Whistle While You Work – Music in the Workplace

Getting the right working environment can be a challenge. Each person in your team will work differently, at different times of the day, and especially when doing different tasks. What suits one person won’t necessarily suit another, and thost two people might prefer to do the same task in very different environments.

So what happens when someone turns the radio on in a quiet office? Well I saw exactly that in one of my client’s offices…

Background noise vs. Backing Track

Before we get into what appened, it’s probably a good idea to look at why people play music in the workplace anyway. From offices to building sites, there’s few key reasons why you may or may not find the boombox blaring out.

For some people, a bit of background noise is essential. A quiet radio or playlist on the in back of the room is just enough to make them feel comfortable. Almost against what is logical, these people tend to find silence itself distracting, as it can put them on edge. Breaking that silence with some unobtrusive music or chatter can help them.

Then there’s the “party workers” who like to get their energy and enthusiasm from pounding basslines. Cranking up the volume, whether that’s on speakers or headphones, they need that inspirational drive that comes from their music.

Then there’s the people that I term “soundtrackers”, who are so in tune with the music they hear that it influences the work that they do. I consider myself one of these people, immersing myself in appropriately themed music depending on the project.

It’s a great way for me to get in the zone when I’m changing between projects. It keeps me focused on the aesthetics of the creative work, and helps me change gears. If I’m working on branding for a meditation centre, I need chillout music. When I’m creating ad concepts for a sports brand, I need my running playlist on. It’s all about context.

But then there are those who prefer a still and silent environment. No music, and no chatting either. If it needs to be said, it can be sent in an email, right? No distractions. In fact, close those windows too, we don’t need to hear those birds tweeting outside! Even the ticking of a clock can be a distraction to some people, and as much as this might be difficult for some people to comprehend, it is important to understand why some people need such a quiet working space.

Finding the balance is difficult…

So here was the situation: I had arrived with a colleague for a meeting with the marketing director of a property development company, and we were guided to a waiting area at the front of an open plan office. We sat for a few seconds, before realising just how silent the office was. Not a peep. Naturally, we looked at one another for a second, then awkwardly occupied ourselves with our phones.

Strangely, we started texting one another about how quiet it was, both of us too afraid to break the silence, when suddenly the phone in the office rings. As the receptionist answers it, we notice that one of the managers lets out a huff, shakes his head and then looks back to his screen. A couple of younger staff at the rear of the office use the break in the silence to whisper to one another, and the sound suddenly grows. It doesn’t get loud, just a couple of people talking softly to one another, so still quiet.

It’s at this point that the manager gets up from his desk and walks across the room. We look at one another thinking that this guy is about to lose it! Luckily, he doesn’t, and instead heads to the water cooler near the other staff desks, pours a drink and walks back to his desk – but in doing just that he had intimidated the other staff into silence. Pleased with himself, he sat down and stared at his screen again.

So why the silence?

At the end of our meeting with the marketing director, we asked about the noise – or lack of – in the office. She explained to us that the sales manager we saw in the office wasn’t a fan of noise, and needed to work in silence to be productive. So, being the inquisitive people we are, we asked if the rest of the team liked that environment. It was clear from her eye roll that it wasn’t a universal decision. We went on our way, but it was bothering us a bit, as we like happy clients.

When we next visited a week later, the sales manager was on holiday. His deputy had decided to put the radio on quietly in the background to distract herself from the air conditioning unit outside the window. This subtle background noise was enough to relax the rest of the team, who we could visibly see were more comfortable, and there was a gentle productive chat going on between staff. The phone rang, and the receptionist answered it more cheerfully than the week before, and it didn’t bother any of the other staff at all. When the marketing director came out to meet us, she had a bit of a spring in her step too. All in all it was a lot more positive in that office.

I pointed this out to the marketing director, who said “Yeah, it’s amazing how much the vibe changes when a certain someone is on holiday!” and laughed. After a bit of a chat about morale, office dynamics, and general workplace politics, I then pointed out the fact that the radio was on. “Oh, he’d go ape if that was on when he gets back!” was the reply.

Being solution-focused, I didn’t like that, and asked what the room next to the meeting room we were in was used for. Turns out it was an empty office that they just stored old furniture in. She took us in to show us, and we shut the door behind us. We couldn’t hear a thing! No radio, no air conditioner, no ringing phones. Seeing an opportunity, I suggested emptying the room and moving the sales manager into it, giving him his own space, and most importantly a quiet room.

Did it work?

A week later, I returned. I didn’t have a meeting booked, I was just curious to see how things were after his return.

Greeted by a happy receptionist, in a buzzing office full of energy. Some of the staff were collaborating on projects, discussing ideas and plans, while others had headphones on to listen to music of their own. With the radio on quietly in the background, it was a much warmer environment than before. The marketing director saw me, and as she passed said “Great suggestion! He’s in his cave and he’s much happier too.”

We popped into his new side office, and he was busy working away – and whistling! Turns out he hates background noise, but when he’s in a quiet space he feels happy enough to whistle while he works. I asked him if he liked his new space. His response, “Love it. Honestly, it’s better than a pay rise!”

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