productive-work-environmentWe all know that a “hostile work environment” is bad for employees and for the company, in many ways. But what about a down right boring work environment? Some employers prohibit employees from engaging in “extracurricular” activities while working – such as listening to music or taking an occasional break to check personal email or update a Facebook status – on the premise that such diversions will negatively impact productivity. But do they really?

Your response might be, “I know they do because I can’t get anything done when there’s music playing in the background” – but does one size really fit all, or do some personality types work better in silence while others’ ability to produce quality work is stimulated by pleasant sounds?  Some recent academic studies have shed some interesting light on these questions.

I’ve always been amazed by people who like to work with a TV program or Internet video blaring out of their speakers, or while bobbing their heads to the sound of the latest rap “masterpiece” coming through their ear buds. When I’m focused on creating my own masterpiece of technical explanation or instruction, or working through a difficult troubleshooting scenario, or plotting and planning and diagramming how a network should be set up, I don’t want any distractions.

But that’s just me. One person’s distraction is another person’s inspiration. I’m a whiz at visual multi-tasking. Some people have taken a look at my three- and four-monitor setups – with the Word doc I’m writing on one screen, the web browser (open to twelve tabs) on another, Twitter and Facebook sitting over there in the corner, Outlook and OneNote sharing yet another screen – and told me they would never be able to keep up with all that. I love it. Multi-monitors make me more productive. I’d have an even bigger array if I had the video cards to support six … or eight.

What I don’t love when I’m working is extraneous sound, and more specifically, human voices. I’m the “silence is golden” type – but I do use certain sounds, such as fans, brown noise generations and even instrumental-only classical or jazz music, to drown out voices and other more bothersome sounds.

So I found it interesting when I ran across an article in the Information Resources Journal that was written by researchers at the University of Miami, delving into the effects of listening to music while working. It’s titled Personality, Mood and Music Listening of Computer Information Systems Developers: Implications for Quality-of-Work and the finding weren’t exactly what I would have expected.

Computer programming is a rather tedious task, but unlike some other tedious jobs that can be performed with “half a brain,” it requires a lot of attention to detail. One misplaced character or inadvertently omitted or repeated line of code can cause a piece of software to not work, to behave differently than intended, or to open up a security hole. Apple’s recent “gotofail” code error that created a serious vulnerability with SSL sessions on its devices is a good example of the importance of paying careful attention when coding.

Thus one might think (at least I did) that listening to music while writing code wouldn’t be a good idea. Instead, the study involving 32 developers concluded that in general, work quality was improved by listening to music. The premise was that the more positive mood created by the music led to enhancement of problem solving skills and also made the subjects more cooperative. The latter is especially interesting given the popular perception of the typical programmer as an anti-social loner.

It’s important to note that the developers in this study are reported to have listened to individually preferred music. Obviously the heavy metal or twangy country songs coming from your co-worker’s cubicle next door aren’t going to put you in a good mood and increase your productivity if you hate those types of music, so these results do not make a case for allowing employees to play music that “leaks” over into another worker’s environment nor for piping music into the office over the PA system in a misguided effort to pep people up.

Another important aspect of this study was how basic personality type (as measured by the Myers-Briggs type inventory) and emotional dispositions (as measured by the MAACL) affected the subjects’ propensity to listen to music.  Neither of the findings here – that extroverts listen to music more than introverts and that feeling types listen to music more than thinking types – is particularly surprising. I am an introvert myself (which in psychology circles does not mean shy or anti-social; it just means you derive energy from time spent alone), so maybe that explains why I prefer the “silent treatment” most of the time.

Since I’m lucky enough to work at home, I set my own rules regarding music in the work place. Knowing the results of this study probably won’t change my personal listening habits. But I think it’s something that’s worthy of consideration by those who make such decisions in more crowded business environments. The takeaway is that neither banning music nor forcing music on workers is likely result in better productivity. Like so many other matters that involve human beings, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to getting more out of IT professionals or any other category of employees. But flexibility and allowing individually within the work space can make for happier personnel and a better quality and quantity of work product.