Headphones versus Silence

For those of us on the “under” side of the planet, it’s that time of year again – coming into winter. Like shorter daylight hours and cooler temperatures, there’s one other certainty you face: Winter colds. The only real downside to using public transport for the daily commute is that sick people use public transport too. Sooner or later, you’re stuck on a train with a cougher.

I’m not going to be critical of people who choose to go to work whilst “under the weather”. I don’t know, maybe it’s a cultural thing that some people just don’t think sickness should slow them down, or things are just too busy to risk getting behind with work. But once one person coughs on public transport it seems like a slow and steady wave through the carriage bringing sickness and sullen faces to all who travel this way. (Of course there are other ways of catching colds, it’s just my long winded “poetic” introduction of how I came to have a cold myself)

Having done my part in spreading gloom and misery by coughing over any remaining healthy souls utilising QR’s chariots of steel on Wednesday, I took the option of working from home on Thursday and Friday. I am part of a development team that is based in Melbourne. I work externally from the rest of the team, in Brisbane. As such I am always “remote” whether working in the office, or at home. For the rest of the team, I am just as contactable whether I am at home, or in the office – only the phone number changes. I prefer the office environment – the conversation tends to be more interactive than that with a rolypoly cat. But that “interactive conversation” is a double edged sword. Working in an office provides far more possibility for distraction.

Distraction is the enemy of concentration, and concentration is a key requirement for good coding.

Over the years there have been many times statements such as this have been made. From there, discussions tend to head in the direction of making working environments for developers as “distraction free” as possible. No one denies that minimising distractions increases productivity. If you are Joel Spolsky, you go the extreme route of “Private offices with doors that close“. To put it bluntly, most IT professionals I know, would consider this a waste of money. A cheaper option, is to allow for the listening of music through headphones. It’s the approach the company I work for uses. If you are looking for headphones to use at work, “Sound isolation” becomes an important factor. Many audiophiles would possibly point you toward “open headphones” as ones with the best sound reproduction. I won’t argue with that, but for the sake of your fellow inhabitants, don’t choose open headphones. You are there to work, not enjoy the highest quality listening experience. And whilst your taste in music is undoubtedly the best in the world, no-one else shares it… With this in mind, I chose Sennheiser HD215 headphones – and I am happy with my choice!

For what it is worth though… I can never quite get over how much more productive I am when I work from home – in silence – without my beloved Sennheisers. Long term, the solitude would drive me mad – some social interaction with co-workers alleviates the relentless pressure of continual work. Maybe it’s the fear I have that people will be doing the funny quote thing with their fingers as they say “Andrew is working from home today” that spurs me on to make sure I have something to show for my efforts. However, I can only conclude that even wearing headphones and listening to music is still a distraction.

Programmers on a team need contact to ensure that they are moving in the right direction. Keeping a programming team moving in the right direction is like herding cats, so long term isolation is not an effective way of gaining productivity. Which brings us back to Joel’s bionic office… If the expense of a distraction free work environment is measured against the increased productivity that such an environment brings, then maybe it isn’t as expensive as some may think.

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