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Very recently, the company I work for has decided to introduce a blanket ban on headphones in the company. The reasons for introducing the ban are: * Wearing headphones make employees seem unapproachable. * The customer facing departments are not permitted to wear headphones, mainly due to a high amount of sales calls. Therefore, it's only fair that headphones are banned for everyone else too.

While I do think there is some merit in these reasons, I don't agree with them completely.

I work in an open plan office and the office space is very crowded with a fair amount of people in a small amount of office space. My role in the company is a Software Engineer and I spend the majority of my day programming. I find that I need a sustained amount of concentration to do my work to a good standard. I feel that listening to music helps me maintain a high level of productivity at work.

Unfortunately, because of the nature of the open plan office, there can be a lot of background noise and chatter. I find it difficult to concentrate without the music to block out all of these distractions. With the banning of headphones I feel that my productivity is lower because of the increased difficulty to work uninterrupted.

As far as I'm aware only people on my team used headphones and people in other departments chose not to. And strangely enough the policy was introduced rather sharply. I don't believe we have done anything wrong to instigate the changing of the policy. I have always conducted myself in a polite manner. Always removing headphones when my colleagues approach me for conversation.

Speaking to many friends and contacts in other businesses of a similar nature this seems to be a rather rare and unusual policy. I may be mistaken since people I know only make up a small sample of people across office-based businesses.

I do not wish to protest to by breaking the rules. But I do want to try and overturn HR's decision to introduce the ban for everyone. Since this is impacting my mood and effectiveness at work.

I would like to challenge the headphone policy in a formal manner. How should I go about it?

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    I would start by taking to your boss. It is a battle you are not likely to win. – paparazzo Sep 24 '16 at 2:20
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    The beatings will continue until morale improves. (Morale will not improve until the last employee has quit for saner pastures.) – Dan Neely Sep 24 '16 at 3:50
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    "Wearing headphones make employees seem unapproachable." Well, that's kind of the point, isn't it, to avoid being interrupted every five minutes? – user1602 Sep 24 '16 at 10:07
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    "The customer facing departments are not permitted to wear headphones, mainly due to a high amount of sales calls. Therefore, it's only fair that headphones are banned for everyone else too", that's absolutely ridiculous. It's like having the accountants wear hard hats so they can suffer as much as the workers at the factory floor. – pipe Sep 24 '16 at 12:34
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    Start writing your CV. The policy is just one of the symptons of your company not giving value to your work. – Rui F Ribeiro Sep 25 '16 at 7:20
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The problem is a lot bigger than just headphones. Your employer simply doesn't understand the process of software development. In my experience, when faced with an unpleasant workplace, software developers with marketable skills just leave. It's much easier to get a new job than to try to lead from the bottom. I've been in and out of companies where good developers all leave before their second anniversary.

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    @Kik: candor in an exit interview is seldom rewarded. – kevin cline Sep 28 '16 at 23:50
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    @kevincline is there any use for exit interviews then? – d0nut Sep 29 '16 at 20:06
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    @iismathwizard: Exit interviews are an opportunity for HR weenies to feign relevancy. – Nolo Problemo Sep 29 '16 at 20:18
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    The main purpose of exit interviews is for HR to make sure that you give back any take-home company assets like keys. – kevin cline Sep 30 '16 at 0:28
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    @chessofnerd: it won't. Management that would put a bunch of developers in a noisy call center environment will not pay attention to the opinions of one departing employee. They will instead decide that he is just a spoiled Millennial. – kevin cline Oct 2 '16 at 5:06
22

Don't take it up with HR, take it up with your manager. Explain you need them to block out noise and concentrate due to the complex nature of your role. Then move forwards from there.

It''s difficult to get an exception made to a blanket rule because it is bad for morale amongst other things so I don't rate your chances highly, but the first person to talk to is definitely your manager.

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    This company could end up with a staff with great morale who are essentially incompetent, after the competent ones leave. Which could then lead to an ineffective company that doesn't do well financially, which will ultimately be bad for morale... – Craig Sep 24 '16 at 17:09
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    @Craig: it's called the "Dead Sea Effect". I've seen it more than once. Most of those companies are no longer operating. One survives but has wasted tens of millions on failed software projects. – kevin cline Sep 26 '16 at 18:40
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    Tackle this from the open office perspective. The open office is not conducive to software development. You feel there are a number of solutions, but now that headphones are off the table, you need to look at other options to keep productivity high. Developers as you noted need uninterrupted concentration. Mention that one option would be private offices, another would be more private cubicles, etc. – Bill Leeper Sep 28 '16 at 22:11
  • @BillLeeper yes, absolutely, but if the customer service (or whoever) folks are already up in arms about headphones, just imagine the reaction to private offices! I agree with your sentiment, but I'll bet it would need to happen in a physically different space, maybe even a separate satellite office, or on a different floor of the same building. It's ultimately in the best interests of the company. – Craig Sep 29 '16 at 15:40
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Flow

Maybe they'd like it better if you wore ear plugs? I'm actually 100% serious.

I'll tell you what, do some research on the concept of "flow," and what it means to productivity and long term health and happiness. Are your bosses even vaguely interested in retaining quality programming talent? It's really hard to get "in the zone" as a programmer with that kind of unfiltered commotion all around you and in the face of constant interruptions, and it's nigh impossible to be a good programmer if you can't ever get in the zone.

Not fair? Really?

The "equality" argument is just bunk. Different jobs have different requirements and make different demands on people. If someone doesn't like dressing in slacks and a tie and polishing their shoes and smiling at demanding, ill-tempered customers all day sans headphones, or they can't wear headphones because they're on the phone constantly, well, who's stopping them from making a career change? If my job is digging ditches with a shovel, well that's the job. If I don't like it, it's up to me to change my circumstances, not to make everybody else dislike their job as much as I dislike mine. Are those customer service people so short on imagination that they really can't put their heads together and come up with ideas to improve their own experience in reasonable ways?

All jobs are not created equal

You're being compelled to do a job in an open-space environment that obviously includes call center activity and commotion, which requires substantial stretches of uninterrupted, intensely detail-oriented focus, as well as constant learning and invention throughout the course of a career. There will NEVER be a time when you've learned it all and get to mentally coast. Not if you're going to stay in software development. There's a good chance you'll be making your living in 5 years using a programming language you haven't even seen before today. It's a guarantee you'll be using frameworks you've never seen before. If your boss doesn't understand and acknowledge the technical demands of the job, I'd probably be polishing the ol' resume, networking and keeping an ear to the ground for other opportunities.

There NEED to be stretches of time when a programmer is unapproachable. This is not a problem. This is a requirement of the job. I'm a software architect and programmer myself, by the way. There are of course other times during the day when you need to be approachable.

Possible solution

What about putting the programmers in their own separate open space, out of view of customers and out of view of the customer service folks. You'd still be right around the corner, still part of the larger team. But your function is different. Why not a separate space? This could even be a space set apart with one straight high cubicle wall, like a simple room divider.

Boundaries matter

It sounds like the power to set boundaries that allow you to excel at your particular profession with its own particular requirements is being wrested out of your hands. Responsibility without power sucks. Sure, it's only headphones, no big deal, right? Refer back to my admonition to study "flow."

Seriously, that's something tangible you might be able to approach your boss with.

I'm going to be stop short of calling the people complaining about how unfair it is that the programmers get to wear headphones when they can't "petty," but, well, I guess I just did. :-)

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    I don't see anything in this answer explaining how to go about challenging the rule, just reasons why you think it's bad. – Relaxed Sep 24 '16 at 10:40
  • I work as a software engineer at a place with a no headphones rule. People have tried and failed to change the rule. Personally I'm not sure how I feel about it. Trying to have conversations when people are wearing headphone feels more like an email conversation because of the faff of getting their attention, pausing the music etc etc. On the other hand, a lot of people do concentrate better with headphones. I agree with the answer that just wearing earplugs is probably as good a solution as you'll get. – matt helliwell Sep 24 '16 at 10:58
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    @Relaxed I hoped I was doing a little more than that. I do think it's a silly policy (thanks, Mom!). But beyond that, the OP obviously wants to approach management about this. So I wasn't trying to offer technique, but I did offer studies about flow, a physical partition/boundary between departments, the argument that in order for programmers to be effective they do sometimes need to be unapproachable for reasonable stretches, the argument that the "fairness" point is basically ridiculous (and why), hinted at the potential sensibility of making a career change, etc – Craig Sep 24 '16 at 17:10
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    @Relaxed my interpretation of this answer was that the answerer is providing the asker with reasoning to present to management. – Nick Coad Sep 26 '16 at 0:34
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    @NickCoad I concur. :) – Craig Sep 26 '16 at 0:35
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Canvas your team mates as to how they feel about this (informally/off email, if possible). If they all agree with you, you'll be stronger together. If they all disagree, you're unlikely to get anywhere on your own. Perhaps you could all tell the boss that if you're not allowed to wear headphones, you need silence in the office. yes. SILENCE. Exam conditions. For everyone.

Try not wearing headphones. You may find it has less effect on your happiness than you think - or you may even be happier and more productive on some tasks. I used to always wear headphones to code, but I'm taking a break voluntarily.

If it doesn't work, tell your boss. Tell him you're genuinely less productive for certain tasks without headphones and ask his advice. It's not generally in question that headphones help focus and flow for some activities, for some people, so he may have to choose between less productive employees and pushing back on the headphone rule. Or maybe giving you your own office.

Leave workplaces that don't listen.

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    Rarely do I upvote answers that say "Leave," but this is a level of stupid that just can't be fought by mortal men. This is the level of stupidity that requires thunderbolts from the heavens to smite, or a horde of barbarians that leave the heads of the morons who come up with these policies on pikes in the parking lot as a warning to the next generation. – Wesley Long Sep 24 '16 at 16:57
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    That's exactly right re: leaving if necessary. You don't hang on to exceptional talent by forcing conformity with rules that are merely gratuitous, such as "you can't wear headphones because customer service can't wear headphones." Effective people, and particularly effective developers, can vote with their feet when faced with an unbroachable wall of silliness. Re: trying going without headphones, I'm pretty sure the OP is saying that has been experienced thoroughly enough to know for a fact that it isn't working. – Craig Sep 24 '16 at 17:07
  • @Craig, I agree, though appearing to 'try' might still be useful when it comes to looking like you're acting in good faith rather than just being dogmatic. – user45019 Sep 28 '16 at 8:05
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    We may be in "violent agreement." ;-) – Craig Sep 28 '16 at 21:09
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    Another option/step that could be added to this answer is to simply double or triple all time estimates based on the amount you think the policy change affects your productivity. If you're asked why you think everything suddenly will take much longer, explain. Otherwise, just work at the new pace. – Amy Blankenship Sep 28 '16 at 21:13
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I understand your arguments for wearing the headphones. But let's think for a moment whether the other side's arguments are also valid. Is there any reason that the management feels you and your fellow software developers should be more "approachable"?

Companies don't create new policies out of the blue, they create them as a reaction to some threat, real of perceived. Try to find out what the root problem is, and negotiate for a different solution to the same problem which addresses both your concerns and theirs. The trick is to always take the concerns seriously, even if you disagree with the proposed solution.

For example, could it be that junior people have complained that they feel uncomfortable asking for help from seniors when they see them wearing headphones? Or that inhouse users wanted to tell developers something and were put off by the headphones? Or did the CEO throw a look into your large office and was greeted with a picture which didn't mesh with his idea of the company culture?

Whatever the reason, try finding out about it and really addressing it. Talk about your concerns, indicate that you are open to other solutions which address them, and that you would make concessions too. Maybe if you promise to have regular "office hours" when your users can come to you unannounced and have you respond, they will agree to you being "unapproachable" for the rest of the time. Or if they can come up with another solution to the noise problem (although that's difficult).

This negotiation has best chances if you are backed by others with the same predicament. Try to get more people on board, not just those from your department. Maybe there are other people (accountants, lawyers) who also need deep concentration. Also do some research for the real basis of the policy before you start anything formal (use as many connections as you have) and prepare thoughtful alternatives before starting a protest.

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    Maybe the seniors look unapproachable because they are. Maybe the juniors and the business people should learn to use either (a) the internal bug tracking system, or (b) the internal chat applet to say "you got a minute mate?" Maybe it should eventually dawn on people that interrupting someone for any reason whatsoever is not the polite thing to do. A leadership forcing everyone to be available to anyone when they needn't be, for some infantile notion of openness and approachability, is just asking for it. – rath Sep 26 '16 at 14:26
  • The other side's arguments are way off base. If they want software developers who are able to perform at competent levels, they're doing exactly the wrong thing. See: blog.stackoverflow.com/2015/01/… – Craig Sep 28 '16 at 20:48
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    @rath: That may well be the case, but it needs to communicated and discussed openly - which is what this answer advocates. – sleske Sep 29 '16 at 8:22
  • +1 for looking at the problem from the manager's point of view. Nothing else is going to persuade them. Also think through what their responses will be and how to address them before the meeting. Eg how can you pair program wearing headphones? Why are you programming for hours at a time without regularly talking to testers/analysts/users about what you are producing? How can you mentor junior developers wearing headphones? I'm a developer but my role involve loads more talking and collaboration than it did 20 years ago so I'm ambivalent about the whole headphones/private office debate. – matt helliwell Sep 29 '16 at 21:16
  • I'm a manager and I'm having this issue right now with a junior apprentice developer who is unproductive and getting stuck for hours on simple issues but he has so far refused to take off his headphones so that he can more easily get help. So I'm considering a blanket ban on headphones. The difference here is that I'm an experienced developer with 14+ years commercial experience and often program with headphones myself and fully understand that unnecessary interruptions should be avoided at all costs. I'm torn. – Paul Feakins Jun 2 '18 at 14:09
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As an alternative to requesting an exception be made, or finding a new job, which has already been covered. Consider you (and probably your team) negotiating a very favorable work from home policy.

If that doesn't work, Leave.

2

Just a thought: you might want to investigate bone conduction headphones, which don't cover or plug the ears. If management'd complaint is just the visuals, this might do an end-run around that objection.

  • That's interesting, but it doesn't serve one if the primary purposes of blocking out other distractions. – Craig Oct 1 '16 at 16:43
  • It may help. I don't have a miracle to offer you. – keshlam Oct 1 '16 at 16:57
  • I'm not asking for one. :) – Craig Oct 1 '16 at 16:58
0

One interesting point, i read lately: as a developer you need both the headphones, and you need silence.

The idea was that a brain that is occupied with listening to music cannot perform creative tasks needed to solve problems. While on the other side disabling the creative part would help with speed in boring tasks.

So if you are not coding at the very lowest level, you will usually work in two modes:

  • Analysis mode: find out what the problem is and think of a solution (often debugging is also such a task)
  • Coding mode: you know the solution and just hack away as much code as possible

The solution is the same, get an own office and the headphone rule removed, but maybe don't use the headphones all the time.

For flow it's also helpful to use tools like Slack, where people can ask "got a min" and then you respond as soon as you have one, instead of making them walk over and trying to get your attention.

  • 2
    I use my headphones as a visual indicator that I am busy. I don't listen to music with them. – Stephan Branczyk Oct 2 '16 at 8:58
0

You need to chisel at this issue from several angles.

Talk to your manager. That is his job. Unless that is, unless you're the manager. Then, I don't know what to tell you.

If someone on your team has ADD. Have him/her get a doctors note. Once one team member gets a special dispensation for headphones, it will be easier to change the rule for the entire team.

If your team needs to be approachable, ask HR for the number of hours they need to be approachable each day. Then you can suggest a schedule where everyone on your team can agree not to wear headphones. If HR doesn't like that argument, start off by asking if a worker comes in at 7 AM to avoid distractions, ask HR if that worker can they wear headphones at 7 AM. What about 8 AM? 9?

But ultimately, try to speak frankly with the person who made up this new rule. Have a drink with that person or something. It could be that they're not even giving you the real reason for the rule change. At the last company I worked at, the developers made so much more money than the people answering the phones. It created two very different social groups (although both groups sat in the same open room). Perhaps, all that is needed is that the group of developers extends an olive branch to the lower paid group and starts including them in some of their social activities. The answer could be as simple as that. But of course, that's only one possible reason. There could be others. You need to find out what those other reasons could be. And you need to befriend the people who made this new rule.

protected by Jane S Oct 2 '16 at 9:17

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