When Headphones Get in the Way of Office Communication

Q: I have recently hired a new employee who is a crucial part of the daily work flow. She needs to communicate with a number of in-house and remote employees.

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Q: I have recently hired a new employee who is a crucial part of the daily work flow. She needs to communicate with a number of in-house and remote employees.

I’d like to be able to have casual work conversations with her during the work day, but she always wears earphones (listening to either music or podcasts). When I walk up to her and begin to talk, she stops, says, “Wait, what?” and pulls her earphones out. I feel like I need to have something particularly meaningful to say, because now I’ve made her stop all work to hear me.

To complicate matters, I sit in a small, private office so I have privacy during the day while she sits in a large room with employees all around her.

My short-term solution has been to type back and forth on a messaging system — but it feels so inefficient and, really, kind of dumb when it’d be quicker to resolve something in 25 (spoken) words or fewer. Recommendations? — H.L.

A: Headphones and earbuds have become exponentially more popular at work as the so-called “open plan” office has spread. Even if collaboration or connection results from that obliteration of workers’ privacy, sometimes we need to block out everything (and everyone) and concentrate. Thus, as others have observed, for people like your new hire, headphones are the new walls.

But they can also complicate routine office life. And there are a couple of ways to think about that, depending on the details.

As a practical matter, interrupting a colleague wearing headphones involves only slightly more effort than interrupting someone who is working without them.

Forget the headphones for a moment: You already know that if you just burst into someone’s space and start talking, she might miss the beginning of what you were saying because she was, for instance, completing a thought in an important email, or entering complicated data in a spreadsheet. That’s why you might say, “Hey, Smithers?” and wait to be acknowledged before proceeding.

For the headphone-wearer, get in her field of vision, or knock on her desk, or say “Hey, Smithers?” in a slightly raised voice. (I would avoid touching or tapping — or anything else startling.)

Then communicate this thought: I need to be able to approach you for quick conversations. What’s the best way to get your attention when you’ve got headphones on?

Just asking this question makes it clear that the priority is work, not catching every nuance of “Radiolab.”

If her headphone habit is actually causing work flow or collegiality problems, address those directly, and impose whatever parameters you see fit. There’s definitely a case to be made that self-isolating workers can miss out on useful collaborative opportunities, and this column has noted in the past that for an office newcomer in particular, heavy use of headphones can send a “don’t talk to me” vibe that’s not great for a career.

But try to strike a balance. While it may be annoying to deal with a headphone-wearer, it’s also annoying to have little to no privacy. Handle some communication with messaging, and insist on maintaining some face-to-face contact. If things move too far in one direction, adjust. Keep the lines of communication open.

Peer Review: Negotiating Extra Time Off

Q: Recently you advised a reader who wanted to take time off for elective surgery, and was trying to decide whether to switch jobs (“Is It Easier to Get a Job When You Already Have One?,” April 8, 2018). Here is what I would advise (and what I’ve done) to get extra time off — anything beyond the standard two-week vacation.

Look for the new job now. When someone wants to hire you, and makes a concrete offer, tell them you need specific weeks off that can’t be changed. Once they’ve decided they want you, most likely they will agree.

Perhaps in this case surgery cannot be scheduled between the jobs. But I’ve even convinced an employer to let me work for free at the outset so I could be absent from the workplace later. A new employer may have more flexibility than you would guess. — ANONYMOUS

A: This is a useful line of thought for anybody trying to figure out the best way to take an unusual break.

I agree that you’re rarely in a better position to negotiate such a break than at the moment when a potential new employer has decided you’re the perfect solution to whatever hiring problem he has been trying to solve. Both sides are in transition, and can play with details in a way that becomes far less practical once the work relationship is established.

Obviously, it isn’t a slam dunk. Any given potential employer may find the request off-putting and deny it, or maybe even withdraw the offer. So risk remains.

But since you’re still employed while trying this negotiation gambit, your fallback position is just sticking with what you’ve got — and trying again elsewhere.

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