Open spaces and earphones

Or "how I learned to stop worrying and listen to music while working".

I’ve been working in open spaces for more than 10 years, most of my professional career. I suppose I should have a clear opinion about the feasibility of this kind of environment for my well-being or productivity, as an individual or a team member.

I’m afraid that my personal viewpoint is centered on a very particular aspect. As far as I have experienced, working in an open space always led me to listening to music while working, for one reason or another.

Currently, I’ve been working in a small shared office for around 9 months, so I can compare with my “previous open space worker life”. I can’t really tell whether open spaces are better or worse for my productivity. I don’t know either if they can prevent you from achieving the “flow”, as brilliantly described by books like Peopleware. In any case, earphones have always been my “virtual office door” whenever I needed to work isolatedly with people around (as it’s often the case with open spaces).

To illustrate this, let me list two of my previous jobs, from the working environment perspective:

  • In one of my previous jobs, we were located in a typical open space. Everybody was working next to each other, and sometimes you needed to talk to the colleagues on the different desks. The working environment was great, but sometimes you needed to work on a task requiring some concentration (some difficult algorithm or some slippery bug…). In that cases, I was usually putting my earphones on, to “isolate” myself from the rest of the conversations going on.
  • In another previous job, there was the opposite kind of environment: We were around 20 people in the same open space, but somehow the working environment was very silent (I mean really silent, some visitors were even scared with it!). I suppose this silence is good to keep the concentration, but some of us started to use earphones in order to “keep the pace”. This way, we weren’t disturbing anyone, while getting our own “sound landscapes” (which we started to share, by the way).

As I said, I don’t know if I’m more or less productive now (working in my own shared office) than before (working surrounded by all my colleagues). I don’t think either there’s a huge difference in my productivity or my wellbeing. Anyway, it’s not a surprise that the working environment has always had some influence in the ways I try to achieve this productivity, listening to music being one of them.