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More Evidence Says to Ditch Headphones in the Workplace

If you want your employees to get along, invest in a boombox

There are few workplace issues more fraught than “open” office plans, in which companies tear down their interior walls so workers can sit right next to each other without so much as a cubicle partition between them.

These open offices — whether rows of communal work tables or clusters of abutting desks — are meant to increase collaboration among colleagues. But they often have the opposite effect, fomenting discord and decreasing communication. Some workers get so annoyed by the noise of “collaboration” and overall lack of privacy that they resort to wearing headphones.

Take off Your Headphones and Listen

Turns out music can absolve the frustrations of an open office—as long as it’s upbeat and listened to collectively, according to a new study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior

“When people listen to happy music, they cooperate more,” says Kevin Kniffin, an applied behavioral scientist at Cornell University and lead researcher on the study.

The research was conducted on college students at a private university in the Northeast and involved randomly assigning them to one of three groups: One group was exposed to happy music (“Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison and the theme song from Happy Days); one was made to listen to “unhappy” music (heavy metal); and the control group heard no music at all.

The participants were then asked to participate in a decision-making game that requires cooperation—and those who heard happy music worked better with one another.

“That’s partly because happy music helps increase people’s moods, and if people have a better mood, they’re more cooperative,” Kniffin says.

Yet the study found happy music increases cooperation independent of people’s changes in mood. That is, even if an upbeat tune doesn’t lighten your day (let’s say you’re not a Beatles fan), it might still make you a better colleague.

The study also found no difference in cooperation between the group that listened to screamo music and the group that heard nothing, underscoring the positive effects of happy music on group dynamics.

Why, then, do so many offices insist on dead silence?

It’s likely because most companies don’t even think about sound design, Kniffin says, which is strange considering the amount of time, money and planning they devote to the physical layout of their offices. Retail stores have long used music to induce consumer behavior or to underscore the store’s aesthetic, but with little regard for how that music affects the store’s own employees, for example. (This lack of consideration was a large inspiration for the study.)

The study certainly doesn’t resolve for all the tensions of an open office. One can only imagine the strife caused by a group of coworkers trying to decide on a playlist. If your hell is an open office space, then your colleagues’ music taste is the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno.

When it comes to boosting office morale, music is a relatively cheap solution. Companies often resort to days long off-site meetings (replete with icebreakers and trust falls) to foster trust and cooperation among colleagues, but the answer might be as simple as turning on a classic rock radio station. Just make sure no one’s calling in to request “Tears in Heaven.”