· 8 min read · Features

Office environment: Music - Key to success?


The likes of Google keep their workers pepped up by piping out tunes, but opinion is divided on the benefits of playing music in the office.

Stroll around the offices of so-called 'funky' businesses such as eBay or Google, and apart from the average age of the workforce being closer to 20 than 30, one of the first things you will notice is not what you see, but what you hear. Blaring out from radios and office jukeboxes is music - all day, every day, from first thing in the morning until last thing at night.

Traditionalists have long poured scorn on such firms - typically trendy media or PR companies - and their achingly self-indulgent attempts to conform to what a creative business 'ought' to look like. These businesses, say their detractors, do not actually know whether hourly doses of Pixie Lott or Lady Gaga make any difference to the office environment or productivity, or indeed help staff to conjure up that elusive notion of 'creativity'.

However, a small but increasingly rigorous set of literature is emerging that brings music's beneficial effect on productivity to centre-stage.

Not only is research from the world of sport gaining greater public acceptance - it has been found that runners, for instance, can experience up to a 10% reduction in perception of effort but a 20% increase in performance when listening to music - but marketing data that once informed banks and major retailers on the type of music to play to customers is now being re-analysed in the context of its effect on employees.

Customer-led research on the up-spending power of music has been well documented - Alpert & Alpert (1990) found mood to have a strong influence on buying decisions; it built on work by Gardner (1985), which found customers were more favourably disposed to a product when in a better, music- induced mood. In 2005, retailer Principles found sales increased by 12%-15% within three weeks of music being introduced in its stores.

Now, though, attention is turning from customers to employees to see if music has the same positive effect.

The subject is so fledgling that few studies exist. In one, a University of Illinois researcher gave MP3 players to 75 out of 256 retail staff to wear at work for four weeks. At the end of the test, the music listeners showed a 10% jump in productivity and were described as being "less nervous, less fatigued, more enthusiastic and more relaxed at work than the people in the control group".

Leading the research in this country is workplace ambience company Sound Environments, which has been testing music's impact on concentration in schools. One of the first schools it worked with was St Mary's Roman Catholic School in Longbenton. Two years ago it began piping music into corridors before lessons (including Fields of Gold by Sting and chill-out music from Air). Teachers reported 20 minutes' worth of extra concentration, and there is anecdotal evidence of improved academic performance.

Sound Environments' director, Brenda Soars, says: "Another school trialled music for post-16 learners. Ninety-eight per cent of students said having music created an improved studying environment, while 80% of teachers said it improved the attitude of students and, most crucially, saw an increase in their commitment to tasks."

This latter finding, she asserts, is strong evidence that music in the office can improve the quality of work. "Increased concentration has to improve work," she says.

According to a survey by design company Woods Bagot, one in five workers now listens to an iPod or similar device at their desk, with just under a quarter of them listening to music for up to three hours each day. But the same report also finds that 30% of firms have an outright ban on staff listening to music at work.

Ruth Shearn, founder-director of marketing and communications agency RMS, admits she is one employer who straddles the music vs no music divide. "At one end of the office, our designers listen to music to keep their creative juices flowing. But I don't allow the other side of the office - the side that are talking to clients - to have it. I realise I'm inconsistent, because I'm accepting music is good for creativity for one group of people, but I have my own mental block about having our 'serious' employees, who could be devising complex material related to VAT changes, listening to the same stuff."

According to Shearn, her stance is partly about maintaining the image of her industry. "In PR and marketing, we've fought for years to challenge the stigma that it's a fluffy profession." But is this stance denying all her staff a more pleasant, motivating and creative working atmosphere?

Legally, employees have no legal right to listen to music at work, any more than they have a right to browse social networking sites. "Employers can always issue reasonable instructions," says Martin Edwards, head of employment law at Mace & Jones. "Employers are rightly worried about what their staff may be listening to - if they are using iPods - and that they may be shutting out colleagues and stifling interaction."

But with software company Symantec finding that 50% of employees flout music bans anyway, is it time for HR to lighten up, acknowledge the world of work has changed, and accept some of the compelling research that says music can boost employee engagement and productivity? Research conducted by the Institute of Leadership & Management recently argued that managers could cut sickies by seven million days a year by switching on the radio. Perhaps, then, music is the answer.

Yet the old-guard insist music is a distraction. Julian Treasure is author of Sound Business and chairman of The Sound Agency, which analyses the impact of 'soundscapes' - everything from background noise to music in the workplace. He is not an advocate of employees "consuming" music at work - even if it helps drown out annoying and distracting background office noise. "Music is a very powerful sound; it has rhythm, pitch and genre, and it generates empathy," he says. "For this reason it actually demands a lot of attention from listeners. For repetitive jobs, it may prevent people from being bored, but for knowledge workers we've found it can actually degrade people's performance by up to two-thirds."

Soars counters that music has to be the "right" type. "There's a strong case for what's called involuntary-level influence of music - but only of the appropriate music," she says. "The wrong music is, of course, off-putting - that's why companies should ban iPods because bosses can't be sure of what people are listening to."

Baroque music, she argues, suits concentration, piano-based music encourages deep listening, while anything classical has positive creative results.

Soars also believes people do not often realise music is helping them. "The involuntary-level influence part is when we find kids reporting they don't like listening to, say, classical music but it actually makes them calmer and better at concentrating."

Treasure disagrees. The problem, he says, is that music fools people into believing it makes them feel better and that they can work longer. A MusicWorks study found 77% of staff said music made them happier, yet Treasure says the reality is that it is not making them any more efficient.

"When people are honest you find they don't want music on at all," he says. "Most people who want to work from home, for example, do so because they want some peace and quiet. Offices should be more worried about there not being enough quiet spaces for people to work, rather than pumping out music. The music industry is trying desperately to lobby businesses about the benefits of having happy, music- listening staff precisely because the music industry is on its knees and needs to find new customers for its content."

But even Treasure is not wholly dismissive. Like Shearn, business can, he says, divide offices by job function, so knowledge workers can be kept apart from music-listening creatives - who, he concedes, could benefit from music by keeping them in a state of creative flow.

So, can more employees look forward to tapping their fingers along to the sound of the underground? Maybe, but as Edwards confesses, drum and bass will not be piped out in his lawyers' offices quite yet.

Bruno Brookes

Since leaving Radio 1 in the 1990s, Bruno Brookes has never been far from a microphone and in 2000 launched his own radio production company, Storm (now immedia). The company's DJs now present bespoke in-store radio for the likes of IKEA and other retail outlets and corporate HQs.

Understandably, Brookes is a convert to the motivational power of music at work. "When you've spent your life in radio, you start to understand how powerful a medium music is," he says. "There's lots of evidence that classical music makes people calmer and higher-tempo music keeps people going. I actually employ two 'musicologists' - I see it as a science."

As well as supplying music to improve the mood of clients' customers and encourage them to "buy more stuff" (one of his clients is Lloydspharmacy, where 58,000 customers pass through its stores every hour), Brookes says the pendulum is starting to swing to an understanding of how music can impact the employee experience, too.

"This can be by the music we play, but also by other means," he says. "For some clients, every 15 minutes or so we run commentaries for staff - everything from running phone-ins where staff can call in live, to having inter-store competitions."

Brookes says the engagement opportunity this creates is priceless. "A little branch can be given the chance to beat a larger one," he says. "We also read out staff members' birthdays or announce staff-service awards through some technology that allows us to stream pre-recorded sections to individual stores within a nationwide radio show. Because customers can also hear it, they see that the staff are not all as bad as they might think - it works both ways."

Brookes has recently worked with The Post Office to test music and radio in 20 branches. "We know what days (and times) pensioners come in to collect their giros, so we play a particular type of music for them, but during the rest of the day the music can be tailored to meet the needs of employees working there, as well as customers."

It is not surprising Brookes is such an advocate of sound at work, but he has a persuasive air of authority. "Music gets people through the day," he says.

Case study

Rebecca Campbell, 22, is an account executive at boutique PR agency Chocolate PR. She says that after working at an agency that banned music in the workplace, her current employer is a change for the better. "I admit it took a while to get used to having tunes at work, as I used to study at university in silence," she says. But now she feels she cannot work without it.

"If we forget to turn the radio on, everyone feels like there's something missing in the office. We do use an iPod dock and everyone says it keeps them going, productive and upbeat."

Campbell says it is difficult to quantify how much better the office works with music, but Chocolate does have a quiet room. She says most clients do not mind phoning up and hearing music in the background. "Some people think it's unprofessional. But clients know we're a relaxed company, and we get results so they don't believe it's an issue." Could she go back to an office without music? "I think I'd find it harder to acclimatise to silence," she says. "Music works here; it creates a good vibe and a positive atmosphere."

Chocolate PR's top three motivational tunes
1. Dolly Parton: Working 9-5
2. Michael Jackson: Man in the Mirror/Billie Jean
3. Take That: Shine
Chocolate PR's top tune for doing 'serious work'
Chill-out music, such as Paolo Nutini

Music milestones

1997: Tyne & Wear Metro service becomes the first train station to pipe out classical music at platforms to discourage youths from loitering there at night and frightening passengers.

2008: Manufacturer.com finds that 83% of warehouse workers feel their performance improves when music is played.

2009: Research by Leicester University finds that consumers spend £24 per head when classical music is played in a restaurant, compared with £22 per head when pop music is played.

Don't forget to pay

It is estimated more than half a million businesses play music illegally. Companies need a licence to play music to staff at work and this is ruthlessly protected by The Performance Rights Society (PRS) - the collector of artists' royalties - sometimes to the extent that it has been branded petty.

Last year Wiltshire Police was told officers could not listen to music played from their in-car radios, in police stations or gyms unless the force paid £23,000 (38 of the 49 forces in Britain are licensed to have music at work). Car-repair firm Kwik-Fit was taken to court in 2005 in pursuit of £200,000 after the PRS claimed that because its mechanics listened to radios that could be heard by customers, it constituted public broadcasting, for which royalties were owed. Kwik-Fit had previously banned the use of radios in the workplace. Last month, the PRS announced a price freeze for 2010 for its licences.