The Soundtrack to our Working Life

March 22, 2013 | By Felicity Cull

What we listen to at work is something people think a lot about; it’s often central to discussions of productivity. There are two sides to this argument. Some, like Laura Miller, argue that we need quiet spaces to work in (particularly public libraries) whereas others like Wesley Verhoeve argue that people should try to work from a noisy coffee shop, as “the coffee shop environment combines the benefit of anonymity with the dull buzz of exciting activity.” Both opinions have research to back them up and there are accessories for both as well, like noise cancelling headphones and websites that give you a constant loop of coffee shop noise to work to. Once, Muzak was pumped into offices in order to amp up productivity. Now, as music collections become ever more portable, there are guides to the etiquette of music listening in the workplace. It would seem that the relationship between music listening and work is a complex one.

The soundtrack of 10Collective’s workspace is as variable as Melbourne’s weather. The music played here has, on occasions, been a contentious issue. Sometimes there have been mutinies over what music to play. Some days we don’t play any music; other days we discuss (or sing along with) almost every song that comes up on shuffle. Sometimes we put something on for a post-lunch dance, which can be very refreshing, I recommend it. Sometimes, like the day we put on the soundtrack from Star Wars, music pushes us all to work at full pelt.

Study on the links between productivity and music gives us conflicting answers. A recent study by Dr Teresa Lesiuk had people reporting that music aided productivity in the IT industry; she looked at the listening practices of 41 men and 15 women in the IT sector, specifically software developers. This sector was chosen because research had found extreme levels of stress in all stages of their work processes. Dr Lesiuk wanted to quantify what effect, if any, listening to music had on these stress levels. The participants were asked to record their listening habits and productivity levels over a period of five weeks. The majority of participants recorded an increase in productivity when they had music on and said they were generally happier while it was playing.

I asked Dr Tim Byron, a cognitive psychologist who specialises in research on music and author of the rather excellent column According to Study, about music and productivity. Dr Byron has found in his own research on music that there’s no easy answer in regards to how music influences how hard we work. He said that music in the workplace impacts productivity in two conflicting ways. Firstly, music – especially lyric heavy music – is distracting and can lead to mistakes, but conversely music makes us feel good and those feelings can lead to better performance. “People can’t hold quite as much information in working memory when they’re listening to music, because music and especially music with words pushes out information we’re trying to keep in mind. This means that if you’re trying to juggle a lot of different tasks at work, listening to music might mean you drop a few more balls,” said Dr Byron, but “listening to the right music does make us feel better, and this is good for a workplace. People in better moods do better on IQ tests than they do when they’re in bad moods, likely because they’re more likely to persevere in getting that question right. So music makes us a bit smarter, but also distracts us.”

So, which is it for you? Does music motivate or distract, help you to work or to slack off? I decided to ask some of our favourite IT people about their workplace listening practices.

Ash Pegram, Creative Technologist and guitarist with High Tension, said;

ashpeg-150x150I do indeed listen to music regularly at work, as do most of the office. I listen to everything and it really depends on my mood. If I’m smashing out a pitch then it’s something upbeat like Robyn or The Thermals. If it’s reading, then it’s something instrumental like classical or ambient.

Rick Giner, Senior Front-end Developer, told me all about his listening practices;

There’s actually more to this than a simple yes or no. rick-150x150

When I am involved in a leadership capacity, such as a department or team lead, project manager, or even as a mentor to a nearby junior, I find it essential that I am able to hear what is going on around me. I want to be able to jump in and help someone out with something as soon as I hear the curses reach fever pitch; I need to know when my people are struggling and when they’re not enjoying the bit of work they are on. If I am plugged in to my music then I will miss this, and even if my own productivity and contentedness levels are high, the team efficiency and morale as a whole may be suffering. Here, I plug into my music for large portions of the day, as does my neighbour – and when we have an issue that needs discussion we’ll just wave to each other to get attention, and the rest of the time we’ll soldier on individually. It helps that we’re both very senior, so there’s not much we need help with.

I’m in the school of thought that harder and faster music relates to faster coding. It might increase the number of typos when you’re trying to hammer the keyboard to keep up, but I find my chain of thought and energy levels are peaked and focused. I can sustain a very high level of concentration for 8-10 hours whilst listening to stimulating music. It keeps my heart rate up and removes all distractions from what’s going on around me, or what I might want to be doing after work or at the weekend. Slayer is a great band for this, or Megadeth – though I don’t stick exclusively to Metal. I recently listened to 5 hour-long Drum n Bass mixes by Black Sun Empire back-to-back, and was genuinely surprised when they finished and I realised the day had gone! If the work isn’t so urgent or difficult I might down-tempo a bit. Dubstep is nice and cruisey, or some fun rock like Iron Maiden or AC/DC is often close at hand.

Andrew Pam, a technical developer, when asked if he listened to music at work, said;

andrew pamNo, not anymore. I have listened to music in the past, usually Weird Al Yankovic. But I find that as I become more team-focused it’s more useful to pay attention to what others are saying around me than to isolate myself and focus on coding.

I’ve got better at not letting distractions interrupt my focus over the years, and if I really need the undisturbed time I can still work at home, move to a private office or go ahead and put on some headphones.

I also sometimes listen to Jean Michel Jarre when I need something without any lyrics.  One reason why programmers in particular tend to use headphones at work is because programming generally requires working in a state of “flow”, with deep concentration that can take a long time to get back to if interrupted by any distractions, programmers who don’t have their own private office to work undisturbed often need to use music to block out the office noise.

Ben Dechrai, PHP developer and Open Source enthusiast (amongst other things);

SmallBenPhoto-150x150

I think music at work is invaluable. While projects often take many people to complete, each component is a fairly solitary task (unless you employ pair-programming techniques, of course). The office can be a wonderful energy to work in, but sometimes you just need to get in to your own head and write like there’s no tomorrow.

Development is a very creative act; we might write lines of code that look like gobbledegook to anyone else, but the way we string that gobbledegook together is where the magic happens. I often find myself thinking like a programming language engine in order to work out the best way to perform a task, in much the same way as a method actor will think like a 1950?s rock star. Music is probably the predominant tool a developer uses in order to create an environment conducive to this type of working; free from distractions and outside energy.

As a contractor, I check every day that I have my laptop, phone, chargers and headphones. There’s nothing worse than being in a place where you need music and there is none. As for what I listen to, my first go-to is Koffee using their desktop app on my laptop. It’s a digital station that has no ads, no talking, just music, and most of it quite reasonable; at the very least, it doesn’t interrupt my thought process (unlike death metal). If that becomes monotonous, which it can, from time to time, I head to my phone, which currently has Ingrid Michaelson, Caro Emerald, David Gray, Gin Wigmore, Regina Spektor and a couple of others.

Thanks to everyone who contributed.

Headphones photo by Scott Feldstein. Photos of Ash Pegram, Rick Giner and Andrew Pam used with permission from contributors, photo of Ben Dechrai by Kathy Reid.