Tuning in on the job improves output Workplace: Researchers say that listening to music of one's choice enhances performance by most workers, even though an annoyed few say sound in the background is distracting.


University of Illinois researchers have found that when workers listen to the music of their choice, their productivity improves, whether they are engaged in menial administrative tasks or more complex analytical work.

What's more, tuned-in employees report feeling more enthusiastic and relaxed.

Based on surveys of their moods, music also was found to block out distractions and reduce fatigue and nervousness. However, it was the improved relaxation, and not other factors, that accounted for the boost in productivity, the researchers said.

Greg Oldham, a professor of labor and industrial relations, headed a study of 256 office employees in 32 different jobs at an unidentified retail organization in the Midwest. Seventy-five employees who had expressed an interest in using headsets at work were put in the listening group, the rest in the control group. Their daily performance was monitored for a four-week period without music followed by a four-week period with music.

"Productivity increased dramatically for employees using stereos at work -- about a 10.2 percent jump compared with rates before stereos were used," said their report, printed in a recent issue of HRMagazine, a publication of the Society for Human Resource Management. By contrast, productivity for the control group rose just 3.9 percent.

Workers in low-skill jobs such as data entry showed even greater benefits from music, with performance increasing 14 percent for the listening group vs. 6.3 percent for the control group.

An estimated 135,000 businesses worldwide play music, Oldham said. Most studies show a productivity increase of 5 percent from background systems.

Personal headsets or speakers at a cubicle allow workers to listen to the music of their choice and, for some, to feel more in control of their work environment. For others, music helps pass the time and gets them through the day.

Wearing headphones also can serve an auxiliary purpose for those who really need to get some work done. "It sends a message when people walk in that I'm not listening to them," says Dennis McHaffie, a mechanical engineer at KLA Instruments.

Unfortunately, co-workers sometimes get more than they bargained for with stereo headsets. Sylvia Sabes, a graphic designer at a San Francisco company, shares a cubicle with a colleague who listens to music through headphones.

"I always know what she's listening to because I can hear her singing," Sabes says, adding, "Thank God, she can sing."

Though the study examined only music, some workers prefer news over music for feeling more productive. "I feel like if I'm listening to NPR and I'm learning something, I don't feel the day is a total waste," says Amy Smith, an on-the-job National Public Radio listener for 10 years. But, she acknowledges, it's not for everyone. "I've had my co-workers tell me it's incredibly distracting."

A relaxed, playful work environment is a better work environment, says Ritch Davidson, a workplace consultant at Berkeley, Calif.-based Playfair Inc., who gives his title as senior vice emperor.

"In the past, people felt that if you were having fun on the job, you must not be doing your work," says Davidson. "What we're finding is the opposite is true."

In a new Sprint poll asking 590 workers nationwide what would make them feel more productive on Fridays, respondents ranked listening to music (41 percent) ahead of casual dress (37 percent) and free lunch (35 percent).

The University of Illinois study warns of a few possible dangers with personal headsets, such as being unable to hear alarms or verbal warnings.

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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