How I feel after a long day of debugging...

I ran into an uncomfortable culture clash recently that I thought was worth documenting. It revolves around "The Headphones Rule".

First, a primer on the concept. "The Headphones Rule" a quick "rule of thumb" for asking questions or having impromptu conversations in an office setting. It comes in a number of different flavors, but at its simplest, it's three lines:

  • If I have no headphones on, I'm open to chat.

  • If I have only one ear covered (or one earbud in), then I'd prefer work-talk only.

  • If I have both ears covered (or both earbuds in), I'm busy and can't talk. Leave a message (email, IM, note, etc).

I've read about and seen this rule in action frequently. It has been a common phrase to hear in the tech world; I've even seen it mentioned in job postings! I've used it with great success on multiple teams and have followed it with my current team as a matter of habit.

In casual discussion recently, I mentioned the headphones rule and was surprised to find that no one else on my team knew what I was talking about. I explained it and got immediate pushback. "What if I just want my headphones for music? I still like talking." I'd honestly never considered the conflict.

A quick web search revealed lots of varying opinions. I was surprised to find that this is such a polarizing topic, but both sides of the arguments have good points. In general, I think this practice's efficiency and acceptance comes down to the environment you work in and the "house rules" that surround it.


Many of my daily conversations start with "Hey, are you busy?" or "Got a sec to chat?". These questions beg a response, and generally that distraction alone is enough to pull someone focused on a project out of their "flow". The Headphones Rules prevents the need for this inquiry entirely - if my earbuds are in, you can assume I'm busy and, unless it's an urgent need, move on. If they're not in, feel free to engage me on whatever topic you've got in mind - I'm in a lull or not otherwise fully locked-in on a project.

It's worth pointing out that this policy requires an environment where you can actually work without headphones. If you work in a small office of people on the same or very similar teams, this is likely your best bet for headphones-as-distraction-management-magic.

Generally, it also goes hand-in-hand with a secondary form of communication. Instant messaging has come back around today with tools like Slack and Hipchat. Every team I've worked with who uses headphone rule also uses an asynchronous platform like this to chat, so it's easy for someone to send a message to a coworker even if they're in "headphone mode". The advantage to this is "distraction management" - it's much easier to politely ignore your chat app than it is to politely ignore someone tapping on your shoulder, so if you've just gotta finish this bug before seeing what Anna needed, you can do so.


The dark side to the headphone rule, and the part that I had never considered, is that it creates an unreliable and maybe unfair expectation around headphones. If you're wearing a set of cans, you're ignoring the people around you. This means you have no "safe" way to wear headphones simply for the sake of enjoying stereo tracks - at least, not without apologizing and explaining yourself frequently.

This can also get in the way if you work in a larger shared space. In my current office, the dev team shares an open floor plan with our phone support team. We all get along well, but it's always noisy: without headphones, we'd all be constantly pulled off-task by ringing phones and general jabbering. If we consistently followed the headphones rule, we would rarely converse as a team, and would likely miss out on most of the valuable pairing & in-person time we use to get through complex problems. Because our team has been so reliant on this impromptu communication, the headphones rule just isn't the right fit for us.

A Happy Medium

Ultimately, any "Rule" like this is made to be broken. Every team will have a different set of circumstances, and it's okay to adapt what works best for your team specifically. I think a safer bet would be explicitly having a "communication culture" chat and deciding on some shared guide lines that work for everyone on your team. Maybe you could use signs on your desk, or Slack statuses, or even specific time-blocks on a calendar. A unique solution that your team creates might even give you new insight into what works best for you - and that's something you can take with you as you move forward!