Working to the beat

Take a quick look around your office. Everyone is staring intently at their screens, quietly getting on with their work—or so it seems. But now look for the telltale wires snaking from people’s ears, and the iPods and music players sitting on their desks.

Some workplaces traditionally have a musical backdrop—shops and bars, for instance—but now office workers are increasingly choosing to tap their keyboards in time to a soundtrack.
It certainly helps alleviate the inevitable boredom. But can you really concentrate on work while your favourite album is on loop?

Dr Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, is less than convinced. During World War II, research showed that easy-listening tracks boosted productivity among factory workers. But, reasons Furnham, that doesn’t mean it’s going to help in offices. “If the task is simple, mechanical and straightforward it can be beneficial—but the more cognitively demanding, the more distracting music is,” he says.

And it’s not just a problem of breaking off an email to appreciate a rousing chorus. If workplace music is played around the office, rather than through headphones, there’s the whole problem of taste.

“We did some research in call centres where the work isn’t that demanding but is very tedious,” says Furnham. “We found teams fought bitterly over music and it became a weapon so had to be stopped.

“You need to be wary of the effect it can have. Music increases arousal, which is why it can be a useful stimulant in the car, but many drivers switch it off or turn it down when negotiating difficult junctions as they don’t want to be distracted.”

And which music is most distracting? Anything vocal, loud, familiar and fast—the kind you’d want to sing along to. Which brings us to the next problem with music at work: according to a survey by the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row in 2006, the most irritating sound is coworkers trying, and failing, to sing.

But don’t think you can just block out the tortured wailings of your colleague at the next desk with a pair of headphones—you could end up being more annoying than even their most tuneless attempts.

Consideration is key here; you should always ask if the person at the next desk can hear your music and if they mind. It isn’t necessarily the noise itself that annoys, but the perceived thoughtlessness behind it.

But coworkers shouldn’t be too intolerant of their neighbour’s habit of plugging in their iPod—sometimes it’s the only way to blot out what can be a considerable amount of office noise.

It’s not just space we use our headphones for; it’s also privacy, says Anneli Beronius Haake, who is currently researching music in offices for a PhD at the University of Sheffield, northern England. Her research shows that many people pressing play on their MP3 players are sending out a “Leave me alone!” message.

“Headphones are a way of shutting out interruptions,” she says. “Playing your own choice of music, you know what to expect. The more control we have over our physical surroundings, the more positive it is for our health and satisfaction at work,” she adds.

But of course there’s a down side: it also means missing work-related chat. How much you interact with your colleagues depends on your office—but most workers expect to be able to chat to the people around them during the working day.

“Some people I interviewed said they thought it rude if the person next to or near them had headphones on as it meant they couldn’t reach out to them, so found it a barrier to communications,” says Beronius Haake.

One organisation that champions music at work is the Performing Rights Society (PRS). It collects money on behalf of its 60 000 members of musicians, songwriters and composers—so it has something of an interest in doing so. “More companies now use music to create atmosphere and mood in the office. It improves camaraderie,” says the PRS’s Adrian Crookes. “We certainly play music here. It helps the day go by and increases productivity.”

If you’re listening to music through your headphones, then there are no questions over payment. But music others can hear, whether it’s piped through office speakers or via personal computers, requires a licence by law. So if your office is subjecting you to unwanted background music, rather than asking them to turn it off, just ask them if they have a licence for it. You may find peace swiftly restored.—

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