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Working for a song

Posted by Mark Griffiths - Audio Producer at PH Media Group on

Is there music playing in your workplace? Most people will likely answer “no”. Conventional wisdom has it that music is not appropriate in professional settings because it’s distracting and demotivating. But is this really wisdom or just convention? A wealth of research invites us to reconsider.

Between my first and second years of university I worked in an air freshener factory in my home town. My job was to take a small box of air fresheners off a conveyor belt and then place it on a different conveyor belt, roughly 4,800 times a day. A few times a week as a special treat I would be allowed to go into a metal shed and spray each air freshener gel block with a pungent blast of perfume as it trundled past on a conveyor belt that spiralled upwards toward the ceiling. Sometimes the conveyor belt would jam and the air fresheners would tumble down onto your head, along with the metal trays holding them.

The work was a bit like being a soldier – long stretches of boredom punctuated by occasional heart-stopping moments of terror – but less well-paid. One of the things that kept me sane during this period of my life was the fact that they played music in the factory. It lifted your spirits and made the day go quicker. You didn’t mind being pelted on the head by metal trays quite so much if it happened while you were listening to the latest single by They Might Be Giants. And if it could make this workplace better, I imagined it could help elsewhere too. Researchers agree.

A study by the University of Illinois found that office workers allowed to listen to music outperformed those working with just the usual background chatter by 6.3%. Those listening to music also reported a positive effect on their moods and feelings of well-being. The researchers concluded that “listening to music may increase the output of employees in all types of work”. Similarly, research by the University of Leicester found that playing music in the workplace boosts employee morale, and even that fast music can improve productivity levels.

Scientists working at the University of California at Irvine discovered that a ten-minute exposure to Mozart’s Piano Sonata K. 448 before an IQ test enabled students to score significantly higher than those who did not hear the music. This led to the theory that music might somehow improve the functioning of an individual’s brain, particularly in relation to abstract operations. The discovered “Mozart Effect” made headlines around the world.

And what about jobs where concentration is essential? Many writers actually prefer to write with music playing, and so do many scientists and surgeons. Yes, surgeons. You’d think silence would be golden in the operating theatre but in practice, music allows them to concentrate for longer periods. A 2006 article in the New York Times showed just how popular music had become in the nation’s operating theatres. (Abba, Coldplay, Mozart and Verdi were popular choices.)

Music can do more than just improve working conditions and productivity. It can help communicate and reinforce a brand, both for workers and the wider world. Judiciously chosen music played in your reception area can help cleverly convey your company’s values and aspirations to potential clients. But don’t just stick Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” on a constant loop for eight hours. You won’t get any points for subtlety and you’ll probably turn your receptionist psychotic besides. What you need is a specially constructed playlist that captures the spirit and values of your business — something more akin to a bespoke radio station.

Like branding, enjoyment is hard to measure. Yet music helps promote both. Music can create environments that are enjoyable to work in because they’re playful and exciting, cutting edge and subversive, or contemplative and relaxing. The choice is yours. Companies splash out tens if not hundreds of thousands on interior design, furnishings and accessories to build a space that makes their workers happy and productive, yet a few choice tunes can rejuvenate the most tired of environments. Things don’t make people happy. Experiences do.

A caveat: music in the workplace is not a panacea. I don’t advocate using music as a substitute for a much-needed refresh, and wouldn’t advise using it throughout the business. Music can distract from the tedium of a dull manual job and motivate arriving employees and visitors, but it can also make it hard to field calls professionally. I’ve lost count of the number of times my co-worker’s computer speakers have subverted my thoughts: “Yes, the project will be done by Friday. I’m on track. Yes, I’m on the right track baby. I was born this way, born this way.” Music played too loud in the workplace may also cause workers to fail to notice important sounds like alarms. Clearly, context is key.

Playing music in the workplace can have multiple potential benefits for employers and employees, but only if the music is carefully selected and strategically deployed.

Get it right and your workforce could be happier, healthier and more productive. Get it wrong and they’ll end up distracted and swagger jagger, swagger jagger, you should get some of your own…

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