Headphone Culture

I just toured a startup the other day and what struck me while making the rounds was the fundamental sameness of the startup vibe: a handsome group of slack-jawed folks drowning out their ADD with 80-decibels of music.

Startup offices are supposed to have the buzz a newsroom once had, but often are sort of hushed, like a law firm. The floor plan can be open but only because everyone now has a thousand MP3s to pipe through their headphones. The environment is transparent — we can see what one another is doing — without necessarily being collaborative. It’s a little bit like the panopticon a philosopher once imagined would replace our prisons.

And it’s weird, and maybe perfect too. If a 1980s office-worker emerged from a time machine and walked around a typical office, he might be surprised at many things: gym-hardened 25-year-olds riding elevators to the second floor, the presence of computers on everyone’s desk, casual dress, Costco muffins but no ashtrays, the occasional ping pong table.

But what would surprise him most might be the popularity of DJ-sized headphones, worn by everyone from the lowest-level employee to the CEO. The time-traveler might feel about headphones the way we would if we learned that future office-workers will all wear goggles, so that they never see anything except what is on their computer screens.

Don’t we come to an office so we can work together?

I do, but then I don headphones to isolate myself. We have all seen offices with thousands of people like me — the size of a new country, with its own silent language and customs.

I catch myself deferring face-to-face discussion in favor of online chats and email — the growth of IM and the sales figures for headphones probably line up very nicely – just so I can finish listening to a song. I do this even though I can’t concentrate while listening to music unless I listen to the same songs over and over again. I do this even when, as is usually the case, I am wearing headphones without listening to music at all, just to block out background noise.

This tactic may be the latest twist on Virginia Woolf’s insistence on having a room of one’s own. At work I often think of her advice to keep windows open and doors closed: a way to see and feel the world while still preserving your own creative space. Now the office sights and sounds come to us via IM windows and email messages, popping up in a manageable corner of our computer screens rather than standing in our office doorways, demanding our full attention.

Sometimes, it’s good to avoid a face-to-face conversation. When I get back to my desk from a face-to-face conversation, I have to take a few moments to re-orient myself to the three-ring circus running on my computer, and I have to queue up my music all over again. The person I interrupted has the same challenge.

But usually, a conversation is essential. Whenever I disagree with someone, I try to do so in person because we end up reaching a fruitful compromise much more quickly. And whenever I need to collaborate on an idea, I get more energy from being in the same room with someone. I work at Redfin because I love the people here, and noticed I’m happier when I actually get to talk to them.

So whenever I think that maybe I should go chat with someone — I slowly take off my headphones — but never decide to email them instead. And whenever I’ve tried — a dozen times at least — to give up my headphones entirely, I lose control of my perimeter, and get less done.  Modern life will give us more and more ways to enter that isolated yet connected state, with open windows and closed doors. Our only challenge is not to spend too much time there.


  • http://twitter.com/ilikegirlsdaily I Like Girls

    I like headphones.

  • http://www.mn-houses.com/white-bear-lake.php White Bear Lake Homes

    Loved this post, Glenn! I work as a medical device engineer during the day, and as a realtor…well…also during much of the day. I find myself avoiding face-to-face conversation often so I can continue to check things off my list without worry of getting sucked into an unpredictable length face-to-face conversation with a coworker. In fact, I even wear my headphones now when I'm walking down the hallway as I find that less people will stop me to chit-chat. However, I do reach a treshold that I absolutely need some live people interaction, only then do I reluctantly put the headphones on the desk. Lol ! Great post!

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      People are good WBLH, people are good…

  • http://twitter.com/jpsimonis JP Simonis

    Very funny Glenn =) “a handsome group of slack-jawed folks drowning out their ADD with 80-decibels of music”. I'll walk around the office looking slack-jawed before I revert to walking around the office smiling dancing and laughing =)

    I often come into work, and seeing the faces of my lovely co-workers makes me burst into smiles. That's inspiring, I think it's the *meaning* of the work that encourages people to do it with pride and with joy. And meaning will always have two parts: the meaning of the work/its results, and the meaning felt when *doing* the work (with good company).

    <3 and thanks for your open, passionate, loving energy, which is a large part of what makes/enables redfin to be what it is.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      What a wonderful comment JP. The only slack-jawed person at Redfin is yours truly…

  • http://twitter.com/evanjacobs Evan Jacobs

    Have you seen the video of the TED talk that Jason Fried gave titled “Why work doesn't happen at work”? He talks about how many of the aspects of traditional work environments actually hinder productivity and gives a few suggestions as to how to make the workplace a place where work can happen.


  • http://www.kpo.com KPO India

    “…to keep windows open and doors closed:a way to see and feel the world while still preserving your own creative space.” This statement really describes what is the modern office environment. Some don't agree with a music on while working, but it be an alternative way to make you productive. When it comes to conversation, nothing beats the personal talk with your co-workers, but if they are far, then chatting with them through IM or sending them an email would be fine and acceptable.

  • A guy with headphones

    Jason Fried is taking credit for the research done by the authors of Peopleware. Management, marketing, and sales all have different collaborative mechanisms for accomplishing work. Engineering however must have uninterrupted stretches of no disctractions in order to achieve the highest productivity. This is why you see software people with headphones.