Working to the Beat

By Rita Zeidner Apr 1, 2008
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HR Magazine, April 2008 Music hath charms for many. Whereas some employers learn the lyrics, others turn off when employees tune in.

Managers at AMX, a designer of high-end remote controls in the tech corridor outside Dallas, mention an unusual employee benefit when recruiting promising young job candidates: workday access to an automated closed-circuit radio station that plays employees’ choice of tunes.

Wearing headphones, workers can listen to the station through their computers and even hear music as they move around the office. Wired for sound, the 13,000-squarefoot building has speakers in most public areas.

“We want to make the workspace as comfortable as possible so it’s a place where you want to be,” says Steve Byars, vice president for administration at AMX. “Music is part of the culture here.”

Add music to a long and growing list of workplace trends—such as instant messaging and the ubiquity of Facebook—that flummox some human resource professionals. While few companies boast a sound system such as the one at AMX, advocates praise the music trend for boosting productivity and morale. Others fear it as a safety risk that also eats away at team-building opportunities.

To be sure, music hits a high note in the office: In the United States, nearly one-third of employees work while listening to music via an iPod, MP3 player or similar personal music device, according to a 2006 poll conducted by Harris Interactive for Spherion, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., staffing company.

Workers who don’t want to buy iPods or similar devices have options. Most newer personal computers have built-in CD drives, allowing workers to play their own discs or store songs downloaded from CDs on their hard drives. Employees with access to the Internet can tune in to online radio stations or download favorite songs from peer-to-peer networks—with or without their bosses’ blessings. Or they may listen to tunes they purchase from online outlets such as Apple’s iTunes Store.

Not surprisingly, it’s mostly younger workers who drive the trend. Indeed, some 90 percent of workers ages 18 to 24, and 89 percent of those 30 to 39, said music improves their job satisfaction or productivity, according to the Harris Poll. Only about one-quarter of baby boomers made the same claim.

Perhaps because so many younger workers tune in on the job, the trend is commonly associated with lower-level workers performing less-complicated tasks. But the typical office music aficionado earns more than you might think: The Harris Poll found that more than one-third of adults earning $35,000 or more said they listen to music on a personal music device at work, compared with only 22 percent of workers earning less than $25,000 and 26 percent earning $25,000 to $34,999.

And if you think only those kids in the art and tech departments— the ones with the sneakers and hedge-clipper hair— need music to do their jobs, you haven’t been in a modern “My guess is that some 75 percent to 80 percent of surgeons are playing some kind of music in the operating rooms,” Dr. Alan I. Benvenistry of St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York said recently on the public radio program “Soundcheck.”

Music in the Air

Retailers have long bought into the notion that music influences behavior—soothing the savage shopper and, more important, keeping customers reaching for their wallets. Shop owners begin playing holiday tunes months before Christmas for one simple reason: to increase sales.

Similarly, some evidence links music to increased productivity, albeit much of the findings stem from decades-old studies of questionable scientific reliability. For instance, in addition to offering its signature service—background music to calm nervous elevator passengers—the South Carolina-based company Musak wowed factory owners in the 1930s with inhouse findings that the right selection of tunes could increase productivity on assembly lines by as much as 25 percent.

And in 1940, the BBC launched “Music While You Work,” a twice-daily, half-hour music program to help ease workplace drudgery for factory workers. During its 27-year run, the program drew from a selection of genres, although the tune “Deep in the Heart of Texas” was banned because of a hand-clapping section that tempted laborers to stop work and join in.

Few large, recent or peer-reviewed studies examine the impact of music on worker productivity. But the limited findings of University of Illinois social scientists suggest that Musak’s claims aren’t entirely off key.

In a 1995 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the research team compared the responses of 75 self-selected workers who wore headphones and played their own music on the job during a four-week period with the responses of about 180 workers in the same setting who didn’t listen to music. Those wearing headphones showed significant improvements in performance, turnover and job satisfaction compared with the others. The most notable improvements occurred for employees doing the simplest tasks.

Researchers hypothesized that workers were more productive because music put them in a better mood. They also supposed that at least some workers liked being able to drown out distracting sounds.

But they cautioned against reading too much into the findings: The small size of the group observed, the short duration of the study and the fact that the employees in the headphone group were self-selected all make generalizations risky. The researchers also noted that music may be a distraction for individuals in complex jobs and could make them less productive and more prone to errors.

The handful of studies published in medical journals also show benefits of music in operating rooms, or at least no harm. One showed that surgeons could block out music during complex tasks. And, according to a September 1994 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, surgeons accustomed to listening to music were speedier and more accurate—so long as they got to pick the tunes.

Dancing to the Beat

But even without scientifically solid proof to support their decisions, many employers say allowing music generally is a no-brainer. Only 7 percent of employers responding to a 2006 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management said they had a policy addressing the use of iPods and similar devices at work.

Nevertheless, supporters and opponents of music in the office make their cases with the passion of a Beethoven sonata.

Joining AMX in support of a workplace light on music rules are employers such as The Right Thing, a 4-year-old Ohio recruiting firm. President Terry Terhark allows employees to listen to music at their desks, but they are presumed to recognize they should wear headphones to avoid bothering others. For employees who answer phones throughout the day, listening to music on headphones may not be practical, but Terhark hasn’t instituted a formal ban.

“We hold employees to a high level of accountability and don’t have a lot of policies,” Terhark says. “I would absolutely prefer not to have a policy about music.”

With no evidence to the contrary, some employers suspect that some employees become even more productive when music plays. Byars of AMX numbers among them, preferring to work to the beat of artists like The Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson.

Dorris Hollingsworth, HR director for an Atlanta real estate firm, says her company’s ad hoc policy allowing the use of iPods and other personal music devices developed over time, even though radios and other devices that play music out loud have traditionally been banned.

The practice just evolved, she says. “It was very organic, very natural. Employees just started wearing” personal music devices.

Fierce competition for employees drives the unwritten policy to allow headphones at Prologue Research in Columbus, Ohio, according to HR Director Mariann Stopyra.

When it comes to recruitment and retention, “Companies need to be creative,” she says, noting that at least two employees on her staff do their jobs while listening to music. “Some people concentrate fine” with music, she says. “I don’t. But if you can, fine. The thing that’s important is that we value flexibility.”

Stopyra isn’t shy about interrupting someone working with headphones on. “I just go and tap on the cube wall,” she says.

Some young workers find employers’ permissive attitudes toward headphones a refreshing change from more-restrictive rules of parents and teachers.

“At first, I thought it was really odd that everyone was wearing iPods in the office,” says Melanie Sikic, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Findlay in Ohio, who spent last semester working as an accounting management intern for Corporate Research International, an Ohio-based mystery shopping and consumer satisfaction firm. “I didn’t realize they were allowed, but I think it’s a really good idea.”

Sikic often listened to the likes of Justin Timberlake or Kenny Chesney to help her focus on her work or to tune out distracting office noise. No problem if a co-worker she needed to reach was also wearing headphones.

“I would just send an instant message,” she says.

Sour Chord

Not everyone sings high praises for a tuneful workplace.

John Garber, a risk-management consultant in Pennsylvania, generally discourages clients from allowing music or headphones.

In an industrial setting, workers need to hear the sounds of alarms, co-workers shouting warnings or malfunctioning machinery. To the chagrin of workers doing routine or menial jobs, he admonishes that distracted workers can be more accident-prone and less attentive to the quality of their work.

He also has a disappointing response for industrial and construction workers who have asked if they could replace required, noise-muffling headphones with music of their choice: “You can’t be protecting employees from high-hazard noise levels by covering up the noise with rock or rap,” he says. “Music is not an acceptable form of hearing protection.”

Garber also wonders if companies that allow employees to listen to music through headphones today might see higher health insurance costs—or possibly, workers’ compensation claims—linked to hearing loss from headphones overuse.

Some employers discourage or prohibit headphones if workers have contact with or are in view of customers, fearing that the sight may turn off customers.

The best way to avoid a misunderstanding about office music policies—and possibly a lawsuit—may be to have a written policy spelling out such things as the types of jobs where music and headphones aren’t safe or appropriate, some lawyers say. That may prevent workers barred from wearing headphones from claiming they have been arbitrarily singled out.

Specifying the type of material inappropriate for the workplace may also help to prevent discrimination or even hostile workplace claims from those offended by a co-worker’s sexually charged, violent or even religious choices of music.

Employees who download music off the Internet onto their employers’ computers create a host of practical and legal problems (see “ Why No Download?”).

But some employers are turned off by headphones for reasons that have nothing to do with legal liability.

Consciously or not, employees who wear headphones send nonverbal cues that they are unavailable, warns Marty Val Hill, a professor of business communications at Utah Valley University near Salt Lake City.

“A lot of employee relations has to do with the fine details,” he warns. When employees arrive at the office and immediately don their headphones—even when the alternative might be discussing something trivial like last night’s ballgame or their roommate’s latest antics—they lose important opportunities to establish strong working relationships.

Val Hill, who also advises businesses on workplace practices, remains open to the arguments of employees who claim that their preferred way of interacting—online—represents an evolution in business communication and not necessarily a step backward.

In the end, he voices doubts: “If we have less interaction, we distance ourselves and we end up not being able to support one another as we did in the past.”

On Wall Street and in other traditional business sectors, wearing headphones sends top brass the message that you are not focused on the job, says Michelle Pollard Patrick, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based business etiquette consultant. Business leaders frequently ask her to discourage young workers from bringing personal music devices to work.

“Etiquette is about making people feel comfortable,” she says. “And if you’re sitting at your desk with buds in your ears, you’re sending others the message that they’re not important.”

Business leaders, she says, are increasingly alarmed by a generation that has grown up with technology and has never learned the importance of nonverbal cues, including “a firm handshake, smiling [and] looking up at someone when they are talking to you. These are all cues that say, ‘I’m here, I’m in the game.’ ”

Rita Zeidner, is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

Web Extras

SHRM Video:
Business etiquette consultant Michelle Pollard Patrick on music in the workplace 

Press release:
Workers Say Listening to Music While Working Improves Job Satisfaction, Productivity

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