a work-from-home arrangement, consider sharing these findings with your employer. While the idea of constant collaboration and access may appeal to certain people in certain positions, the reality is that those who are charged with focusing and producing things during their workday need a zone that’s free from distractions to achieve this. If the only way you can get your work done in the office is to screen others out by wearing headphones, perhaps it’s time for a change.

This article was originally posted on FlexJobs.

Robin Madell|has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership and career issues