"Headphones should be a universal do-not-disturb signal," says Jennifer French Knutson, a user-experience designer at VML, a digital marketing agency in Seattle.

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David Aronchick, a self-described “productivity nerd,” runs Hark.com, a Seattle startup where users can create, share and play their favorite sound clips. Since the business is based on noise, you’d think that headphones at work wouldn’t be an issue. But he’s the type of manager who keeps his ear to the ground when it comes to how best to run an efficient workplace.

“I’ve read all the data that show that listening to music with lyrics actually reduces productivity,” Aronchick says. “But when you’ve got 15 people crammed into a space that would normally hold five, two people’s collaboration becomes a six-person distraction.”

(Cue headphone use here.)

Indeed, recent productivity studies aren’t encouraging for those who swear by their playlists. A 2010 study carried out at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, and published in Applied Cognitive Psychology showed that music interferes with short-term memory performance. In a series of Taiwanese studies cited in a Wall Street Journal article last June, listening to music with lyrics was linked to lower scores related to concentration, reading and attention.

Nick Perham, a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, and author of several studies on the effects of auditory distraction, says certain tasks can be aided by listening to music — spatial-rotation activities such as art or architecture — but only if you like the music, and only if you listen to it before starting a task and not during.

Other evidence points to the positive, mood-boosting effects of music. One Canadian study found an improvement of work quality and time-on-task among information-systems developers who listened to music.

Meanwhile, Seattle-area employees are divided. In a recent NWjobs.com poll, about half said wearing headphones made work more bearable or increased their focus, while about half said headphones at work were too distracting or too isolating.

Which brings up the issue of etiquette. Say you walk up to a colleague, start to ask a quick question and … crickets. What’s the proper protocol? A hand wave, a text message, or should you simply slink back to your desk and put on your own headphones?

“Headphones should be a universal do-not-disturb signal,” says Jennifer French Knutson, a user-experience designer at VML, a digital marketing agency in Seattle. “The thing I can’t stand is when you have them on — generally to focus because the open environment is too loud — and someone taps on your shoulder to interrupt you.”
Erica Jorgensen, a content strategist who has worked at several local startups, finds headphone use counterproductive. “I’ve actually had to use Nerf balls to get the attention of headphone-wearing co-workers on occasion,” she says. “It feels very juvenile, but it works.”

Andrea Ballard, a career coach and former HR director for a public accounting firm in Seattle, says she used to hate it when employees wore headphones at work. “I thought it was rude and dismissive, and indicated a lack of interest in getting to know their colleagues,” she says.

But then she heard a different perspective from an employee who sat near the women’s restroom: “All day long, people would stop at her cube and say hi. Wearing headphones gave her some much-needed privacy and the ability to concentrate on her job.”

No matter where you sit on the issue, experts agree that minimizing distractions is best. How does that sound?

Headphone etiquette tips

Ask first. Check with your boss and co-workers to see if they mind. Let them know you’re available if they need you.

Watch the volume.

Choose your playlist carefully. Avoid anything you wouldn’t want played out loud in your office.

Don’t wear headphones or earbuds during meetings.

No singing or finger drumming.

If you must interrupt someone, do it politely in person or through an IM or email.

Be aware of how your headphone use affects your ability to interact with your co-workers.

Sources: Arden Clise of Clise Etiquette in Seattle and Mary Ellen Slayter of Monster.com