If music be the food of productivity…play on!

It's commonly accepted that music improves our mood, and can also improve concentration and productivity. So why is music at work still frowned upon? We talk to one CEO determined to change this:

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May 21, 2024

Ask anyone who works in retail whether playing music changes people’s moods (and even people’s purchasing behavior), and the answer will be a resounding yes.

Several key studies have all shown that providing sonic stimulation is good for business, with one revealing that when slow music was played, it increased the time people browsed in stores, which then lead it to a 32% increase in sales compared to when fast music was played.

In a separate study, slow music played in restaurants was found to caused diners to take more time eating, while playing faster music saw people to eat faster, giving restaurant owners a boost of having more rapid table turnover.

These are just two strong correlations found, but fact, in recent years there has been a whole mini- science around the power of music, with separate studies suggesting playing classical music influences how people perceived the value of items they are looking at, while volume levels, tempo and genre can all create different reactions. Most athletes will also know, that training with the right high-beats music on can enhance training intensity and longevity of exercise.

But music isn’t always tolerated at work

And yet, despite all of this compelling evidence showing its benefits, when it comes to having music in the workplace, save for the trendy marketing and PR firms, there is still somewhat of a stigma around having music blaring out, and whether it’s acceptable to let this happen.

While there’s often not an outright ban on staff sticking in some earphones (a recent poll by Workthere found 24% of office-based HR and recruitment workers say music can increase their productivity and boost concentration), many managers will still frown on seeing people seemingly adrift from their colleagues, and being aloof and/or hard to talk to.

Moreover, at the other end of the extreme, there has recently been ambiguity around open-air music – that is background music everyone can hear – especially if it broadcasts tunes with ‘vulgar’ lyrics.

For instance, there have recently been several legal cases by staff who say music with profanity, or words that are sexist, racist, or ethnically offensive, or contain graphic detail of various sexual conduct all combine to create a hostile and harassment-filled workplace.

Recently, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court held (in Sharp v. S&S Activewear), that sexually explicit music played in the workplace can create a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In this specific case, a number of employees, including both men and women, alleged that their employer subjected them to a hostile work environment by playing “sexually graphic, violently misogynistic” music in the workplace. The Ninth Circuit noted that the music was blasted from speakers placed throughout the worksite, making it difficult to evade the music.

The generational divide

Of course, for Gen Z and Millennials (82% of which now say they use music to alter their mood), – the ability to chat to people online and listen to music at the same time is the freedom that they see as an important one. Many see being able to listen to music at work as a right, and part of what enables them to be their ‘authentic’ self.

And yet there is a clear generation divide here. Some 60% of Baby Boomers say they’re most productive in the office when it’s quiet.

So what should HR professionals do about music?

Should they tolerate people hooking themselves up to their earplugs and shutting out the rest of their office?

Is some background noise beneficial to creativity and productivity (see stats later), and important for creating a sense of an ‘office vibe?

Or should the aim to be quite-zone places that exude an air of professionalism in case clients come in and visit?

For one CEO, Hans Koch, who heads up MyXR – software platform provider that helps organizations benefit from gamification – music in the workplace isn’t just something that’s supported, it’s actively encouraged – even amongst distributed (ie non-office-based workers).

To find out why, TLNT decided to talk to him:

Q: Music – are HR professionals right to deny it in the workplace?

A: “Before there were phones; before there was a Napster, before everything like that, music was the way people had of feeling culturally connected. It was like, there was a vibe. At my first company – – a national online real estate company based in San Francisco, we had had an office and around 50 people, selling our platform, and selling homes all around the United States. I decided to have one server where everybody could put on their digital music, where we could share and play music throughout the office. I felt it offered people a chance to connect because we all have our secret music that we love; our secret playlist or something that is about us, and I think that’s a super important thing to recognize in terms of culture. Music is sort of like a decompressor, a flashcard of information of about one of the other people in the team. Fast forward to today, and we have the same philosophy. We also use music to signify our mood and we use it as communication between each other. Having music is a subtle way to get those sorts of key things across without it having been clinical.”

Q: Tell me what you office is like then?

A: “Music is on pretty much all the time. It’s random, which means one minute we might have salsa playing; while the next minute we might have Pearl Jam on the next. We think it creates a level of surprise. Our brains love surprises as long as they’re positive surprises, and music contributes to this. For those who are remote, we have Spotify lists that are shared between us all. Music is constantly part of our communication, both direct in terms of messaging, passive in terms of playlists, and then environmental in terms of in office. We say that if it’s done right, and it’s done with purpose, music eliminates anxiety because it’s something that everybody has a part in. Even if we’re having virtual meetings, and the music is on in the background, we don’t care. In fact, they can actually add something to the list and we kind of like it, as this goes to our culture where we have adopted music as a medium for communication.”

Q: “What do you say to people that frown on having such an openly enthusiastic attitude to music at work?

A: “I would say that if you look through history, good companies never lose their culture. I think the good companies understand culture, and understand how music is actually one of the most cost effective and powerful forms of team building that they can deploy. I think this is something almost everybody agrees on. Music Mondays are much better than having doughnuts!”

Q: But isn’t music more suited to the factory floor, and is there still an image problem with having it in offices?

A: “This is something we talked about all the time – especially if there there’s expletives or something that is not appropriate? But we’ve decided to embrace this, because it’s sort of like, that is music! Sure, we need to be respectful especially if there’s anything inappropriate towards certain groups, but we don’t we draw other lines – such as an expletive here or there. This is because we aim to understand where it’s coming from.”

Q: What would be your message to other employers?

A: “Be cool about music! We’re doing things old-school maybe, but I say, look at your team, and ask how much do you really know them? Then ask yourself how you can connect people to something that makes them relaxed at work. That’s my real goal. Music is the best way one can relate to someone, but it’s terribly under-used. If you saw my playlists – you’d see everything from rappers, to opera and really random stuff. Wouldn’t that want you to want to find out more about me?”

What the data finds:

  • Music boosts creativity A 2012 study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, reported that ambient noise at a moderate volume of about 70 decibels, which is about the volume of a vacuum cleaner, could improve creativity.
  • Music improves happiness: A study conducted in 2013 reported that people who listened to upbeat music improved their moods and happiness, in the long term, within two weeks.
  • Listening to music reduces stress: Listening to music has been associated with direct effects on physiological aspects of stress. Study participants showed lower cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure when they listened to music, helping to calm the body and promote relaxation.
  • Music helps those with mental health problems: Music therapy can benefit a variety of mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
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