Tag Archives: boring jobs

Headphones at Work?

I recently read a post in Dave Clemens’ HR Cafe on the issue of whether employers should let employees listen to music or other material on headphones while at work. He noted that surveys  show that employees feel more productive and satisfied while listening to music, books, etc. and that with headphones on, they’re less distracted. He then went on to discuss when it might be inappropriate to let employees do this (e.g., if they’re in customer service) and the dangers inherent in wearing headphones such as failure to hear a fire alarm or co-worker questions.

This got me thinking.  My main thought being: I don’t think employees should be on headphones during work. 

I must confess first that I don’t like the modern habit of listening to music 24/7: on the bus, when walking, when shopping, etc.  I believe in interacting with the world, not being perpetually distracted and separate from it.

That being said, some activities are very boring — exercise at the gym, for example–and even I can’t condemn doing something else while exercising.

So with that as a starting point, maybe wearing headphones at work can be appropriately allowed if: (1) the work is fairly solitary and repetitive; (2) listening to music, news or whatever will not affect accuracy or other elements of job performance; and (3) the employee can still readily hear what’s going on around him or her.  I would also add that the employee needs permission to wear headphones and that he or she should not be allowed to wear them for excessively long periods of time and certainly not all day.

There are (at least) two problems, however, with my criteria: they potentially pigeonhole certain jobs and can create resentment among others who are not allowed to wear headphones.  The answer to the first problem, of course, is not to label the headphone-appropriate jobs as “boring.” Other, more positive descriptions such as those used above are better.  As for the second problem, if the criteria are clearly stated and consistently applied, theoretically there will be no grounds for complaint. Or maybe an employer can institute “Headphone Friday.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s just easier to ban headphones altogether. Your thoughts?  ~Amy Stephson

Employee Engagement: The Rewards and Perils

My last post was about boring jobs—why employers need to make them more interesting and some ideas on how to do this.  I got great comments from several readers. And it turns out that “employee engagement” is a hot issue that has garnered a fair amount of attention from HR and management researchers and thinkers. 

A 2006 Gallup study, for example, found a strong correlation between employee engagement and organizational innovation. It described three types of employees: engaged, not-engaged, and actively disengaged.  This third category – defined as employees who are not only unhappy, but who daily act out their unhappiness and undermine their co-workers – was particularly noteworthy to me as a workplace investigator and coach.  It was also scary: the study estimated that 15% of U.S. employees fall in this category.  I’ve seen these folks many times. 

Yet interestingly, another study discussed in a recent Wall Street Journal blog shows that disengagement does not necessarily follow from the fact that a job is boring.  Rather, employee engagement results from three things: (1) the employees are given opportunities to grow; (2) the organization is committed to making a difference in the world; and (3) the organization’s leaders exhibit values and behaviors that engender respect.

Disengagement does not necessarily follow from the fact that a job is boring.

The task of creating engagement falls squarely on leaders and managers – but it’s in no way an impossible one given that most organizations do have a mission that can change the world in some way, however small.  Mostly, it requires developing a detailed intention to engage employees in this manner followed by attention to what needs to be done. Communication is a key component. 

Would such actions make an impact on the actively disengaged 15%?  I don’t know–do any of you?  If it wouldn’t, management needs to address this problem in some other manner.  This kind of disengagement is toxic.  ~AS

Boring Jobs

An article in today’s Seattle Times  reported that a new study by the Conference Board Consumer Research Center shows that only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their work–despite feeling lucky they have jobs.  This was the lowest level recorded in the 22+ years the Conference Board has studied the issue.

The study showed two main reasons: pay is not keeping up with inflation (especially with ever-growing health insurance deductions) and workers don’t see their jobs as interesting. Other factors at play included job insecurity and dissatisfaction with bosses.  Workers under 25 expressed the highest level of dissatisfaction.

As a workplace investigator and coach, I usually see other employees, both co-workers and superiors, as a main source of unhappiness on the job. But boredom is a huge factor as well, particularly for workers whose jobs involve high levels of repetitive tasks.

So is it an employer’s responsibility to make jobs more interesting? If so, why?  The answer is yes and the reasons are many: bored employees don’t perform their work very well, use more sick leave than engaged ones, lack loyalty to their employer, leave their jobs more frequently, and (from professional experience) tend to get in more trouble with their co-workers.

Cross-training, which at least enables employees to do a variety of boring tasks, is one common solution.

The solution? Solving the boredom problem is not easy given that much of the boring work in question just needs to get done.  However, employers can start by talking to their people and asking them how their jobs could be more interesting. Cross-training, which at least enables employees to do a variety of boring tasks, is one common solution.  Maybe music (motivational Muzak, anyone?) can help. Maybe contests of some kind would work. Just showing an interest in itself–at the same time giving employees some responsibility for their own workplace and behaviors–can make a difference.

Do you have any other ideas on how to engage bored workers?  ~AS