My first job after leaving school was in a bank, and one of the roles that I held early on was in the counting house.The counting house was a small dark room where a group of around eight people counted the money that came in over the counter or via armoured trucks and bagged it up ready for re-distribution.
There was no natural light in the room, no air conditioning and money is, well, dirty. Despite the gloomy conditions, people enjoyed working in the counting house because it was one of the only places in the office that you could play music and sing. So we did. We learned the words to ridiculous songs ('Didn't we Almost Have It All' being a particularly vivid memory) and goaded each other on our respective musical tastes. It did wonders for the culture. We got the work done; we were never anxious or angry, and people frequently came down to visit us in the hope of joining in one of our impromptu karaoke sessions. Particularly at Christmas when the playlist featured Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Slade and of course, Band Aid.
This environment wouldn't have existed had we all been wearing headphones and yet that is the approach we take to listening to music in our projects these days.
Playing background music is scientifically proven to improve your project culture. Researchers J.A. Sloboda and S.A. O'Neill (‘Emotions in Everyday Listening to Music’) demonstrated that it increased workplace mood by 87%. They even found that those people who didn't normally listen to music were more positive in their environment after three weeks of playing it in the background.
Teresa Lesiuk in her paper 'The effect of music listening on work performance' also noted that 'when music listening in the work environment is encouraged by project directors and the workers are amenable to music listening, then certainly music listening has a positive effect'.
Note: this is not an encouragement to get your guitar out, that way danger lies
Open plan offices can be a challenge for music, and it's one of the reasons we don't play music in the background, favouring headphones instead. Headphones, however, create a barrier to communication. How many times have you apologised to someone for them having to remove their earbuds, or waited patiently at the side of someone in the hope that they notice you?
Projects are a communication business and headphones are a barrier. Not only that, but you have to be a good multi-tasker when the music is piped directly into your ears. Reading comprehension and memorisation are both affected, particularly if the music is fast and loud ('Fast and loud background music disrupts reading comprehension' Thompson, Schellenberg, Letnic).
There's no doubt that headphones can be a good way to block out noise if you need to concentrate on a particular task. However, they should be the exception, not the rule for your projects.
Like everything within office culture, playing music in the background isn't for everyone, so it's something that needs to be talked about and agreed with the team early on in project planning. You could create a weekly music rota or select a different radio station each week. However you do it, music should be present in your project culture. It has a positive calming effect, is a mood changer and a talking point and may even be the springboard to an appearance on The Voice!
Once the project has been completed, of course.