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August 23, 2018

Should You Play Music at Work?

Rosie Robinson


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"Oh come on! Who put this song on AGAIN?!"

"Are you kidding? It’s a classic."

"I don’t care, it’s been on FIVE times today already!"

At this point I look away and put my headphones on. Partly to drown out the commotion, but also because I can't stand that song, either. I want to listen to my own music.

I hate working in silence. Always have. I find it distracting listening to people tapping away at their keyboards, or slurping their coffee. Music helps me to get "in the zone."

But could music at work be detrimental to effective teamwork? When I put on my headphones to avoid distraction, am I also avoiding opportunities to collaborate with my colleagues?

Improve Your Office Morale With Music

Music can make the dullest of workspaces feel more warm and welcoming, and it can prompt lively discussion in the office! One co-worker might reminisce about the days of "proper songs," while another pokes fun at his old-fashioned taste.

But what happens when someone keeps putting on the same terrible tunes, or when people begin to avoid certain areas of the office because they find the noise too disruptive?

Is the answer to ban it completely? Perhaps, but no one wants to be known as the "music police." Maybe you just pipe in background songs that can help to lighten the mood without distracting anyone. Chances are, some people will still grumble, so is there an easier way?

Headphones at Work: Yes or No?

One option is to use headphones. No two people are the same, and that goes for their taste in music, too. By using headphones, you can keep yourself happy and motivated without subjecting your colleagues to unwanted noise.

But many bosses don't like headphones. And business journalist Anne Kraemer believes that wearing headphones creates isolation within the workplace, and minimizes career opportunities.

I myself am guilty of increasing the volume on my computer to higher than is strictly necessary. As a result it can be hard for co-workers to get my attention, and even harder for me to recognize when there's an important conversation going on that could benefit from my input.

However, solitude at work isn't always a bad thing. Consider the number of times you just needed a couple hours of deep work, only to be interrupted by colleagues or other distractions. Headphones have become common code for "I'm busy." This simple signal is all your co-workers need to know that you shouldn't be disturbed, because you're "in flow."

Do Employees Work Better With Music?

People may claim that tunes help them to focus, but where's the proof?

Thankfully for music advocates, the facts are in their favor. Studies show that music can improve performance for nine out of 10 workers. It has the ability to evoke strong emotions, which have been proven to stimulate and engage employees. This same research has also shown that certain songs can help to suppress those emotions that damage productivity, such as anxiety and stress.

Some research has even suggested that we should be tailoring our song choices to the type of work we're doing. For example, classical music reportedly improves accuracy when working with numbers, while dance music can speed up proofreading by 20 percent.

Music in the Office

The benefits of music on productivity and morale are seemingly undeniable. But what the data doesn't address is how we should bring it into the workplace. It can be tricky to tread the line between boosting employee performance, and creating a room full of uncommunicative, detached individuals.

The key is to assess the needs of your employees. Does there need to be a constant flow of ideas between colleagues? If so, perhaps headphones are a bad fit for your office culture. Or, do some people struggle to put their heads down and focus, because the hubbub of an open-plan office is too distracting?

I believe that there is a place for music in the workspace, and I certainly don't intend to ditch my tunes altogether. But maybe I'll make an effort to lower the volume.

Do you work better with music, or do you prefer the sound of silence? Let us know your thoughts on music at work in the comments section, below.

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14 comments on “Should You Play Music at Work?”

  1. Please spare a thought for workers whose concentration is destroyed by the distraction of background music while they are trying to work. This is a common experience in the case of workers who are autistic. Although the problem is not exclusive to them, it is worse for someone who cannot filter out and ignore irrelevant information, be it music (radio being the worst), television, or overly loud conversation. I work in the autism field and know people who have had to leave jobs because their employer allowed their colleagues to dictate on these matters, rather than having a company policy. Rather than allowing music and other 'nesting' behaviours, where staff try to bring aspects of home to work with them for their own comfort, I think we should be working harder to make workplaces neutral spaces, which are sufficiently quiet so that people can actually concentrate on their work. Home is home and work is work and it's important that workers recognise that their personal definition of warm and friendly might be shredding their colleagues' nerves and ruining their concentration. Someone who doesn't like working in silence has more options available to them than someone who is noise sensitive. I can't believe that employers are more concerned about whether or not staff wear headphones than whether or not they can concentrate on getting their job done because of unnecessary background noise.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth for sharing your thoughts and your experiences. As I am responding to you now there are loud street noises from roadworks literally outside my building and it IS distracting! I like your idea of having 'neutral' spaces in the workplace whereby each individual can do what they need to do, individually, to concentrate more without it impacting on others. For me, that is respectful of each individual's needs.

  2. Personally, I prefer the sound of silence, especially when I am reading or thinking about some issues.

    1. Thanks Osama for sharing your preference. Like yourself, I too prefer the silence when I am reading or having to think through things including writing a simple email!

  3. Thank you for sharing this article. Personally, I like silence when working especially with readings.

    1. Thanks Lydia for sharing. I too prefer silence when I do work that requires lots of concentration like reading and writing.

  4. myself and my colleagues would prefer music in the office but because the office manager doesn't we have to go without. Thankfully, if the silence is too much, i have another office to work in with the radio on!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Alison. I'm glad to hear that you have an alternative! It can be difficult in an office where people don't feel the same about background music/radio.
      I find it so interesting to read how people differ! If I do something like filing (which is rare!) I can listen to the radio - otherwise not. I can, however, almost always listen to classical music or binaural sounds when I work.

  5. I too prefer silence to work in, my own mind is more creative when left to its own devices rather than forced stimulation which can prove distracting. I also like to think that those who are either hard of hearing or extra sensitive to noise are more likely to feel equal in a quiet environment and therefore calmer.

    1. Jayne, your comment reminded me of my dad. He only had about 30% hearing in both ears and he wore a hearing aid in one ear. He couldn't stand the sound of a radio or music because his hearing aids distorted the sound. (I'm sure technology has greatly improved since then.) He preferred to work in silence because that allowed him to hear better. I find that I concentrate well with earphones in my ears, but then I listen to a very specific type of music. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. We are 7 colleagues in an open office space - but unfortunately ONE of us can not work with music - this is so frustrating ! It 8 years already and still she wins every time - we must either sit in silence or wear headphones.

    1. Hi Sandra,

      I can certainly see this is frustrating for the rest of you. It's a shame one person has a 'veto' over the rest of your team. I wonder if there is a way to negotiate/compromise with the person who doesn't like to work with music so you can work in a way that suits you all?

      Mind Tools Coach

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