By Claire Heald
BBC News Magazine
More people are listening to MP3 players at work. Why do some people need music as they work, while others can't concentrate with it?
Does music help with concentration?
It's the little signs. The foot tapping under the desk, head bobbing, the tell-tale wires winding from ears to pocket.
A fifth of workers now listen in at work, a survey by design company Woods Bagot has found. And it's not just the usual suspects - designers and their ilk - but everyone from serious City types to those working for small businesses.
This raises eyebrows in corporate circles. The CBI grumbles that it could cost firms money, and traditional companies are less tolerant of employees skipping through a playlist at work.
As are some of the workers themselves. One Square Mile worker surveyed complained that a colleague's listening habits affected her own concentration: "A secretary who sits outside my door listens to her iPod when she is doing long copy-types, even though she is not meant to, and she hums along to it and drums her fingernails on her desk."
You hum it...
But some employers encourage it - admittedly in those forward-thinking work circles. At the architecture firm where James Neal, 40, works in Dartington, Devon, the boss handed out MP3 players for Christmas.
Mr Neal says it helps him to block out the background hubbub of the open-plan office. "When you're doing something creative you can more easily concentrate on drawing."
Under the desk, or in the pocket
And far from being anti-social, the office atmosphere has been enhanced by sharing music. But this had led to teasing: "They call my music 'dad rock' - it's old school indie pop, stuff like The Verve and Suede." No surprise that his ideal work soundtrack is anything by The Smiths. "A bit of Morrissey makes me feel better."
And well it can, says psychologist Dr Martin Corbett, of Warwick Business School. Firms should press pause before attempting to ban music players.
Factories have often pumped out background music to "chug" people along. It works for any kind of routine work where the person does not have to concentrate too hard - such as copy-typing. And surgeons play music through operations, although not over headphones, as that would seriously impair communication.
In an open-plan office, it's the only way for some people to carve a space, stamp their individuality, tune out an irritating colleague, or close a mental door to allow concentration.
"Music gives you a sense of who you are and a way to go somewhere else," he says.
Tune out to focus
But moving music closer could interfere with concentration for some. "With headphones, it's not in the background, it comes to the foreground in your brain because it's right in your face."
And the solitary nature of headphone-wearers can disrupt the office vibe. If work becomes a less social place, it affects job satisfaction. Then there's the effort of trying to get their attention.
"The users won't hear you talking to them. The volume is so high, they tend to lip-read first," says Dr Corbett.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
The office is a great place to listen to music. It makes the day go more pleasantly and it lets me cut out other people's chat so I can concentrate on work, although sometimes I miss out on important gossip. Then again, that's what instant messaging is for!
Rod MacFadyen, Reading
Just goes to show what a lot of people think of open plan offices. It's partially an attempt to stamp back at that and regain some sense of privacy but mostly to shut out the distractions when someone has decided workers who need to concentrate on what they are doing should be sat in the noise of everyone else. No doubt the decision maker is cosy in his office somewhere.
Simon, Manchester, UK
I totally agree that music can help. I always have music on while I am reading and writing. At end of term essay time I start sing along subconsciously, and I tend to get stressed in exams without any music.
We have a radio at work because without it the silence is deafening and the day seems boring. We each have songs that we dislike so have an official 3 minutes of silence when those are played. MP3 players would not be appropriate in my office, as we need to answer phones and speak with other staff.
Listening to music is not allowed in our office however, I had to giggle when I read your report as I've got my MP3 on, hidden under my paperwork. I may be a 33 year old mum to be but I'm listening to Iron Maiden, what a trip down memory lane!
Some of us need music to be able to concentrate in the first place. In my good ear, I have tinnitus, and without music, find it hard to focus as the ringing in my ear can be really bad quite a lot of the time, well, actually, constantly. Music helps me to block out these sounds so that I can get a little peace in which to work. When I finish school and go out to work, I hope that whatever job I get will take this into account.
Stuart, Devon, UK
I'm unfortunate enough to be working in a backwards thinking company where music players aren't allowed - and really wish they'd change this policy so I wouldn't have to listen to an extremely irritating colleague and her annoying squeaky voice - far more distracting than even the worst tune!
Ironic that the quoted architectural practice didn't consider changing the open plan office environment rather than hand out MP3 players...
Personal music is an absolute necessity in our office. Concentration is impossible unless I drown out the people whose loudness is directly proportional to their own self-importance and those who spend all day hacking their lungs out from this week's ailment.
Victor M, Oxford
This question was answered definitively in "Peopleware". The verdict is that listening to music drastically and demonstrably reduces your ability to concentrate, regardless of your beliefs about whether it does so or not. The only question is whether it distracts you more than your co-workers yammering on about their weekends or what they watched on TV last night.
Colin MacDonald, Glasgow, Scotland
Our office has recently banned wearing headphones, as it doesn't "look professional". As a writer of complex computer software, my job is far harder now. Trying to maintain a complicated chain of thought is very hard, and my creativity and moral has dropped - others here feel the same.
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