Is music the new battleground in the return-to-office wars?

As corporate workers return to their desks, many companies are putting more effort into their office soundtracks. Raconteur explored the data to find out how to stop music becoming an office battleground
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Music is a powerful tool. We use it to cheer ourselves up, bond with others and boost our focus, as anyone who has blasted a motivational playlist at the gym can attest. It has also long been used in restaurants, bars and shops to shape atmosphere and brand image.

So it should be little surprise that white-collar workplaces are tuning into its power, too. While headphones are already a common sight at the office, an increasing number of firms now carefully select background music to play throughout the working day. For some it’s a way to subtly increase productivity, others as part of efforts to make the office a more engaging place to be.

Some are even turning to professionals. Rob Wood is founder and creative director of Music Concierge, a company that curates playlists for businesses. At first the firm’s customers were mostly restaurants and hotels, but he says there is a growing demand from companies seeking to encourage their staff back to work post-pandemic. 

One survey found four-fifths of office workers enjoy background music – but it does not come without its risks. Get it wrong and employees might become distracted, annoyed, or even litigious: a US federal appeals court recently ruled that offensive lyrics could constitute sex discrimination and harassment.

To get a flavour of what is soundtracking office work today, Raconteur dug into data from music streaming platform Spotify. We analysed 60 public playlists, containing more than 10,000 songs, created by users to play at the office.

A handful of artists are almost universally popular. Chart-topping singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran appears on almost two-thirds of the sampled playlists. Two more big names, The Weeknd and Justin Bieber, each feature on more than half. 

The most playlisted songs are all pop hits from the past two decades. Blinding Lights by The Weeknd (released 2019) and Natasha Bedingfield’s 2004 single Unwritten topped the list. Between them they have racked up 4 billion plays on the platform.

Why pop is top

Are office playlisters simply lacking in imagination? Not necessarily, says Nicola Dibben, professor of music at the University of Sheffield. Familiar songs and genres are often better suited to background listening.

“Pop music is something we hear a lot of, we’re all really expert listeners if we’ve been listening to the radio over our lives,” she says. “Your brain has learned the conventions of the style. Therefore it’s something we can follow more easily, making it less disruptive to other things that we’re doing.

“If music is more unpredictable – more experimental genres and so on – then it has more cognitive load, it takes more processing power. It’s more difficult to habituate to and therefore to let recede into the background.”

It’s also best to choose tunes most people at least tolerate. Strongly liked or disliked music can make it harder for people to focus because it draws their attention, one study found. Pop is less likely to fall into that category than death metal or free jazz.

What makes great music to work to

But there’s more to making the right musical choice than genre. Research shows that several characteristics of a song can impact worker happiness and productivity.

Wood says the best music for concentration, for example, is linear and consistent. “It doesn’t have dominant vocals that jump out and grab your attention, or changing rhythm patterns.”

That doesn’t mean boring, however. “You can have rhythm and it doesn’t have to be ultra-mellow – as long as it doesn’t have tonnes going on in it.”

Cheerful tunes are also likely to have a positive effect. This was famously put to the test by the BBC’s Music While You Work radio programme, which from 1940-67 broadcast cheerful, up-tempo songs to improve factory workers’ morale. But it is also backed up by science. Happy music releases a cocktail of hormones, such as dopamine and oxytocin, in the brain. That means it not only boosts performance and focus, it can also encourage more cooperative behaviour, one Cornell study found. 

On the other hand, songs in minor keys (which are generally more gloomy in mood) can increase stress levels and even narrow attention spans. Wordy music, such as hip-hop, can overload the verbal-processing regions of the brain. Explicit lyrics can be especially contentious.

Spotify playlist creators generally have the right idea, according to our analysis. The platform scores each song from zero to one on several different musical characteristics, including tempo, mood and energy. 

Office music playlists tend to be slightly more cheerful, upbeat and easy to dance to than average. The songs are more likely to be in a major key and to have a moderately fast tempo of 118 beats per minute (similar to Michael Jackson’s Thriller). They also had lower scores for ‘wordiness’, potentially making them less distracting.

Creating spaces with music

Of course, no one wants to listen to the same thing all day, every day, no matter how expertly chosen. A playlist that works well for after-work drinks might be off putting at reception on a Monday morning. 

Rob Atkinson works at IA Interior Architects, an interior design firm that has started to advise its clients on their office music experience. He recommends programming music according to the energy levels throughout the day. 

“If you’ve had a heavy lunch, and you come back and you’re flagging at 2.30pm, music [can be] designed to pick you up at those specific intervals,” he says. 

But it can get even more specific. A technology company recently asked IA to help it encourage its staff to take the stairs instead of the lift. Music played a big part in the resulting design. 

“We created a playlist that had a lot of 4/4 rhythms to match the rhythmic movements of climbing the stairs,” Atkinson says. “The client liked it so much it had a staircase party because it became a nice place to gather and felt like an intentional experience.” 

How to choose office music

This kind of professional help might be impractical for many employers. So who should get to play office DJ?

Does my company need a music licence?

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You might think it best to leave it up to one person (such as the office manager). But this can have its drawbacks, says Kathleen Keeler, an assistant professor at Ohio State University. She believes that choice is paramount in keeping staff from feeling they are being “force-fed” someone else’s taste.

She recently ran a study that found surgeons tend to impose their musical choices on other staff in the operating theatre. This often led to resentment in the surgical team and even errors in their work. However, when given more input into the music, “people felt more like they belonged to the team,” she says.

“It’s a complex interaction of not only the type of music but the individual. When employees have autonomy over the music they listen to, they will have higher levels of job satisfaction and performance than those who didn’t listen to music… They’re going to select the music that best fits their current need.”

Some offices solve this by having a shared speaker anyone can cue up tracks on. Others turn it into a social opportunity. One told Raconteur they host a weekly ‘song wars’ session where anyone can anonymously submit a song on a chosen theme to spark discussion.

One thing bosses should not do is dismiss office music as a trend. Even in the days before recorded music labourers commonly sang while they worked, while cowboys, sailors and weavers all had their own work songs to stave off boredom and pace their work. If the alternative is office singalongs, a few hours of Ed Sheeran might be a good compromise.