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Just Wear Headphones (mattblodgett.com)
278 points by strangetimes on June 22, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 203 comments

The "being watched" feeling is the big one for me. I don't mind wearing headphones because I love listening to music and I don't listen to it that loudly, but the sensation of feeling someone's eyes on you (to catch you on the split second you've refreshed reddit or facebook or something) is incredibly profound on the time it takes to zone into zen mode.

Anecdotally funnily enough, the opposite seems to happen for me when I am pair programming: each person keeps the other in focus, but obviously this only works when both people have the same objective. Not really related to "open office" issue, but thought it was relevant.

Or maybe I'm just a filthy procrastinator...

When I consciously think about someone who happens to see my screen at work I can easily brush the thought off and tell myself I don't care. But my subconscious thinks differently because I can feel myself get a little tense when someone comes up to, or walk by, my desk. I get the same feeling whether my screen is showing me doing work or not. It's an annoying feeling.

I specifically request desks where my back is to a wall for this very reason.

You need breaks during the day. Programming is creative work. Some people can just march on like a machine, but I know my own style is to have an incredibly high output stretch of 3-4 hours, punctuated before and after by lots of email writing, bug reading and goofing off on reddit / hn.

I don't like having people watching me, but facing other people (just having them in my field of view) is even more distracting.

this bothers me too. I make sure my monitor is high enough so I can't easily see their eyes.

I've had the same experience with pair programming: when done with someone you get along very well with, and with the same goal in mind, one or the other of you might get stuck but rarely both at the same time. (And on those rare occasions, observing that we were both stuck was a good sign to more quickly treat it as a problem requiring deep thought, rather than staring at a screen for a while.)

I completely agree. Pair programming was mentally exhausting for me (4 sessions per day of 90 minutes), but we were almost constantly productive. When we both got stuck, that's when we would pair swap. It was the best job I've had so far, but it was exhausting. I stayed focused on the task at hand for the entire day. At the end of the day, however, I had absolutely no desire to work on side projects or learn something new. I was spent.

I don't do pair programming at work; when I did pair programming, it was with a friend for various side projects, and we'd do it for a 12+ hour day (broken up by a couple of meals. It was exhausting in a good way: it felt maximally productive, as well as exhilarating.

I had the same experience working for a company that did pair programming 100% of the time. Very productive but exhausting, and in my mind, not sustainable.

On a side note, I wonder how effective fb/reddit really is for taking pauses..? I would certainly have thoughts about it as an employer, but I know it's considered perfectly normal by most people. I don't mean I'm capable of hour-long stretches of work, far from it. I take lots of pauses, but flipping to a new browser tab doesn't do it for me.

It's not even necessarily to do with being caught slacking off, but being exposed outside your field of view creates anxiety in your animal brain.

At age 32 my hearing is apparently at the level of a 66 year old. I'm not much of a concert attender nor drug user so the only real explanation the doctor could give for my disappointing audiogram was my habit of regularly working with headphones on (I always took care of moderate volume, mind you).

I wasn't expecting this result at all, I actually thought my hearing was perfect but hearing loss starts at the highest frequencies and continues to the lower frequencies exponentially. The route towards "Sorry, what did you say?" doesn't take as long as you might suspect.

Earbuds can do that; the audio "sounds" low to you, but you're only perceiving the delta between the device volume and environment noise. That's why I stopped using earbuds; when I would put my hand to my earbuds, the volume would shoot up from isolating the environment noise, and I got an idea of how loud my device actually was.

I recommend noise-cancelling earphones, because they deal with the delta problem for the most part; but you can obviously still run into the problem of setting and forgetting the volume, which is fine for one thing but too loud for something else.

Get a second opinion. Maybe they are trying to sell you on expensive hearing aids.

It's also possible you didn't ever have great hearing. (Do you have any "before" audiogram to compare against, from when you were a child?)

Uh, seriously? Right now we have a huge public health issue with young people and hearing loss. It isn't some scam. Turns out the ipod/iphone revolution came with some external costs.


"If a person takes a subway to go from one place to the other for half an hour in the morning and a half an hour in the evening, and every day has to turn up the volume on his device because there is so much of noise of the train and everything around, and is listening to - let us say 100 db (decibels) for one hour every day, his hearing is going to get irreversibly damaged in a few years, in a couple of years time, for sure."


Instead of subway, replace that with loud open-plan office and instead of one hour per day, replace that with 8+ hours. I think we need to address hearing damage the same way we started addressing RSI in the office back in the 80s. There are a lot of people who have no idea how much they are damaging their ears.

Uh, seriously? Right now we have a huge public health issue with young people and hearing loss.

Isn't that the best kind of thing to use in a scam? Much more believable :) Parent didn't say "it's a scam", (s)he said "get a second opinion", which sounds like good advise to me.

The parent very much suggested the doctor was being dishonest. Parent wrote: "Maybe they are trying to sell you on expensive hearing aids."

I don't see how anyone could interpret that in any other way.

That is correct, however, I didn't suggest that the the entire public health problem of hearing loss is only a false perception that is result of wide-spread overdiagnosis, which was the bulk of your counter-argument to my post. (If that were the case, what use would there be in getting a second opinion?)

I wouldn't jump to any hasty conclusions based on being tested once, with one audiologist's piece of equipment. How do you know it didn't have a calibration problem or other malfunction. Bad gain in some analog circuit or whatever, and the measurement is decibels off.

Also, I'd have my ear canals cleaned thoroughly, and stay away from loud noise for a couple of days before the test, and any foods or medications that can affect hearing. If you're on antibiotics for something, don't book a hearing test. You want your real hearing tested.

(I was on ciprofloxacin recently, and things didn't sound right until a day after the last pill. My Sennheiser phones sounded like $5 dollar store earbuds, and I couldn't get a decent tone out of my guitar amplifier rig, though I played with the 32 band equalizer and other controls endlessly.)

Suggested they can be being dishonest.

Not even dishonest, but biased by an obvious vested interest, which subconsciously leads them to exaggerate the diagnosis. Some people have it as a personality trait to make mountains out of molehills. For any alleged condition, if you get three opinions from three specialists, they will differ even though everyone is honest.

You might actually have the hearing of a 45-year-old at 32, but due to some interpretive latitude and instrumentation error, they can get away with reporting it as a 66-year-old.

It's not just the ipod revolution, it was happening in the walkman era, starting about the time sony came out with the little turbo headphones. (which then morphed into the earbuds)

The killer was the balance between bass and treble, the phones were plenty loud enough, they just had no bass response to speak of until the treble was loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. Earbuds today might be a little better, but they're still fighting the physics.

I did damage to my hearing until I bought good headphones (Grado SR60. They were ~60 back in 1992, not much more than that now). They had more bass at 2 than the earbuds had at 9. There were a couple of tracks that demo'd the effect really well, where a drum or bass line just wasn't there in the little earphones.

Now, my hearing drops off above 12khz and below about 35. And it's much harder to hear things when there's other distracting noise going on. I can tell someone's talking, just not what they're saying. This is especially true when someone's yelling from another room over the not terribly loud music in my office. It's also really bad talking to someone on the phone, but I'm not sure how much of that is hearing loss and how much is crappy cell connections.

How about both? Taking BART into SF for an hour every day, then wearing headphones the entire workday because of the open floor plan.

I do this now -- pretty worried about my hearing...

Focus on noise isolation. Using ER-4P (https://www.etymotic.com/consumer/earphones/er4.html) with triple-flange tips is about the best you can get. Better even than $1000+ customs (exception made for Noble silicon customs).

Any reason to go with the ER-4P over the hf5 or hf3 product line, if I'm not looking for studio mastering grade audio reproduction?

Put another way, judged purely on niose reduction is there much difference between the ER-4P and the rest of the Etymotic product line?

Indeed, I believe they share tips.

One problem with $1000 ear plugs (and $1000 speaker cables, etc) is that some of the microphones used to record the music only cost a hundred bucks, and it passed through numerous 10 cent op-amp chips in various studio equipment.

I mostly have experience with Westone or Shure's, but I like Comply foam tips a lot better - more comfortable, anyway. Worth checking out.


Oh yeah those are really comfortable. I found they broke/wore out quickly though.

Is it healthy to wear these every day?

I have some Etymotic earplugs, which I use at nightclubs, gigs and concerts, but from the way they feel I don't think it would be good for my ears to use them daily.

Assuming you aren't actually pushing them in far enough to press against your eardrums, you're fine.

The physical feeling you get is just pressure on your outer ear canal - it might be uncomfortable (though it shouldn't be, try a different size plug) but it won't lead to hearing loss.

The kind of hearing loss that article is talking about is only caused by exposure to loud noise, and you're only going to be better off wearing earplugs for that.

I have noise isolation earbuds and always turn them REALLY low (like 1-3 on the volume scale on the mac). I'm always shocked at how loud people have their headphones.

Here's where I'm coming from: I wish they would push to make the train a bit quieter. (I'm thankful for having a good network in Chicago) Take a ride to the airport on the blueline in Chicago, fly to London, and when you're on the tube you'll notice a world of difference in the noise level.

It goes from a loud clanking to the hum of the tube.

I believe that light commuter trains should have rubberized wheels. Much of the noise is steel-on-steel action.

If you've ever had a rubber bushing wear out in a car's suspension linkage, you know what I'm talking about: thunk, clang, squeak!

Would noise-cancelling headphones help address this? I imagine you can listen to music at a safer level if background noise is eliminated.

Yeah, generally ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) headphones can help. IEMs that block sounds are even better than ANC headphones.

To my expierience (since 2009), ANC works really great with steady tones such as the constant humming on a passenger plane or the motor sound of a sports plane.

But for voices, walking steps of folks, cars around you: not so much.

Active noise cancelling should only really be needed in very loud environments, like the subway. In an office you should be fine with a well fitting set of closed back on/over-ear headphones.

I have a pair of Denon AH-D340 and I can't hear a damn thing with them on, even with a noisy conversation happening right next to me. I use them at 1/3 volume on my macbook most of the time. They have a lovely flat unhyped response as well, despite being styled after beats by dre.

If your office is as loud as a subway, my heart goes out to you.

Those fancy in ear monitoring ones are probably even better, but I personally find them uncomfortable.

There is a sound to active noise cancellation systems. Not really white noise, but a sort of faint, high-pitched noise.

It's not audible in airplane or other loud environemnts, but I never understood how you can work with that in your ears. Apparently some people doesn't find it irritating. But make sure to try someone else's before you spend hundreds on dollars on one for the office.

Purely anecdotal, but in my opinion in-ear-monitors (like the Sure or Etymotics) are much better at blocking out sounds than an active noise cancelling headphone like the Bose QCs.

Yes, seriously. It could be many things, for instance he may be allergic to something. The possible causes are many.


I know there are some prescription drugs that can reduce hearing, but they're standard drugs like Ibuprofen, if you're old and take lots of them. I think. I've never heard of any illegal drugs having that effect..

As to RSI being psychological... after Googling around a bit I find a handful of (paraphrasing) "RSI may be to some extent influenced by stress", but nothing that it is 'entirely psychological'? Can you cite sources?

Prolonged use of opioids in high doses can cause permanent damage to the inner ear. Rush Limbaugh famously abused oxycontin and that's likely why he had to get cochlear implants.

Thats crazy, I am sorry. Is the hearing loss irreversible ?

Hearing loss is indeed irreversible.

So take good care of your ears, don't be complacent. (I'm a drummer)

Also a drummer here...for several years I played in extremely loud bands and went to shows without earplugs. By the time I wised up it was too late. Now I have a terrible time hearing conversations in restaurants or other situations where there is background noise. I imagine in my later years I'll probably need hearing aids.

Most hearing loss is

The rules of thumb about "60% of maximum volume for 60 minutes" and "if you can't hear your surroundings, it's too loud" are nonsense. Dangerous volume settings depend on a headphone's sensitivity, the output device power, the headphone's isolation ability, and the recording. These parameters vary. Wildly.

A well-fitting isolating IEM can slice off 25dB of noise, more than enough to (mostly) eliminate background conversation noise at any location short of a hip restaurant. These IEMs tend to be so sensitive that they become earsplitting at a tiny fraction of the maximum output volume, way less than 60%.

Learn approximate dB levels of various sounds, compare various noise with a meter (even an uncalibrated app will give you a ballpark idea of what you're dealing with), and listen to music at an average 65dB or less (this will obviously vary with dynamic range of your music; occasional 80-85dB peaks won't kill your hearing).

One trip to a dance club or rock concert without earplugs (100-110dB on average in my experience, 120+ has been known to happen) will do more hearing damage in a few minutes than a lot of headphone listening while working. I'm pretty sure the busy street near my home routinely hits a 90dB average at rush hour, solidly in the danger zone compared to reasonable headphone use.

Edit: To learn more, read the following:

- http://www.rane.com/pdf/old/note100.pdf

- http://nwavguy.blogspot.com/2011/09/more-power.html

It might be helpful if you could offer citations for that. I find it hard to judge these competing claims

Here's OSHA and NIOSH:


TL;DR: NIOSH would recommend limiting the 8 hour exposure to less than 85 dBA. At 100 dBA, NIOSH recommends less than 15 minutes of exposure per day. NIOSH also recommends a 3 dBA exchange rate so that every increase by 3 dBA doubles the amount of the noise and halves the recommended amount of exposure time.

15 minutes is 7 doublings away from 32 hours, i.e. constant exposure. So, 100-(7*3)= 79dBA is safe, and 82dBA is safe for long-term exposure, and 85dBA is a limit at which you should have hearing protection.

None of that comment seemed unreasonable to me - I've had large over-ear sets of headphones that require me to turn the volume up pretty high. It takes more to drive them, that's why some people own headphone amps.

Compare that to IEM's like the Sennheiser cx 300 - 5% of max volume at my computer might be too loud.

And it would surprise me if headphone usage at reasonable volumes is worse than going to loud concerts, even if you use headphones for long periods of time. If I'm at a concert or a loud bar for an hour or two, my ears feel really fatigued afterwards, everything seems quieter. I've never turned up headphones loud enough to experience that.

If anyone is curious, this is what the sensitivity measurement is on headphones: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Headphones#Sensitivity

TL;DR "The sensitivity of headphones is usually between about 80 and 125 dB/mW and usually measured at 1 kHz." and note that since dB is logarithmic, every 6dB is 2x the energy (human-perceived "doubling of volume" is typically ~10dB; see also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fletcher%E2%80%93Munson_curves )

Sure. I added some reading material links to my comment. The Rane document has an OSHA safe sound levels table at the end, a good reference. Keep in mind that the dB scale is logarithmic if you want to crunch numbers on device power, headphone sensitivity and impedance, and resulting SPLs.

I'm not sure that employers that have open plan offices are actually "clueless". It apparently works well enough that they don't mind the productively hit. I think it is easier for developers to believe that their employers are clueless than to believe the truth - that they've weighed that costs and decided that disrespecting developers is worth the cost savings.

The open plan office sends the message: "To us, you're not a thinker [we have management for that!], you're just an expensive typist." The exception to that would be an startup that is forthright about needing the cost savings and doesn't try to sell this lack of respect as a "feature" (ease of collaboration!).

> I'm not sure that employers that have open plan offices are actually "clueless".

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Hanlon%27s_razor

So you're saying it's even worse than them being clueless?


Is it time to get depressed yet? This has been a topic for such a long time. It was in people ware in 1987. I thought I discovered the topic when Joel (On Sofware) wrote about it in 2000. While a few people seem to enjoy open offices, the overwhelming majority of developers I know, or who chime in on HN, value a quiet place to work and dislike open offices.

And yet, not only has nothing changed, it seems to be getting worse. It couldn't be more clear to me that developers, at least on this issue, simply have no clout as a profession. There may be a few individuals who can make demands, but on the balance, these are decisions imposed on us, as a group, and we are apparently unable to do anything about it.

The really sad thing is, this isn't a situation where we're asking to fly first class, or for more vacation. We're talking about asking for something that will make us more productive and increase the value we largely hand over to our employers, simply because it's depressing to not be able to do a good job due to distractions.

So yeah, I'm depressed about it. There was a time when I read these essays and felt a bit more charged up, like people were starting to understand something important and that things would change. Well, now we have open offices.

I'll finish with another variant on my broken record: the industry talks constant about the critical shortage of software engineers, but it won't give them a quiet place to work. Actually, that last sentence is too optimistic - it won't allow them a quiet place to work. Those places exist, but companies often demand that their programmers spend 8 hours a day in places that are too noisy for focus.

I suggest perhaps a fetal position desk:


I'm not sure that private offices would work. Such an arrangement assumes that the devs take a lot of personal responsibility for collaboration and staying productive. Although some might be able to handle this I've met far too many devs who just go down their own road when left alone.

I've been writing software professionally since the late 1980s. So, I've observed this trend and the industry over a long period. I first worked for a startup in the early 1990s, and before that I worked mostly in small businesses.

30 years ago programmers were highly respected. We were mysterious to others and we were able to influence things like office layouts and the like.

At some point over that time period, things shifted. Programmers became seen as "geeks" who didn't really understand business and "business guys" took over. These people don't understand technology and they have disdain for it. I'm talking, in fact, about not just enterprise (Were for a long time the "IT Manager" who was not really technical ruled)... but startups where "business guys" end up being the CEOs.

They think that giving us big monitors and nice computers is valuable, and they do it, but they have no consideration for our workspace and will save even a tiny amount to have an "open plan". They have no concept that we might know what we're talking about because "office space is the realm of business.".

I saw this directly last year-- an office with 2 business people and 14 engineers. One of the "biz guys" was the "manager". They went looking for offices and didn't invite any of the engineers, of course, and came back talking about how great the office they chose was. How it was open plan and all that, and we'd really love it. This is after telling them before they even talked to the real estate person that open plan was the one thing we absolutely didn't want. They looked at several places that had been built out with lots of individual offices but they didn't like it because it was "too dark". OF course once they made up their mind about what THEY wanted, all of our comments were seen just as whining and it was "too late". (even though it wasn't as even to this date they haven't signed a lease due to other factors.)

In the 1950s a great many women went into the work force and there were huge numbers of them employed as secretaries. This was the era of the "Steno pool" and their job title was "typist". They were meant to sit and type at the typewritiers. Because they sit punching a keyboard all day (And because they were women) they didn't have much prestige. Business types don't see it as real work.

This is how programmers are seen today-- we're just typists "arranging the little ones and zeros" (direct quote from that boss last year)

There is no respect for us.

It's the fundamental difference between the "enlisted" and the "officers", the "managers" and the "grunts". We're grunts, and we're meant to be interchangeable cogs-- that's why they'd rather employ a dozen mediocre java developers than one brilliant erlangist. We're not capable of decision making and we have no understanding beyond our weird obsession with those stupid computers. -- that's how they see us. They'll lie and say otherwise, but deep down and a fundamental level, that's how non-technical people see us.

And I think we don't really deserve it until we stop joining places like this.

Whenever I see a startup with an open office plan I don't apply. But I think I'm making a mistake. I should apply, go thru the process until I see the office, and then tell them right then and there "sorry, your website said you value employees but by putting engineers in an open office it's obvious you don't".

Of course that won't accomplish anything.

The only people as low on the totem pole as engineers is HR, and HR feels the need to lord over others, so of course they couldn't care less about the needs of engineers (or any employees really.)

So, I call on YC and other venture investors. Start asking founders what kind of office they want and then don't invest in the ones who advocate for an open plan for developers.

I bet that alone boosts returns.

Further, I personally will no longer work for companies where the CEO is non-technical unless I'm the CTO, and even then I have concerns. (Eg: as CTO I need to have absolute authority over things like office arrangements for engineers.)

High tech companies where the CEO is not technically proficient are far less likely to be effective.

We need to demolish the idea that engineers can't lead and don't understand business.

As someone whose learned business, it's a lot easier to learn than adding another programming language to your repertoire.

I used to use construction 'headphones'. They do nothing but dampen outside noise - no music. It's a pretty good solution ... but a solution to a stupid problem because the right solution is more productive working conditions.

> the right solution is more productive working conditions

Absolutely! To me what's most disturbing about "Just use headphones" is it's highly prevalent information-age companies but shows a deep _lack_ of understanding for the need for _focus_ and long periods of uninterrupted concentration essential for creative work.

Its not just information age companies, it seems to me that many people in general are ignorant of the concept that a distraction-free work environment is important. I'm at a company that has been around for 50 years, and they still stuff their engineers two at a time into small "offices" (without doors, with concrete floors). I can hear everything.

Hell, why aren't you just using construction worker ear protection and a horse blinders?

I've used construction headphones for maybe 5 years now, way better than noise canceling and they are cheap. These ones are the best: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00009LI4K/ref=sr_ph?ie=UTF8&qid=14...

Some people will tease you about wearing them, but honestly by the end of most of my stays at Companies I've converted at least 3-4 people to using them.

Like the article states, listening to music reduces your cognitive abilities, I prefer absolute quiet. I find it almost beautiful like a great song to hear nothing but the clarity of my own thoughts.

Any comments on Peltor X4A? They are much thinner, but only reduce 27dB. Strangely in Europe they claim 33dB.

>Strangely in Europe they claim 33dB.

The standards of measurement are likely different. Measuring "volume" (sound pressure level) is a very tricky business.

I was thinking this exactly. You could easily use hearing protection equipment like what is typically used in construction. Also, you could sit with your back to the wall instead of to the heavily trafficked area.

However, it raises the question: "Should employees have to solve these problems?". Depending on the office size, a more private setting could be provided for the employees affected.

"you could sit with your back to the wall instead of to the heavily trafficked area"

In many offices, you can't just re-orient your desk or choose to move.

I'm picturing wearing my hard hat / facemask / ear protection setup in an office. It is OSHA approved for some occupations...

It certainly would be conspicuous.

I use these with low volume ear buds underneath. Nothing gets through the combination and the music volume can be very low and still easily heard, so hearing ins't affected.

Wow, I did not think of that. I tried noise canceling headphones and they made me a bit dizzy, but the last time I used construction ear protection I was fine. Thanks, if I ever end up in a cube farm again, I'll have to try that.

I have an office now and temp is my main problem since I am right next to the server room.

used these back in highschool while doing homework, took them straight out of my garage and put them on my desk. they work great

Another seemingly imperceptible disruption is vibration, ie "physical noise". I had the bottom-of-the-totem-pole pleasure of having the (open) office space right by the restroom, kitchen, and coffee machine.

The major noises were not the main problem; the problem was the stress of people beelining for either of the three with the felicity of an elephant stampede.

Add to this office congestion the pleasure of a female stampede of high heels or male Italian shoes.

Which is not to say that a coffee machine can't shake the foundation of the building like a malcontent washing machine.

It's driven me up the fucking wall, and it is by far my biggest annoyance with an open office.

Keep this in mind, the next time you or someone else goes on about dress code - or taking things easy. Hell, give your employees the option of company-provided sneakers. Then you can still dictate style guidelines.

Either that or give people a goddamn vibration-dampened fastlane.

When I hear something like this, it sound like your pleading for padded shackles. My heart goes out to you.

A friend of mine worked at a place where he was next to metal door to the outside that slammed shut loudly all day. He wore those big industrial earmuffs to try to block it out. This is the Phd physicist/developer who did all the hard math for them...

To my developer brethren (and sisters!), work doesn't have to be like that. There are companies that treat their developers well. You really need to interview the company during the job interview, talk to people that work there before you go, do your research.

As several commentors have mentioned, in ear monitor (IEM) type headphones have pretty good sound isolation properties. It's important to note that active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones increase the total sound pressure on your ear drums, while IEMs decrease it, overall. With ANC headphones, you have the environmental sound pressure added to the cancellation signal (which cancels according to perception, not according to physics) added to the pressure of your music. This tends to make them far more damaging to hearing, long term, than simply listening to music. The real solution, if you want to avoid hearing loss and drown out the environmental noise is to use something like Shure IEMs and a pair of shooting or industrial earmuffs. When I ran a lawn service in high school, I had a set of Shure headphones and equipment earmuffs, which blocked something like 50 dB of environmental noise and let me listen to podcasts at a reasonable volume while running a mower 8 hours a day.

Do you have a reference for ANC headphones being more likely to cause hearing loss compared to regular headphones? I find it hard to believe (but would love to stand corrected).

So, upon further reading, I was less informed on that than I had thought. The best explanation I could find is here[1]. Basically, ANC does reduce sound pressure level when it lines up correctly. If you're listening to the sort of ambient noise that it does well with, it gets the phase offset close enough to right to significantly reduce the mechanical force applied to your ear drums. If, on the other hand, you're in an environment where it does a mediocre job, it will still be producing a cancellation waveform, but it won't actually cancel anything, and that will increase the mechanical force applied to your ear drums. So, in an office environment, you'd expect a reduction from the ambient noise of the HVAC system, but an increase from the random nature of your coworkers' conversations. It's hard to say whether you'd have a net reduction or not, but it's not certain, whereas passive noise isolation is certain.

[1] http://www.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/1ios4u/does_prod...

I thought that physically, it is lower-pressure, since sound is physical, and the inverted sound waves that the ANC generates cancel out those from the noise source. Looking at the diagram on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_noise_control , I'm not getting how the amplitude is higher, since the resulting sound is quieter, which I'm translating to lower SPL (lower acoustical pressure).

Thought experiment: suppose you have super-loud bass coming from a single point-source at 30hz. You can feel this in your chest. Now, you put a second point-source 180 degrees out of phase in the same place. What would the pressure on your chest feel like? How is this different from how ANC works?

Use noise-attenuating headphones rather than noise-cancelling headphones. A pair of properly fitted IEMs or a good pair of closed headphones will reduce background noise by ~25dB simply by providing a physical barrier to noise.

The distracting effects of music largely disappear if you listen to repetitive instrumental music - house or ambient music is ideal for this.

If you're concerned about noise-related hearing loss, Canford produce a range of high-quality headphones with integrated limiters. The limiting system was designed by the BBC, to enforce safe noise exposure for employees who use headphones all day.

While I agree that open plan offices are generally a bad idea, I think that OP is rather uninformed about the use of headphones.

To build on your second point, the key is more "instrumental" than "house or ambient", though combining both is indeed ideal. Soma.fm's "Groove Salad" online radio station is a good example of such music.

I hope the open office trend dies soon. I've been to some swanky open offices with awesome perks but there are all designed to keep you in the office. I would not trade any of it for my current setup. I work from my home office and travel to a nearby coworking space to get an occasional dose of water-cooler level of human interaction.

The problem is that it meets managerial needs very well:

* awareness -- you can see who's there, what they're doing, and have kindof a feel of the tempo of the office

* "collaborative" -- managerial work is mostly meetings, it's easy to see conversation/crosstalk as productivity

* less furniture / divided space is probably cost efficient

Add that to the This Is How We Do Things Now(TM) cultural momentum (you don't want to be using cubes like those stale corporations of the 90s, do you?). Then throw in the idea that management doesn't necessarily want employees to be maximally productive; it's better if they're productive enough but pliable and fungible.

Open plan might well be with us for a while.

> Physical Hearing Damage

That's the one that does me in. Not because headphones cause ongoing damage, but because my ears have been damaged by several rounds of tympanic perforations and ear infections since I was a wee one.

From these I retain (amongst a number of other issues though thankfully almost no loss of hearing) a serious inability to wear any kind of headphones for more than 10~15mn: past that and it starts to feel like I'm getting needles jabbed through the eardrum and scraping around (this is not so exaggerated, the first time it happened I literally threw my cans away from me thinking some sort of biting insect had gone in and I hadn't felt it until it took a bite of my eardrum)

Interesting question: How many companies who use open offices style floorplans have executives who still have their own offices?

Maybe this is just another permutation of the out of touch boss problem. Nothing makes it harder to understand the downfalls of an open office than not working in one yourself.

There is another problem here. Most executives are extroverts, so for them being in the environment like that feels right and good. Does not really help with understanding in my experience.

Also might matter that open floor plans make interacting with people convenient, and it's a large part of their job to interact with people. I really only need interaction with people for well under 10% of a normal work day.

What makes perfect sense for their kind of works does not make as much sense for my kind of work.

For me it makes interacting with people even more inconvenient. Now instead of having a conversation with one person, I'm effectively having one with a dozen or more. So everyone's booking entire conference rooms just to talk 1:1—even if the topic is fairly benign or banal, nobody likes eavesdroppers.

Just love it when people comment on phone calls you just had.

I found myself having conversations with family members where I never mentioned words that would give away what I was talking about.

What drive me even crazier is co workers that took an almost insane interest in what I was eating for lunch.

Yeah, it's a fucking big mac... have you never seen one before?

Why would you even pick up your phone without leaving the room or trying to find some quiet space? I'm trying to keep my private conversetations outside of my work environment, not because I don't want people to hear things, but because it can annoy/distract people around me.

I couldn't always predict when a call would come in over something and the only "quiet" space available is out in my car. It wasn't always a good option but I would go out there if I had to call someplace about a bill.

I was mostly surrounded by customer phone support people so I doubt I was distracting them.

I can't take a personal call (at all) in my open office workspace. Thankfully the stairwell is like 10 feet away.

I also have nervous kidneys. Hmm.

Yeah but they choose when to be extroverted. They still want a status signifying office for when they don't want to be bothered. Meanwhile, open plan employees are always being bothered.

My last employer was like that. The guy had an office half the size of the open office and he barely used it because he was out doing business and CEO things. It always upset me.

In many cases where the executives don't have their own office, there's a conference room that serves as their de facto office.

A private office is also an important symbol of status and power for many. And this has little or nothing to do with what the office layout for others (as long as the pecking order is not affected).

Yep, seconding this.

We just moved into a new space with a six-person desk (rather nice) in a big bullpen, with two executive offices off the side. One exec gets the corner office, but his door is always open and he's always poking his head out to talk to us. He (like us) has mostly glass walls, and feels like he's in a fishbowl. He used to share his office with an intern, though, and I can hang out in there when I want.

The other two execs (CEO, CFO) hole up in the other office, and close the door, and don't really talk, and basically are just aloof. They also covered up all their glass with random posters and things, presumably because they didn't want people looking at them through the glass. Hey, suits! Developers don't like being in an aquarium either! >:-|


I'm convinced that the ideal layout for developers is single offices, with doors, big enough for pair programming. Anything else is wasting developer attention and the opportunities for collaboration enabled while being in close proximity.

The problem with "real" micro-offices is that a lot of SMBs don't own the physical property, and instead they rent. These properties often have drop ceilings, so even if the "walls" of the office(s) hit the ceiling, sound would still very easily travel up and over (and removing the drop ceilings is expensive/hard).

Companies had an alternative: Cubicles.

They were modular, relatively inexpensive, and gave the experience of an office but without needing building work or cooperation with the landlord. But people "hated" those and companies that utilised them were seen as dinosaurs (see the movie Office Space). Then a few companies did open plan, and every said they were young, forward thinking, and trendy so of course a bunch of companies are going to follow suit...

Ultimately micro-offices would be wonderful, but they have practical and cost problems. Plus let us not forget fire codes. That alone can dictate how an office will be laid out (so fire exits are visible, etc).

Wouldn't micro offices block out natural light? I know many developers thrive in the dark, but I can not work without sunlight for long. Even with vitamin D supplements I start feeling lethargic and mentally down, which has major performance implications for both how I interact with coworkers, my creativity and how much I can get done. Surely I'm not the only person who experiences this?

So the co-working Space Wework uses glass dividers for their offices to allow for interior offices with natural light

Didn't find great pics but here's a GIS https://www.google.com/search?q=We+Work+Offices&espv=2&biw=1...

Mmm, fishbowls.

I'm not sure the general age demographic here, but just in case people haven't seen cubes :)...

We hated cubes because they weren't offices, and Dilbert-style culture was common in companies with them, so they get rid of the cubes and gave us tables, and kept the same cultural problems.

This was perhaps the most crazy thing to do. We didn't hate the cubes, we wanted more privacy than the cubes provided.

I HATE open offices, but man is this article full of absolute nonsense. I mean that in a very literal way -- it has lots of stuff that can not be made sense of because it lacks context or any actual meaning.

> I stress to my patients and the parents of my patients that if you can’t hear anything going on around you when listening to headphones, the decibel level is too high.

This is just stupid. It ignores type of headphone entirely. IEMs like the ER-4P (https://www.etymotic.com/consumer/earphones/er4.html) have insane noise isolation (up to 42 dB). When using them, I can't hear someone talking to me, standing right next to me, with no music! They physical block the ear canal and create a seal blocking outside noise.

> As a rule of thumb, you should only use [personal audio] devices at levels up to 60% of maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes a day. The louder the volume, the shorter your duration should be. At maximum volume, you should listen for only about five minutes a day.

Again, idiotic. "60%" is entirely meaningless. It might as well be "Don't listen above FALASFDABURAGA". Headphones vary in sensitivity vastly, on some sets of IEMs -- 60% would be ear bleeding, deafeningly, painfully loud. On a high impedance, low sensitivity set of big headphones, 60% is a whisper. As a "rule of thumb" all it does is reinforce that the person who gave that quote is an idiot.

> If you listen to music with earbuds or headphones at levels that block out normal discourse, you are in effect dealing lethal blows to the hair cells in your ears.

... again, quotes from people who have no understanding that there are different types of headphones. MAYBE you could claim with fully open headphones this to be the case... but what is the level of "discourse"... sigh. Again, literally nonsense because it is impossible to make sense of...

> ... Music Is Distracting (entire section) ...

There exists multiple categories of music WITHOUT WORDS! Shocking I know. Most developers I know listen to these types of music because, lyrics are distracting. That isn't a cut against headphones.

> ... Feeling of Vulnerability ...

Getting to some sad points. Again, I hate open office plans, but come on -- really -- the feeling of vulnerability being caused by headphones? It is caused by an open office layout.

"This is just stupid. It ignores type of headphone entirely. "

It sounds pretty smart to me. What else is the doctor supposed to do? Until the silly Beats craze took off, one could have made a statement like that and it would have been accurate for >99% of headphones users. Assuming that the user is listening to the pack-in IEMs (or IEMs with a very similar profile) plugged into a phone or iPod would have been a safe assumption. Sure, an office full of tech geeks won't match, but for the general population of headphone wearers?

And if your phones are more or less sensitive, comparing against pack-in IEMs into an iPod or phone is probably the best way that consumers have of comparing levels.

There probably was such a statement in the original source, but it was probably (rightfully) dropped by the reporters because it would have just confused people

"There exists multiple categories of music WITHOUT WORDS!"

I find such music is also very distracting. I find good symphonic music much more interesting than boring Pop music. Interesting -> distracting.

" the feeling of vulnerability being caused by headphones? It is caused by an open office layout."

IMO, the feeling of vulnerability is caused by the combination of headphones and open layout. Normally you can tell people are behind you because you hear them. If you can't hear them, then you get freaked out and feel vulnerable.

> I find such music is also very distracting. I find good symphonic music much more interesting than boring Pop music. Interesting -> distracting.

So find some boring (or at least repetetive/uninteresting) instrumental music.

I'd rather immerse myself in hot oil.

> Getting to some sad points. Again, I hate open office plans, but come on -- really -- the feeling of vulnerability being caused by headphones? It is caused by an open office layout.

"Just wear headphones" is a common response when people explain the issues they have with open offices. This post explains the downsides to wearing headphones in an open office, including the fact that blocking your hearing can make you more vulnerable.

It is a point, just a very "sad point" on top of a long series of nonsense ones. Open offices are AWFUL, but so is that article. Just because I agree with the underlying point doesn't mean I have to agree with tortured logic.

I wouldn't call it "tortured logic", all his points are valid. Of course, there are ways you can listen to headphones 8 hours a day without getting hearing loss, and there is music you can listen to that isn't distracting or imparing your cognitive function, and there are a lot of people that are perfectly fine sitting in a room with a bunch of other people that they can't see or hear, but I think these are valid issues that at least some people that wear headphones in open offices might encounter.

I am a big fan of the music quality of in-ear headphones like Shures or Westones or Etys, but I'm pretty sure it's still causing some hearing damage.

My hearing is a lot better now but when I listened to them all the time, the ringing got to be pretty bad. Since working from home and not listening to them so much, it's gotten better - I'm not sure it's repairable though, so this may not be 100% accurate.

They are also a bit uncomfortable to use for long periods of time.

"Just use headphones" is a bit of a "screw you" when said to employees, because their employers were too cheap to buy or too controlling to want adequate office furniture.

My best cubes were 10 years ago and everything is getting worse (louder and smaller and privacy trending to zero) to the point where working from home is much more tolerable.

Companies should realize that investing in employees pays huge dividents, and an extra few thousand in furniture might improve their output many many times over.

The problem with your reply to the article is you are overly precise and it doesn't add to the overall conversation. Yes the doctor and ENT advice is imprecise, but also it doesn't make sense giving people advice that isn't actionable. For example, people can't measure the effective loudness of their headphones. They don't know what impedance is, let alone what their headphones have or not.

And finally, on the vulnerability, solid work has been done around working with your back open to an office. The article hardly claims this is caused by headphones, it merely notes that with headphones you can't hear either.

I dont think the frequent use of 'idiot' is really helping your case here. Honestly my advice is to stop, relax, breathe, and think for a moment, perhaps the ENTs you lambaste as idiots, who have spent literally decades thinking about this problem, including the deeper problem of how to teach people, aren't actual idiots. And that they have to market their advice in a useful, actionable manner that is slightly inaccurate. As soon as you stop assuming the rest of the world is stupid, you all of a sudden open yourself up. Good luck with that.

Yup. You're right about all your audio points. There is no way the Etymotics are damaging your hearing. If you leave the music off, they're excellent ear plugs. Speaking of ear plugs, that might be a great solution for certain people who are bothered by noise. I know at least a couple of engineers who use them. Of course, this is no way excuses open office plans and their stupid design, consequences, and proponents.

>There exists multiple categories of music WITHOUT WORDS!

Here are some examples of instrumental music:




I really do not think you can make a generalization that lyrics are the source of distractive qualities in a musical piece.

> There exists multiple categories of music WITHOUT WORDS! Shocking I know. Most developers I know listen to these types of music because, lyrics are distracting. That isn't a cut against headphones.

None of those sorts of music work for me... should I still wear headphones to fix the open office?

> As a rule of thumb, you should only use [personal audio] devices at levels up to 60% of maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes a day. The louder the volume, the shorter your duration should be. At maximum volume, you should listen for only about five minutes a day.

Perfect, I'm just going to plug my headphones into a 50-watt amp. Then I can have them as loud as I want without even getting anywhere close to 60%, so my ears will be totally safe!

As someone with a life long case of VERY serious, diagnosed, and treated ADHD, one that is exacerbated by noise (I also have an auditory processing disorder); I often feel I have to take myself out of the running for any job in an open plan office.

Theoretically the Americans with Disabilities Act would allow me to ask for accommodation for this. Practically speaking, my coaches tell me never to ask for it, as employers don't get it and think you're making excuses.

But the fact is, I do have a disability and it's the cognitive equivalent of asking a person in a wheelchair to use steps to get to work.

And as an introvert, I find offices exhausting, the constant demand to be "On" is not only distracting but productivity limiting--especially pointless meetings where I have to work very hard to manage my limited attention span.

Yet another example of how silicon valley culture works for a tiny sliver of the population.

working from home is the best solution. I never go to a coffee shop--even that is too distracting. I schedule meetings with clients in chunks of time that are better for me (afternoons vs my very precious productive mornings) and I batch them so I'm not constantly context switching.

PS I'm not a developer--so you devs aren't the only ones suffering! Good writing and marketing needs thinking time too!

  "[Noise Cancelling Headphones] So while it may work to cancel the noise
  of your office air conditioner, it’s powerless against the voices of your co-workers
  (the real noise you’d want to cancel in an office environment)."
Um, this doesn't match my experience at all. My Bose noise cancelling headphones[1] are really effective at cancelling conversations.

Not completely cancelling mind you, but All-But-Cancelling.

You are playing music then too which further removes the voices, and you can play at a much lower volume for similar block-out-effects.

This does lead to some hilarious Boss-at-Shoulder moments when they have come to get your attention.

[1] https://www.bose.co.uk/GB/en/home-and-personal-audio/headpho...

Still not a replacement for silence. Do you find your ears becoming fatigued over the day?

I have the same model (QC20i). Ears do not get fatigued. Impressive technology to be honest, didn't think they were that effective before I used them. I do agree that it's not a solution, but probably the best way to adapt.

Those are not headphones. Those are in-ear earbuds. They likely block (physically) conversations much more than they cancel them.

I have over-ear noise-cancelling headphones and they don't do a lot for conversational tones. They're great for planes, and they're great for mowing. They don't do much for people talking nearby (beyond the passive blocking they do) unless I turn the volume way up.

Wear earplugs and then put your over the ears headphones over them. The sound of your music should still get through (mostly from around the ear, through your skull). I do that with classical music and it makes the music sounds like it's coming from very far. It's very zen. Like sitting in the void while having music come to you from a distant area.

I'm wearing earplugs from time to time (when music distracts me from really compex task for example). But if you think about it - it is so ridiculous. Why do I need to wear industrail grade ear protection in the office environment only to be able to do my job well?

You don't need to do anything. You could just put up with whatever noise distractions your office produces. If you don't want to do this, you can use ear protection to make it easier for you to deal with. But you certainly don't need to.

You don't really understand that for some people it's not just matter of distraction but actually completely out of their comfort zone?

You shouldn't be using earplugs, though - I take it you're talking about something you actually put inside your ear. If you ask your doctor, they'll tell you never to put anything in your ear that's smaller than your elbow (I think it's an in-joke in the medical profession ;-)

> If you ask your doctor, they'll tell you never to put anything in your ear that's smaller than your elbow

I'm pretty sure doctors in general are not opposed to the use of earplugs. Doctors don't want you putting things like Q-Tips into your ears, because it's really easy to irritate the ear canal or worse accidentally puncture your ear drum. Ear plugs don't carry much risk (no chance of hitting the ear drum unless you're shoving them in with a stick, and should be gentle enough on the ear canal), and they are a very good idea if you're going to be exposed to loud noises. Good ear plugs can block as much noise as good earmuffs.

Doctors themselves (or their technicians) will put earplugs into your ears if they need to block noise, e.g., for an MRI or a hearing test.

That being said, the cheap cylindrical ones will get stuck in your ear canal if pushed too far.

Actually, earplugs can be very effective when paired with headphones, I would think... I used them while flying in the military (under a flight helmet) to cut out excess noise while still enabling me to hear essential radio chatter.

Reusable (and washable) quality earplugs, those that are a bit cone shaped so that they don't get stuck in your ear. The kind you use at a shooting range.

I would warn not to use them all the time. Let those ears breath. I only use them when I need to focus very hard or when it's very noisy.

There are a lot of things about working in an office that are unhealthy, but you have to do what you have to do.

Isn't one of those over the ear muffs a lot better?


Judging by how it seems to be the most used in industrial applications.

Those are also a very good alternative to what I do.

I use earplugs with over the ears headphones.

You could instead use over the ears noise protection with little in-ear headphones inside.

The only reason I don't do that is that my headphones are worth $1000+ and I wouldn't want to trade them for earbuds. Otherwise, your idea could very well be superior to mine!

> Side Note: Noise-Cancelling Headphones

What I've seen done by e-sports events such as WCS is to use earphones in combination with mufflers[1] to cut out the live spectator noise - yes the ones they use on a rifle range.

I can vouch that such a solution works as my room mate in residence would watch series up until ungodly hours of the morning: wearing no-name rifle range ear mufflers eliminated enough (broad-spectrum) noise to allow me to sleep with no issues whatsoever; I would assume it would cut out enough noise for concentration (given that they go as far as reducing the sounds of gun fire) - even without adding music to the equation.

[1]: http://catalogue.3m.eu/en_ZA/PPESafetyProducts/Ear_Plugs_and... - this specific model is frequently seen in WCS.

Noise Reduction technology works great.

I use my Sony Walkman with noise reduction and no music to calm down my environment.

I find playing a bit of brown noise (it's like white noise with a bit less hiss - you can generate arbitrary lengths of it with Audacity) along with whatever you're listening to in the headphones really helps dull the background noise as well without adding any distraction.

"There are permanent physical consequences from prolonged headphone use. The effects accrue gradually, and as such people don’t notice that it’s happening."

You don't have to actually drown out the ambient noise; you just have to put enough sound that you control into it such that your brain is lulled into ignoring the totality of sound around you.

"People conflate the positive psychological effects of creating a cocoon of their favorite sounds in an environment of noise they can’t control with positive effects on their productivity."

The effects ARE positive, RELATIVE to the plain noisy environment they're stuck in. When I have an actually quiet workspace, I have no music playing at all, or at best something very, very low and without lyrics.

> You don't have to actually drown out the ambient noise; you just have to put enough sound that you control into it such that your brain is lulled into ignoring the totality of sound around you.

That depends on who is using the headphones. I can't not pay attention to any sound I hear. My brain is very good at filtering discrete signals out of backgrounds.

I cannot concentrate at all when there is music playing. I can barely even hold a conversation when there is music playing. It is the most distracting thing I've ever experienced (barring pain, tiredness, or hunger) and my brain isn't ever lulled into ignoring the music, it's lulled into constantly playing along with it.

I've found Music for Programming's mixes to be pretty good.


Dream Chimney's mixes on soundcloud also.


In general, something classical, ambient, or minimal techno fits the bill.

Hope it's OK for me to take the chance to plug my own ambient noise mixing app:


I find ambient noise (at a low, safe volume) to be helpful for concentration.

Oh awesome, I sleep with this on in the background most nights.

Music for Programming has some interesting stuff, but personally, I need to systematically avoid anything with lyrics to have a hope of being productive while listening.


I could be wrong, but the vast majority of MfP doesn't have lyrics. It's all atmospheric, vague, kinda droning music.


Groove Salad / SomaFM or Digitally Imported / Chillout Channel.

I use http://focusatwill.com/ and it helps increase my concentration.

http://noisli.com is really great. Mix your own ambient sounds.

I'm personally more or less a fan of open offices, but the noise really is a problem and unfortunate -- I wish the social convention were to treat an open office like a library, and louder conversations happened in private offices.

In the meantime, I find that using ear-plugging headphones alone with some ear-muffs (for like construction work) over the top of the head, without actual music, is reasonably effective at stopping sound.

> I wish the social convention were to treat an open office like a library, and louder conversations happened in private offices.

Most open floorplans I've seen don't have sufficient private space, so moving conversations into offices ends up being impractical for the people working there.

Most open floor plans I've seen are also woefully lacking in noise-absorbing materials. A giant room with drywall and hard floor is a recipe for loud noise. Best case, you have acoustic tiles for ceiling and short-pile carpet, and everything else bounces the noise around. Libraries tend to have layouts that are conducive to noise absorption, with all the shelves of books and the small seating spaces scattered throughout.

> I'm personally more or less a fan of open offices, but the noise really is a problem and unfortunate -- I wish the social convention were to treat an open office like a library, and louder conversations happened in private offices.

Then what's the point of open offices outside of penny-pinching?

Personally, I just enjoy the feeling of being around other people. I worked in a private office in my first job out of college, and found it a bit lonely. In college, most things got done in libraries or coffee shops or in small gatherings of students or in computer labs, and it worked well. It wasn't like people were completely silent, but there was an understanding you wouldn't be distractingly loud, which isn't a social norm that seems to exist with open offices, for whatever reason.

Offices doesn't have to mean singles, 2x or 4x are pretty common and a significant improvement on open office with respect to noise and disruptions.

"louder conversations" doesn't mean "all conversations".

That said, there are advantages and disadvantages to a high-interaction cube farm, and I'm not convinced the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In particular, the productivity hit for people less comfortable in such a setting seems higher than the productivity gain for people more comfortable in such a setting. As much as many offices try to put everyone in the same type of environment, I think it would make sense to design floorplans that incorporate both offices and cubes, with different types of employees in different types of work environments.

You say penny-pinching, but not all companies can afford the office space for all their employees from the get-go.

At least where I work, we do get an implicit understanding of when it's quiet time, and when it's discussion time. Unfortunately the understanding isn't always in sync, but we're most of the way there.

> You say penny-pinching, but not all companies can afford the office space for all their employees from the get-go.

With the caveats that is is one situation and we are in Dallas, my company could afford to give everyone a private office in the building we currently occupy for less than the cost of my salary alone. IMO, if you have enough money to pay developers market salaries you have enough to give them their own office if you wanted to. In fact, I would take a pay cut to get one.

Obviously some markets like SF proper and Manhattan are stupid expensive and this likely isn't true there. I'd wager that most of the world i closer to Dallas than SF, though.

Just leaving this here:


The Isolator device looks amazing, better than headphones.

It's like your own private office!

this quote is basically it: Music Is Distracting

So, as someone who was taught from a young age that only one medium at one time was allowed, open plan offices are a pain in the tits for me.

I used to sit next to a bloke who play wonderful music, but it never stopped. Trying to debug anything complex was impossible.

Ultimately the only real way I could get round it was to use these: http://www.koss.com/en/products/headphones/full_size_headpho... This blocked out most of the noise.

To get over the last bit of detail I used a white noise generator: http://mynoise.net/NoiseMachines/rainNoiseGenerator.php (worth the support fee)

Now, this is still noise, but its constant and easily ignored.

It would have been a good article to help champion the cause of "don't tell me I have to use headphones to work here", if not for the "music is distracting" point IMHO.

Music is sometimes orienting. A decent steady BPM can keep you going through even boring slogs without getting distracted sometimes.

That all being said, having to listen to music, having to decide on what to listen to, and not being able to achieve quiet when you don't want music, that's a problem.

It's wrong to say you HAVE to listen to music. It's great to listen to when you want to, but having to listen to it all day because you can't stand the noise can be rather oppressive.

I work in a 4 people office and already feel it's too noisy, too many people walking behind me etc. Maybe other people are smarter than me, but for me it's not a work environment if I should develop software. But my pay is not connected to my performance so I don't have much to complain about.

Have you ever considered working remotely?

I have, my management hasn't. In theory it's no problem but if you miss the meetings you are basically screwed.

Bring back the cubicles. Open offices are done not for collaboration and openness, but done to save money

Which is why they are so ironic. Most open-offices reduce employee's sense of privacy, motivation and has tons of other negative effects. What began as a money saving scheme ends up costing more to the company, but goes completely unnoticed by those who initiated the change.

"Just wear headphones" is the new "Just hit delete."

Wow, what an insightful metaphor. Referring to that noise as spam (which it is) or a huge "Reply all" chain might get the message across.

I completely agree, especially about the feeling of vulnerability. It's apparently something that not everyone experiences, but there's no way I'm going to wear something that removes my ability to hear someone walking up behind me.

I've carefully tuned my use of headphones and music to my preferences and to minimize distractions. Here's my list:

    1. Earbuds that block sound, or over-the-ear headphones that block sound
    2. Nothing with lyrics. Voices are distracting. I'm really just here for the
       noise that's not other humans having a conversation.
    3. Use a streaming service that tailors the music to my preferences. 
       Pandora was my favorite, but I'm currently on Spotify. I don't have to 
       curate my own lists and I still get music that's all similar and not 
       distracting. It usually ends up being trance-like. Anything "jammin" or
       "fun" is indeed distracting.
What I'm not getting here is how the generalization "music is a distraction" is justified. Was a large sample of music types used?

As for "being watched," I'm not particularly ashamed of my work habits. I do indeed post to HN (in case you didn't notice), read news, read comics (oh, forgot to catch up on those this morning...), keep up with my online peers, ... and I work. Watch me all day if you like. I'd prefer that you also get work done, though.

Hearing "just wear headphones" would mean I'd resign the same day.

> Music is Distracting

Sometimes, the right kind of distraction is good. Even if having no distractions gives me the opportunity to have acute concentration on the subject, in practice, having the right kinds of distractions really do help me reach peak productivity.

If I don't have music or background noise of some kind, my mind wanders and I never really reach that "acute concentration" point anyways. But I work best with the right kind of music -- or even a TV show that's just interesting enough to be background noise (without capturing all of my attention).

That said, the wrong kinds of distractions truly are too distracting. The study mentioned that music with lyrics is more distracting; I know that my favorite songs (generally 70s classic rock) really do grab my attention away from work sometimes. Music where the words are unintelligible and fade into the sounds or music without words actually works a lot better. Also, obviously a really captivating TV show will definitely hurt productivity.

I found this article to be worthless. I work in an open office that is fairly noisy. Although we in this area are mostly separated from the call center people (there is only one in this section, probably due to seniority), but there are some developers who are frequently loud, horsing around with nerf guns, etc. My Shure IEMs block all of this easily. People around me have conversations about which headphones they should buy, I show them mine, and then they come back and say they want something with noise-canceling but that doesn't go in their ears. Sorry, you want water that isn't wet, and it can't be helped. Scared about having your back to the unknown? Get over it; it's a personal fear that is able to be corrected. I used to be overly self-self-conscious, but no longer. The One way, which is what worked for me, is to do absolutely nothing distracting while at work. Ant website I view for more than a minute is work-related in some small way and I have no reservations about doing that for as long as I want. Right now I'm typing into a black screen that is not echoing anything that I type back to me, so anyone passing by me is only going to see what appears to be me pretending to type. Let them think that, it doesn't matter to me. A guy to my left just views time-wasting websites all day, every day. He would be the first-fire if I had any say in this, but I don't care about him. Back to the headphones... All of these things that could be described as "earbuds" are junk. They don't seal the ear canal, so you don't get sound isolation, then I would assume if there was noise in the environment's, you would be forced to crank up the volume to compensate. I am listening to classical music from a streaming playlist that is running from an mpd server on my home computer through my phone (unlimited data). There is no distraction, as I have pruned this playlist of opera and . Lyrical music and hip-hop is good, but too much of it and you get the tape loops in your mind that can be distracting.

For these reasons I have been using ear muffs (similar to the ones you would use for lawn mowing). Currently I am using Howard Leight Sync. It's basically an "over the ear" ear plug when it's not on. You can also use them as poor quality headphones.

It gets hot, but it seems to be one of the best solutions I have found.

I use earplugs. They are cheap, comfortable e doesn't damage your ears. I started to use them when there was some construction work in my street. But I started to like it so much that now I use them on the plane, the bus, to sleep, and to work. 3M sells some cheap ones: http://solutions.3m.co.uk/wps/portal/3M/en_GB/PPE_SafetySolu...

The problems are: People won't notice you are using it, and start talking to you from your back. That's a sure way to get weird looking faces from your colleagues.

It's extraordinarily presumptuous to suggest that headphones are an answer for many/most people. Fact is a lot of people do not like wearing headphones or listening to music/audio while working.

How would you even get "offices for everyone" as a 10 to 200 person growing startup these days (in SF or Seattle)? An open-plan space and then TI to build out offices? Find some 1940s non-tech building and rent there in multiple floors?

"Office with a door" would be worth $20-30k/yr in salary and $50-100k/yr in productivity to me as an employee/user, but on the supply side, it would be challenging to provide.

There are a lot of options:

1) Put your office in a lower income area (maybe not completely desirable, but not everyone has to be in the heart of NYC or SF)

2) Let some or all employees work from home. Especially the loud ones! I don't mean specific people, of course, but some jobs are just loud: customer support, sales, operators, etc.. usually the loud jobs are awesome at-home jobs, as well! Customer support is almost always remote support anyway.

3) Restructure. Many of these companies that can't put everyone in an office have huge or multiple offices for their executive staff. I knew a company where one of the co-owner's offices was as big as the tech room which had 12 desks! The conference room was twice as big as this, and barely used!

cubicles, or desk farms with partitions that are just taller than your monitor.

Hey I have a better idea! Let's just wrap each person in thick, acoustically impenetrable foam. Then our open office plan will be a complete success.

All decent points, but I'm perplexed how the author acts/implies that all programmers are going to be listening to "pop songs" or songs with lyrics.

I am completely unsurprised that there are studies showing lyrics interfere with concentration--I've been avoiding them while working for years. I've even chosen usernames in some music-systems reflecting the fact.

I wear earplugs on a regular basis and they are great for drowning out excessive noise. I do remove them off and on, especially if I'm in a meeting with someone or if I have to hop on a call.

If I don't wear them, I tend to get distracted and irritated by various sounds. Now, you can still hear things, but they are dampened which is soothing for me at least.

I have chronic ear infections and pain because of earplugs overuse. But I have no choice, some sounds literally drive me crazy, yes, literally.

I got to know how music retards your reflexes by playing a reaction time test.

Just try the humanbenchmark.com reaction time test with and without music. When you're listening to music your reaction times will always be higher.

That's when I realized that I listening to music could be counter productive. Maybe some ambient rain noise or something would be ideal.

I have glass at the top 1/4 of my cubical walls. They happen to be angled in such a way that I pretty much get 360 view of the office. The reflection is soft enough that it's not as distracting as a solid mirror would be. I feel, at least for me, this solves the feeling of vulnerability with or without headphones in.

"Science says we're full of it. Listening to music hurts our ability to recall other stimuli, and any pop song -- loud or soft -"

Not very useful article if they assume I'm gonna be listening to pop music. If the writer didn't even care to talk about other types of music this is basically a very poor written post.

>If you listen to music with earbuds or headphones at levels that block out normal discourse, you are in effect dealing lethal blows to the hair cells in your ears.

I can not have normal discourse with my headphones on, even if they're off. And these are just a pair of normal over-ear headphones (DT-770's).

The past year I just got an office and so happy I have my back to a wall. The amount of stress from people walking behind me was getting too much to take.

I tend to find it funny that management that proposes the Open Office idea tend to be the ones who are in offices.

A pair of Bose QC25's has been my most objectively productive purchase this last year. I highly recommend anyone in an open plan office to buy some, or something like them - they're expensive but worth every cent.

I find it odd that it's up to employees to fix the toxic work environment of the employers, especially when we need to cash out hundreds of dollars.

Well, I agree, but I think that horse has bolted long ago. The article discusses the risk of extended loud listening with headphones, which employees buy themselves (I've never heard of an employer buying headphones).

My point was that as long as you're buying headphones anyway, buy some good noise-cancelling ones, and you'll mitigate a lot of the risks in the article. It does suck that it's on employees to do this, but here we are.

You're right. However, in most cases a lowly worker bee in an office environment doesn't really have too many options. Several years ago I was in a really bad office noise situation and I went out and bought Bose QC-15 headphones for $300. It was the best $300 I ever spent. I still have them and I still regularly use them in my home office. When they break, I plan to buy another pair.

I end up wearing ear plugs inside of headphones to block out the noise. Sometimes I wear both because I'm afraid of hearing loss. But it's uncomfortable. I just feel like I have a stuffy sinus.

WFH + Open plans are great and should generally be encouraged. The open plan facilitates communications and general discussion. I encourage my team to spend at least 3 days a week at work during our 'core' time (12-5pm/MWF). It gets a bit noisy and productivity drops a bit, but team morale is good and there is a lot of cross pollination of ideas and knowledge. The only difficulty I've had is nearby teams haven't adopted this approach (they don't WFH) so we have to be careful about our volume level when we're in the office.

Open Office plans + private breakout rooms is a good compromise for getting the best of both worlds. You have the open communication and serendipity of the OO + the ability to head over to a quiet space when the work requires it.

Kudos to you for allowing folks to WFH! That's a great thing for improving your employees lives.

How do open plan offices facilitate communicating if everyone is wearing headphones with music cracked up all day? And if you're promoting WFH, then pepper should be using something like email or chat, which means that open plan is unnecessary.

And have you actually done any studies to prove that the cross pollination actually harkens, or does anything?

Wearing headphones while in the open space is antithesis to our team. No one does it. Random interruptions at work are expected and even encouraged. I have not done any studies at all except to privately ask the team during 1:1s if they like it, and they do. In this market where engineers are hard to keep, I prioritize morale over productivity.


Used these for years to help me sleep (I have insomnia and the slightest background noise wakes me up).

They also work brilliantly at cutting out background noise when I'm trying to focus (even use them at home if I have the windows open), silence is golden!.

Go on, find me a single non-open plan employer (I live in the UK). I still remember the times when people had offices, it was fantastic.

Now to be fair I am in favor of giving employees isolated rooms to work in, however the reality is that at small startups they simply cannot afford that kind of office space. If you're concerned about noise and also the loudness of music playing in headphones, you can always get what construction workers use to block out noise:


They look pretty intense but it's certainly one way to solve the problem.

" the reality is that at small startups they simply cannot afford that kind of office space."

But I bet small startups could afford to let employees work from home a couple days a week.

Or four and a half days a week.

Actually, any startup that chooses new open-office workspaces over secondhand cubicles solely for reasons of cost might also want to consider moving to a location with cheaper office space leases. Even $5/sq.ft. is too high for a startup, regardless of the workspace furniture.

If a startup can't afford a decent quiet office, they most certainly can't afford all the maintenance that will be caused from creating software in a toxic open-office environment.

I've never seen great code come out of an open-office. It can be good but the inability to focus in these environments usually show up in the resulting code.

> the reality is that at small startups they simply cannot afford that kind of office space

It's funny startups would feel that way yet also believe they must be located in/around San Francisco. If cost was really that big of a concern maybe they should choose to setup shop in a more affordable city (they'd also save money on salaries).

But even in San Francisco the additional costs wouldn't be that much. There was a blog post[1] last year that did the math and companies save about 10% with an open office - the hit to productivity caused by an open office environment is most likely costing them more.

[1] http://nathanmarz.com/blog/the-inexplicable-rise-of-open-flo...

I do not buy that for a second. And even if true, why is it my concern that they can't afford it? Why should I have to make up for they're shortcomings?

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