man listening to music at work with his feet up on the desk and eye closed, playing air guitar

Music at Work: Does it Work?

October 29, 2018
BY:


How to make listening to music at work, work.

In a room full of about 100 employees who are wearing headsets and fielding calls, the 2002 song “Hot in Herre” by rap singer Nelly is pumped into the room through speakers on the ceiling. A woman rises, does an assortment of dance moves you might see at your local nightclub, and gives an open-mouthed grin and an exaggerated wink to her audience. A number of her coworkers rise and join her in this pantomime, emphatically dancing to the music. The only sound they make is to continue on with their calls.

This is how Karin Elmer, an admitted music fanatic from Inverary, recalls her days when she used to work at a local call centre. “It could be hard work,” she recounts. “Maybe 60% of the calls were miserable, so you needed to do something to revive yourself so you could clean your mind for the next call. And this way we needed less of a break in-between.”

This scene might sound like a managerial nightmare to some, but Elmer and her former coworkers could be on to something. Recently, one of the approaches to stress reduction at work has included music. Music has been cited as a way to manage tension and minimize stress. For example, Australian Monash University researchers Drs. Wendy Knight and Nikki Richard found that compared to those who worked in silence, people listening to relaxing music while preparing for a presentation showed a decrease in anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate.

Drs. Wendy Knight and Nikki Richard found that compared to those who worked in silence, people listening to relaxing music while preparing for a presentation showed a decrease in anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate.

While the study of the effects of music on the workplace is relatively new, music at work has been present in earlier societies. In the 19th century, for example, weavers were documented to have sung along with the click of the shuttle, and some factories would even hire women to sing among the workers to boost morale. Many workers find listening to music enjoyable. It can also decrease boredom and increase productivity—some tasks can be done in time to the beat, and music can increase vigilance and psychological arousal. While at the University of Windsor, Dr. Teresa Lesiuk found in 2005 that the positive emotions and work quality of computer developers decreased when they were not listening to music compared to those who were. She also noted, however, that those who did not listen to music stayed on their task longer.

Choosing a Soundtrack for Your Workplace

If you are listening to music at work, the needs of your particular workplace should influence the type of music you choose. High tempo, fun music like pop, reggae, country, or jazz might keep employees alert and increase their energy, whereas classical music might help decrease their stress. However, if it’s productivity you crave, you might want to leave your new CD at home. Colette Robicheau is an organizing consultant and coach for Organize Anything in Halifax, N.S. She says that familiar music can help increase concentration, even for individuals with clinical attention issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“With familiar music, [workers] can process other information, but if it’s new music, the brain is still trying to process it, and that’s taking away from what they’re working on…”

“With familiar music, [workers] can process other information, but if it’s new music, the brain is still trying to process it, and that’s taking away from what they’re working on. Music really helps some of our clients who have trouble focusing if there’s complete silence. Otherwise, they hear every little noise, like the clock ticking, and it bothers them.”

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Another consideration is how to avoid offending or distracting others. Elmer recalls the difficulties she had at a workplace where coworkers were allowed to bring in their own tunes. “There was a younger guy who listened to rap music with really vulgar lyrics, and it bothered us. We never said anything, but he used to leave his CDs at work, and they would disappear. You know, they would fall in behind his cabinet or something,” she laughs. “You can listen to whatever you like at your own home, or in your car, but at work you have a responsibility to clients and coworkers. You don’t have to change the station to country when your coworker walks in because you know he likes it, but you do need to show some consideration.”

The radio is a good source of fairly neutral music, but it can be distracting when commercials or news come on. “I’ll turn the radio on because I’m in a closed office, but if a news item catches my attention, I’m definitely not working as focused as I would be otherwise,” Diane Craig, President of Toronto and Ottawa-based, Corporate Class Inc., admits. “There’s a difference between news and music.”

The Sound of Silence: Headphones?

Playing a radio or piping in music might not work everywhere. Rather than an outright ban on music, some workplaces instead allow employees to listen to music on headphones. Some research has shown that music you choose yourself is the key to relieve stress. For instance, researchers from Pennsylvania State University found correlations between relaxation and how much people like the music. Cori L. Pelletier, from Florida State University, conducted a literature review and found that many factors including musical preference and previous music experience affected how much stress was reduced.

Familiarity and memories associated with certain songs also influence the way we work while listening to music.

Headphones allow everyone to choose their own playlists without disturbing coworkers, while still creating a positive atmosphere.

Headphones allow everyone to choose their own playlists without disturbing coworkers, while still creating a positive atmosphere. Employees can focus on what they’re doing without being distracted by the phone ringing, email coming in, and background chatter. Coworkers might also be less likely to engage in chatter that isn’t immediately relevant.

However, workers who use headphones run the risk of being viewed as rude or antisocial. Craig cautions us to be aware that business place etiquette has serious consequences for your career. “According to Harvard University, 85% of the reason why we keep or advance in a job is based on interpersonal skills, and 15% on our technical skills. So, [if] you’re hired for a job, we assume you have the technical skills…. Once you’re there you can use these interpersonal skills to advance your executive presence.”

It is easy to imagine the difficulties of getting the attention of a coworker who is listening to headphones. “If you want to speak to someone with headphones on, you don’t want to scare them,” Craig says. “You might try knocking a little on their door or panel, but if that doesn’t work, you have to somehow catch their eye contact. Hopefully they will be respectful enough.” Some people aren’t thrilled at the prospect of figuring out how to politely address a coworker they feel should be available for consultation. Craig acknowledges that some people wear headphones to communicate that they don’t want to be disturbed, however in some environments they are expected to have a great deal of interaction.

She reminds us of the basics: “Like anything else, we need to have a certain diligence in being able to still interact with people, and you have to be careful that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the perceptions people have of you. You might get labelled as a person with a lack of communication skills.” Some companies recommend employees who use headphones to keep one earphone in, so they can’t completely tune out communication aroun
d them.

Another caveat when it comes to a policy of music in the workplace is the consideration of your employee’s potential hearing damage, as audiologists and hearing health-care providers across the country are increasingly concerned about noise-induced hearing loss from music. iPods can hit volumes of more than 120 decibels, which is louder than a chainsaw or a jack hammer, according to the Canadian Hearing Society. There are also health and safety concerns if the music is loud enough to cancel out announcements or alarms warning of fire or security threats, for instance.

The Bottom Line

In order to reap any benefits of music in the workplace, one has to consider the needs of all staff members and clients. Elmer tries to walk this fine line at her current job as a Program Support Assistant. Because she now directly interacts with clients, she no longer busts out the dance moves, but says she is happy enough to tap her foot and sing along in her head. She usually chooses top-40 music and saves her personal preferences for home. “No one wants to come in to Stone Temple Pilots blasting when they walk in the door. I think it all boils down to consideration.” So, if you think your workplace might need a little more melody and energy, you might consult with your boss about an existing policy on music. If you get the green light, you can run it by your colleagues to ensure everyone is getting what they need.

Considerations when implementing a music policy at work:

Desirability: Is listening to music a priority for your staff? There should be a consensus before you implement a policy that could affect everyone.

Clients: Does music prevent employees from interacting effectively with clients? Could the music irritate or negatively affect clients in any way?

Reputation: What image are you creating through the music you choose, or when your employees are seen listening to music at the workplace? Is this image reflective of the vision of your company?

Productivity: Does music at work contribute to a more positive and productive work environment?

Technical Considerations: Is Streaming music (a method of delivering an audio signal, in which data constantly arrive as the song plays) being used? If so, does this cause a drain on the IT infrastructure? Live streaming can take up bandwidth and can cause computers to crash.

Energy Consumption: Companies need to consider energy consumption for the overall infrastructure. While kilowattage may be low, for a large company with 100 workers, every penny counts. For example, a Toronto-area pharmaceutical company has outlawed all plug-in radios in the administration areas to conserve energy costs. Some companies also limit access to the network depending on the location of workers.

Concentration: Are there situations that require extreme attention to detail to ensure accuracy of highly technical or deadline-driven tasks?

Employee Recruitment: Would prospective employees consider music at work to be a job perk?

Fairness: Do the rules governing music at work apply equally to everyone, including management and senior positions?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jen Amos
Jen Amos is a freelance writer, researcher and editor based in Kingston, Ontario. She can be found on twitter at @jamos_ca.

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