“Shhhhhhhh! I’m trying to concentrate.”
We’ve all heard that before. Whether it be at school, in a library or even at work. People just seem to naturally need silence when performing a task that requires their full attention.
Or do they?
It’s pretty common for music to be playing in an operating room as medical teams perform scheduled surgery (not just on TV shows!), or for a radio station to be playing in a factory. So perhaps it’s not so much about needing silence as it is about needing a specific kind of music to suit the task. And bring together the team.
Leave me alone, I’m working
Before we look at the unifying power of music in the workplace, let’s take a look at a trend driving us in the opposite direction: growth in the headphone market.
According to a June 2016 report by Global Market Insights, the global market for earphones (the buds you get with a new phone) and headphones (the over-ear ones you usually have to pay for) is expected to grow from USD 11.68 billion in 2015, to USD 18 billion by 2024. Numbers are already up significantly from 2012 (the first year listed in the report) and the company predicts that by 2023 more than 470 million units will be sold globally.
In short, we’re all plugging in and tuning out. At least to everything except our own music.
So what’s driving this? Sure, it’s in part new technological developments (noise-cancellation, infrared, etc.), part fashion (new colors and models) and part the ubiquity and convenience of music streaming services.
But there’s something else too in the background. And it’s a place. A place where the aforementioned market drivers manifest in the absolute necessity of owning a decent pair of headphones: the open office.
Open To Distraction
While the open office was invented in Germany during the 1950s, the trend of creating completely undivided workspaces has really only taken off in the past 10-15 years. What began as a signature of cool collaboration in the tech startup scene first spread to industries like advertising and architecture, but is now the new normal even for blue chips making heavy machinery or running business-process software.
The open office trend has been happening despite plenty of evidence that the concept isn’t in fact as good for collaboration, creativity and productivity as previously thought. In May this year, Fortune ran a piece titled “The Open-Office Concept is Dead,” in which the writer references a New York startup where “headphones in means ‘don’t bother me’.” Similar pieces have been written by the Washington Post, The New Yorker and others, each of them listing noise and interruptions as part of the reason for the decline in popularity of the open office concept.
And Music For All
So getting back to where we started – with music and teams – let’s presume for a moment that the open office concept is here to stay. And let’s also presume that people have become so used to listening to music at work (albeit with their headphones on) that there could and should be a way to use music as a tool to bring them together – rather than playing a role in driving them apart. In much the same way as the surgical team in the operating theater listens to music together for six hours, or the factory workers sing along together while collectively finishing an order on a Friday afternoon.
At Sync Project, we are passionate about expanding the health benefits of music to as many people as possible. We see music in the workplace as a core component to a healthy, productive and connected team--and there's scientific evidence to back it up:
A recent study showed listening to music during stressful activities positively effects stress hormones like cortisol. These findings suggest that music may help to prepare the body for stressful situations and reduce the harmful impact stress has on the body overall. There is even evidence that music helps people process feelings of anger, or that learning to play an instrument can makes more sensitive to emotional signs in others. These findings in particular should resonate for both employees and their managers.
Music also has real capacity to help people feel more connected, especially if they are moving together in time to music (office dance party!), a valuable asset for remote and online working teams. Lastly, the cognitive effects of music are well documented and several studies have shown the effect music has on memory, focus and attention. Some studies revealed that music can also distract from key tasks, depending on the task and whether the listener stated a preference for this music or not. It's clear that paying attention to what you listen to during work is as important as "wiring in" itself.
While there are wild variations in people’s musical tastes, there do appear to be some commonalities when it comes to music that is good to listen to while working. These are well summarized in a recent article by Kayla Minguez. In short, we should avoid music with lyrics when we need to focus or learn new stuff, but music with lyrics can be helpful when performing repetitive or mundane tasks, as it can lighten the mood. Overall though, ambient music punctuated by occasional bouts of no music is probably best for productivity.
It’s tough to find a one-size-fits-all approach to the subject, as even within a specific workplace people’s tastes and the tasks they’re working on may vary widely. Perhaps an approach that employers could trial though is allowing employees to create and play collaborative playlists out loud in the office, within certain parameters. For example, each co-worker would be allowed to select and add tracks of their choosing, as long as the tracks were free of lyrics and with beats-per-minute below a certain level.
One thing is for sure though: the headphone trend is not going away anytime soon. So unless employers can figure out a way to tap into it and make music part of the shared workspace experience, we’ll carry on plugging in and tuning out individually while in the office. And while that might make the day go by quicker, it also might be a lost opportunity for the team to work together as one.