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I began programming at the age of 14 and over a decade has gone by, during this time, a day hasn't gone by when I don't listen to music, radio or podcasts.

When I'm programming at home or in work, I always like to listen to music, sometimes the same album or playlist throughout the week, as it becomes a constant, and I almost don't notice its there. 1 headphone in usually means, talk to me, both headphones is known to the girlfriend and friends as "code mode". They know better than to get more than a few words out of me. I'm sure you guys understand!

So, I use to work for a big ATM company dealing with banks on a daily basis, I was more of a number than a person, and when I worked I could listen to music all day and night. If anyone had any issues, they would ping me on MSN or give me a tap. I was fine with that, and so was everyone else (as they all did the same).

Now I've moved on (had to relocate) I have a new job in a much smaller company. The company is NOT software orientated at all, I am the only on site programmer, all previous work was outsourced. We have around 30 people in the office (mixture of admin, accounts but mainly noisy sales teams), I probably talk to 2 of them. They're not a social bunch, I'm fine with that, as I know what they do has no impact on what I do and vice versa, so I sit quietly, put my headphones on and code.

I know (they kind of know) that I'll be leaving this time next year, as they're a small company we established in the interview that after 2 years I might struggle to find projects. So... back to my problem (I promise that was all relevant) in my first week I set up my coding environment, and began working. The IT manager pulled me aside and said "we have a slight issue, you can't wear your headphones" when I asked why they responded "the boss will go mad".

So after a few months of no headphones, or sneakily wearing them when it got really loud. I became confident to wear them, as the boss himself acknowledged I wore them. I told him "it helps me concentrate, and gets me in the zone". He didn't say anything at this point (and never has). I had no issues for around 4-5months.

Then last month I was called into a meeting with one of the MDs, he told me I can no longer wear headphones. Again I asked why, this time they said "the sales team are wearing them". They don't, I know they don't because I sit next to them all. I tried to argue my point, I received the 'I know I feel for you' speech, and that was that. No more music. I returned to the office and had a few pairs of eyes on me, looking pretty happy with themselves. One even turned to the receptionist behind me and said "have you noticed", the receptionist responded... "what?" then got up looked over the divide straight at me. Subtle huh. I like to call this "Small Company Fever"... they don't like change when trying to 'save the world' everyday.

So now after a month, I find I can't concentrate fully, my mind wanders. To make it worse... they've moved my desk from the middle of the office, to the main door, which happens to be next to the toilets, the huge photocopier/printer and the kitchen. Its loud, really loud. Its actually starting to stress me out, and make me want to look for a new job.

So heres is my dilemma. Am I just being a big girls blouse, should I just shut up and just get on with it as its only for another year and a bit... or do you think I have a genuine problem, and if so... how would you deal with it?

Sorry for War & Peace II.

All the best! Rocky

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closed as off topic by Anna Lear Aug 2 '11 at 14:36

Questions on Programmers Stack Exchange are expected to relate to software development within the scope defined by the community. Consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement if you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope. Read more about reopening questions here. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Tell them that you'll have no problem leaving the company early if they are not willing to accomodate your working environment. –  Joris Timmermans Aug 2 '11 at 13:52
They said "no headphones", but they didn't say mum about speakers. –  Philip Aug 2 '11 at 14:13
@Anna Lear - I think it's within the scope. As a programmer, he has specific job requirements that are not the same as someone else at the same company. Just because it's not about writing code directly doesn't mean it's not programming related. –  Shawn D. Aug 2 '11 at 14:57
@Shawn At the same time, just because someone is a programmer doesn't make a question on topic on this site. It reads like a pretty general "working in a noisy office" issue. Anybody could be affected by that, programmer or not. –  Anna Lear Aug 2 '11 at 15:00
while reading your post I can't stop wondering: do you listen music too loudly? maybe you sing or make strange noises/moves while listening? –  BiAiB Aug 2 '11 at 15:01

7 Answers 7

up vote 33 down vote accepted

I think the issue isn't so much that you can't listen to music, but that your work area is too loud and disruptive. Listening to music allows you to filter that out. If you aren't able to do that, how can you work?

Software development is a concentration based job. Refer to rule #8 in the Joel Test. http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000043.html Every time you are disrupted, it puts you back a lot. As long as you wearing headphones isn't disrupting anyone else, what is the problem?

Saying you are not allowed to because the Sales team is doing it doesn't fly. I'm guessing the Sales team members have jobs which require more communication, and so it would be inappropriate for them to 'zone out' in the same way. That is like saying you can't wear headphones because the receptionist started doing it. If the Sales team shouldn't wear them, tell them that.

You need a quiet work environment, or at least a way to drown out the sound.

If they won't budge on headphones, ask about getting an office, being moved to a quieter area, or wearing ear plugs.

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Thanks for the suggestions. totally agree, we seem to be employing more people just now and the main work area is full. Theres another room next door which is closer to the factory workshop, but out of the way. (and a lot quieter) I might suggest I move when the next employee arrives. –  rocky Aug 2 '11 at 14:28
@Rocky - Go ahead and ask now. Tell them you must be relocated to an area where you can concentrate. If they give you a hard time, start looking for new work, you seem unhappy. –  Ramhound Aug 2 '11 at 16:07
Why not work from home every other day? Should solve their crowding issues, too. And if you get more done on those days because you have headphones in, no-one will ever know. –  Kate Gregory Aug 2 '11 at 16:31

Be frank with your boss. The company has made it clear they do not value you. They do not support creating a productive environment and you can't continue to work in that environment unless you can establish a productive working environment. Be clear what this means.

  1. Quiet working area where you can concentrate and get your work done. Private offices are always touchy, but be firm. If they want an onsite programmer this is what it takes.
  2. You get to wear headphones and do anything else that helps your productivity. Remind them they are paying you to do your best work, it's only in their best interests to have you as productive as possible.

Be prepared to leave or be fired over this. Go ahead and check out the job market. It's red hot right now in many places for qualified programmers.

Don't back down.

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Are you sure your headphones didn't leak music to neighboring cubicles? It can be really annoying to others and you can easily do it by mistake.

It seems to me from your description that your coworkers were happy to found out you are not listening to music anymore. Although, it would have been more mature from their part to confront you directly, if it was really the leaking headphone sound that was annoying them.

The real problem is, however, the noisy environment of your office. I believe you should choose your battle here and consider getting a position in a company that treats its employees better.

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It sounds like the other employees are being pretty passive aggressive, but +1 for pointing out that it can be annoying when you are forced to listen to other people's music. Paul Simon gets me in the zone, but Metallica from the cube next to me tends to take me out of the zone. If it really bothers them, they should be more direct of course, but there is not much to be done about that. –  Morgan Herlocker Aug 2 '11 at 14:19
I did think it might have been the leaking sound, I use the default iPhone headphones or in ear ones most of the time (depending on which I put in my bag when leaving the house), although I usually keep it down low, don't listen to any "hardcore metal", and even occasionally pulled them out and put them in front of me to see if I could hear them. Although to tell you the truth, if I popped a balloon when the sales team are going at it you wouldn't notice. I could bring it up though if I 1 on 1 with the boss. Thanks. –  rocky Aug 2 '11 at 14:33

You have a genuine problem, but it's not the one you think it is.

The music you can live without, as long as you get a steady amount of noise - it doesn't have to be quiet, but a printer going off every 15 minutes is very distracting. I would argue that the need for music is exactly that; it's overriding variable noise with something fairly constant.

But the bigger problem is the suspicion that people are stabbing you in the back. This is either a paranoia problem on your side, or a personal problem on theirs. Both are bad, for you and for the business.

Without more specifics about the relationship between yourself and your sales team, it's hard to give anything more than generic advice. That advice would be to think hard about why they're acting the way they are and try to adjust your approach to play to that.

Or leave. But if you take the easy route then this problem may plague you through several jobs.

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Yep totally agree. I think its a bit of both, a select few jobsworths causing a fuss and me getting paranoid because I'm doing something "I should be doing". If it was written in the rules, fine (I would have considered rejecting the job). If it affected my work in a negative manner - I wouldn't wear them. On a side note the woman in the office are allowed to wear any tops with dark trousers. We have to wear dark trousers and a branded black polo shirt. How is that any different? I don't complain but I've heard some have a moan though. I just don't get it :/ –  rocky Aug 2 '11 at 14:47
I sympathise. I once worked in a company where the support team were jealous that they couldn't work from home while the developers did so regularly, so they started causing similar problems when management changed. That didn't get resolved, but I was much younger then; I think I'd handle it very differently now. –  pdr Aug 2 '11 at 14:54

Talk to your supervising manager about the problem

It is in his best interest that you and your co-workers have what you need to work effectively. If you can't concentrate because of the noise then they should do something about that, such as moving you to a quieter location. If they can't they shouldn't complain about you wearing headphones or earbuds, right? Be as clear as you can about this issue.

All managers should care about the workplace environment, it's in their implicit job description. If they DON'T comply with your simple demand about your workplace environment (much like #8 in the Joel test) then secretly look for a new job where they do care about this sort of thing. At least now you know what question you should ask in the future job interview.

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Explain that programming requires you to concentrate but you are in a noisy environment and so are finding your concentration is being disturbed, which is lowering your productivity and leading to more errors in your work. Say that wearing headphones was a solution to this since it enabled you to block out external noise and thus concentrate.

Then tell your boss that if headphones aren't acceptable then what would he/she suggest to do to solve this problem? This puts the onus back on to them to solve the problem.

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I would try ear plugs. Definitely not as nice as headphones but it might just get you through until you are ready to leave. If they have a problem with that, depending on your situation, I would probably tell them that you are going to leave if they don't accommodate you in some way. But, if losing your job would be very detrimental, I would instead of making demands, simply find another job.

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I've thought about this too, but then I figure if I can have ear plugs why can't I have music. I'm almost 100% certain its because of a few select jobsworths in the office. I think they have a "if I cant you cant" mentality. I've been looking at jobs, but fear that my CV might take the hit, then in future interviews when I explain my brief departure - half finished. –  rocky Aug 2 '11 at 14:37
@Rocky - Why are you worried. If you leave be honest, tell anyone who asks, the company wasn't the right fit. Besides unless you vol the information it was suppose to be 2 years nobody will know ( and thats only your business ). –  Ramhound Aug 2 '11 at 16:11
I wouldn't worry too much about it. If you've been there a year it is not unusual that you would move on. In our profession, it seems to be fairly normal to be in a job 2-3 years at most in a lot of cases. I totally agree that you should be able to have music, but sometimes you have to deal with the company's BS. I would definitely keep looking, but also try to make the situation as decent as possible in the meantime. –  Paul Aug 2 '11 at 16:55
You can get white noise or noise-cancelling headphones. –  TRiG Sep 6 '11 at 17:19
The point is that he is not able to wear headphones. If he could he would simply wear them and be happy.... –  Paul Sep 6 '11 at 20:25

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