For baby boomers in the 1970’s and early 80’s, workplace culture was initially defined by organizational hierarchy, group dynamics, teamwork, and loyalty. Gen-Xer’s, fueled by the rapid rate of technological and social change in the 1990’s, introduced flex-time, empowerment, individual contributors, and work/life balance into the corporate culture vocabulary. For Gen-Y workers entering the workforce in the aftermath of the dot com bubble and attending classes with laptop computers, cell phones, Blackberry’s, and iPods, the balance of workplace culture shifted significantly from localized team dynamics to dispersed individual achievement.
Increasingly, workplace cultures today are being defined by imposing fewer personal and process restrictions while expecting increasingly greater performance results. Modern company policy manuals often include guidelines for cell phone use, volume levels for radios or CD/players, personal computer, network, and Internet restrictions, and nobody seems to bat an eye. But when the subject of restricting, or in any way limiting, an individual from being connected to their personal MP3 music device is brought up, people cry foul. Why? Have we really become such an individualized and self-entitled culture that we expect the right to listen to ‘our music on our terms’ over being expected to appear engaged with the sounds and activities of the employer that is paying our wage?
Well over 40 million iPods have been sold to date. They are everywhere. We wear ‘em when we’re driving, flying, waiting in line, at the dentist, skiing, hiking, working out, shopping, etc. As more young workers leave college and join the workforce the trend is to bring their ultra-casual on campus habits (and electronic gadgets) with them to the workplace.
With the recent proliferation of discreet personal music devices, decades of discontent over the volume level and musical tastes of coworkers has gone the way of the ‘while you were out’ hand written phone message? But in its place has emerged a new set of annoyances. In today’s office environment, the following scenario is becoming more commonplace with each passing day. You need to talk to someone at work and as you begin to approach them you realize they have “earbuds” from their iPod or other MP3 music player buried in their ears. You stop talking knowing they didn’t hear you approach, clear your throat once or twice, and politely wait for them to acknowledge your presence, remove the earbuds and allow you to re-initiate the conversation.
Most everyone would agree—that has experienced a modern office environment filled with row upon row of cubicles—that slapping on the earbuds is a good way to reduce distractions, stay focused, and be more productive. But to a boss, receptionist, or coworker trying to get an employee’s attention, those earbuds can represent a barrier. That barrier could be sending the wrong signal and causing people to form negative associations and avoid productive interactions. Having established workplace guidelines that address personal music devices would let everyone know what is acceptable and unacceptable by defining parameters that support a productive work environment.
Here’s the problem—everyone seems to have an opinion but are there firm and accepted iPod workplace etiquette guidelines? Or are most companies just winging it? In a quick Google search on the term ‘iPod workplace etiquette’ a searcher will instantly discover thousands of results. Opinions vary but it seems to come down to two things; 1. office culture, and 2. the boss. If the company culture strives to foster a worker’s creativity and the employees tend to work alone on projects (or if the boss is his or her self an iPod user), then guidelines were few and lax. If a workplace culture requires employees to regularly interact with clients, coworkers, or the public and/or and take phone calls, then guidelines were more stringent and less flexible.The most generally accepted iPod workplace etiquette guidelines were as follows:
1. Let nearby cube mates and colleagues know when you are ‘turning on’ and that it’s okay to interrupt you.
2. If you are wearing your earbuds and listening to music, you accept that you have created an atmosphere of isolation around you. This is the modern day cubicle world equivalent of closing the door. Make an extra effort to be visually aware of who and what is going on nearby. Don’t be viewed as a ‘shut out’.
3. If a coworker approaches you, make eye contact, smile, and take the earbuds out of both ears. Even if your iPod is off, having an earphone in one ear is still disrespectful.
4. If you are not sure if the volume level is excessive, remove the earbuds and cover them with your thumbs. You should barely be able to hear the music.
5. If the sound level is audible when the earbuds are removed and you are engaged in a conversation, ask for a moment to turn off the iPod so there is no distracting noise.
6. Do not appear annoyed when it is necessary to engage with a coworker and stop listening to your favorite song. You can play it again when the conversation is over.
7. It is widely agreed . . . absolutely no singing, head bopping, air guitar, or hand/foot tapping.
8. Do not bring the iPod to meetings.
9. Do not use company time, computer equipment or network resources to download music/video or swap songs with coworkers.
10. Make it clear to employees that any personal property they bring to work is at their own risk. Workplace theft of unattended MP3 players is a rising concern with employers. In some cases, this issue alone is reason enough to not allow them in the workplace.
Even if your company does not yet have a need for guidelines that clarify acceptable use of personal music players; if you tend to hire a higher percentage of tech savvy ‘twentysomething’ employees, then you will see this issue, along with general electronic gadget etiquette guidelines, emerge as more pressing. Stay ahead of the growing workplace cultural trend and take steps to put clarifying guidelines in place. To promote acceptance and compliance, make sure the new policy is communicated to every employee including senior management. Include a policy overview in new employee orientation meetings and post written policies in the break room.