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That’s My Jam!
Published Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Would you be able to concentrate if  Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” was blaring through the office’s speakers? Or would you be rocking out?

“If I was working and that was playing, there was no way I could focus,” says Mary Kimmel, senior partner of MKS Performance Solutions, a consulting firm providing employee assistance program and performance management services with offices in Concord and Exeter.

Whether companies require a silent office, allow employees to use headphones or install general office speakers, Kimmel says there’s no one-size-fits-all policy when it comes to music at work.

This also holds true for music’s effects on workers. According to Joanne Cantor, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Conquer CyberOverload, the positive and negative effects of music on an employee depends largely on the job and the specific tasks at hand. While upbeat music boosts productivity for workers performing repetitive tasks, employees who oversee cognitive projects should seek out simple, relaxing music that can hang in the background. And though some people can concentrate while jamming to their favorite pop hits, Cantor says that complex, lyric-heavy music can cause subconscious multi-tasking and inhibit reading comprehension and information processing.

“Employers have to look at the fact that people have different styles when it comes to concentrating at work,” says Kimmel. “If music helps someone focus, it could possibly help make them more productive.” Allowing employees to use headphones could be an easy fix for some companies, but Kimmel notes headphones might have adverse effects in a team setting. “While headphones are less intrusive, I’ve seen several situations where one person had earbuds in, and their coworkers felt as though that person wasn’t accessible to them,” she says. “It can be interpreted as though they’re trying to shut everyone else out.”

Michelle Gray, president of HR Synergy, an outsourced human resource management firm in Bedford, adds that employers should consider the safety and service concerns of a worker’s role before allowing the use of headphones. For employees with desk jobs, she says a fair compromise might be to let them have just one earbud in so that they can hear if coworkers want to talk to them or if they need to answer the phone.

Depending on a workplace’s culture, setting up speakers in the office could either solve these issues or create new problems, particularly with deciding what makes the playlist each day.

“There’s just so many different cultures out there and variations in how a workplace is set up,” says Gray. “While you’ll hear country playing at my office, you might go to a warehouse and hear Rock 101 blasting. And, at a doctor’s office, they’ll have music piped into the waiting area but not in patients’ rooms.”

Musical tastes vary by individual and getting everyone on board with what should be piped into the office can be difficult. “Unless you take a poll of your employees and get people’s buy in, [office speakers] could potentially be an issue,” says Kimmel. “In terms of brain science, there are studies out there that show how the ‘Mozart Effect’ can help people focus. But there are people who hate classical music, and while it may be good for their brainwaves, it could be an irritant for them.”

Since most people now access music on iPods, smart phones and online streaming services, Gray says it’s important for employers to be proactive and establish a policy that fits their organization’s culture. Kimmel adds that these policies should ensure that worker’s listening option of choice doesn’t overtly interfere with other people’s work and isn’t misinterpreted in a team setting. If a company decides to implement office speakers, Kimmel says the best practice would be to survey employees to get a sense of what music people would be okay with listening to during the workday.

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