The proliferation of small wireless headphones may exacerbate that effect. Since you don’t have to remove AirPods to wander around the office, it can be hard for your co-workers to tell if you’re listening to music or on a conference call, or if you’ve simply forgotten to take them out. For Samuelson, sometimes that’s the point. “Once in a while, I’ll pretend to have them on just so I can eavesdrop on what people are saying,” she admits. And for people who find music as distracting as they find their co-workers, putting on their quiet headphones can be as much of a visual signal as an attempt to dampen ambient noise.
It’s not a perfect system. David Grilli, a 33-year-old IT professional, uses his headphones to signal that he wants to be left alone, but the message doesn’t always translate. His co-workers “stand in your field of vision until you take notice and ask what they need, or they start talking immediately as if you’re not wearing headphones,” he says. Grilli’s co-workers might just need his attention at inopportune moments, but it could also be true that office workers are becoming so used to seeing one another in headphones that they barely register them.
For women, there can be an extra wrinkle: Wireless earbuds are often so small that they’re entirely invisible under long hair. Bernstein suggests that to send a clearer do-not-disturb signal to colleagues, people might consider larger, over-ear models.
Employers can do some things to help with the confusion, such as retrofitting a space with small, private phone booths to give employees somewhere to escape. That solves another headphone problem, too: Even when people can see your AirPods, they still don’t know what you’re doing with them. A person quietly sitting in on a conference call looks pretty similar to a person who’s focused on work while listening to soothing nature sounds, or to one who’s checking Facebook while listening to nothing at all. This ambiguity has prompted a whole new visual language meant to mime the difference to unsuspecting desk-mates. To perform its most common gesture, which indicates that you are on a call, you dramatically motion to your ears while making a face that communicates a sense of semi-smug capitulation: You, too, are currently being inconvenienced by your own importance.
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“I do a lot of strategic hair tucking, gesturing at my ears, and phone pointing,” says Lisa Derus, a 31-year-old publicist who frequently uses her AirPods for calls both on her long commute from Connecticut to New York City and in her open-plan office. “I learned the hard way that the same ear-tapping motion I’d historically used to signal I’m on the phone is the exact same gesture that ends phone calls on my AirPods.”
According to the design psychologist Sally Augustin, all of this irritation has come about because open offices ignore some essential elements of human psychological development. “We get revved up just being around other people, so in a workplace you’ve always got that force energizing you,” she says. “When you’re doing intellectual work, you’ll do it better in an environment that’s generally less energizing.” Although headphones can help filter auditory interruptions, they can’t block visual ones, which Augustin says can be just as disruptive to performance and focus.