Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 99
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Listen While You Work?

Researchers discover a simple personnel practice that boosts both performance and satisfaction for some employees.

Have you ever noticed employees standing around visiting during working hours and wondered if their conversation was job-related? Do you ever tire of saying "O.K., let's get back to work," while avoiding employees' wounded stares as you walk away?

You can imagine the scene: One person is working steadily, and a second person interrupts to start a conversation. The talking attracts attention and pretty soon others join in . . . lots of talk, not so much work.

Now, imagine a slightly altered scene. The person working steadily is wearing stereo headphones and is plugged in to a device that plays music. The second person, interested in a little conversation, approaches and notices the headphones. Does that make a difference? Do people avoid interrupting others if they're listening to music on stereo headphones? How about you? Do you leave people alone who're wearing headphones . . . when they're jogging? When your kids are studying?

Greg Oldham, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently led a team of researchers who explored the effects of allowing employees to use stereo headphones at work, and some of their findings may surprise you.

Professor Oldham and his team approached 256 employees of a large retail organization who worked in an office environment. They came from 32 different job titles which ranged from processing invoices to analyzing accounts. Many did routine work. Of 256 employees, 130, or 50% expressed an interest in listening to music through headphones while they worked. The rest did not want the distraction.

Oldham, et al., randomly divided the first group and assigned half to a music-listening group and half to a no-music group for a 4-week period. Before, during, and after the test, the researchers made numerous measurements of all employees so they could make comparisons. They attributed differences they detected to the stereo headphones. Here's what they learned.

People holding simple jobs that required little training dramatically increased their job performance if they were allowed to listen to music on the personal headsets. Their satisfaction with their jobs and with the organization improved, and they registered a decline in intentions to look for new jobs.

People holding complex jobs that required much training suffered performance declines if they were allowed to use the headsets, and their satisfaction also declined.

Next, Oldham, et al., examined the variety of factors they had measured searching for an explanation for these findings. They found that for employees with simple, routine jobs, enhanced relaxation caused their increases in performance, while decreases in distractions improved their attitudes toward their jobs and the company. The obvious conclusion: people perform routine, simple jobs more effectively if they're relaxed, and stereo headsets improve people's relaxation. Also, people's satisfaction with their jobs improves if they can escape the many interruptions from coworkers that occur throughout the workday. The headphones reduce these interruptions.

Stereo headphones that play music, rather than news, sports, or interviews, will boost performance and job satisfaction for your simplest job holders, but for others, it will have the opposite effect.

What to do?

Try rating the job titles in your company on these criteria:

  1. amount of training needed to do the job,
  2. complexity of the job,
  3. monotony of the job,
  4. importance of hearing (to hear alarms, to listen to instructions, and/or to interact with customers), and
  5. routine nature of the work.

Jobs emerging as simple, routine, and monotonous that don't require the use of hearing would be good candidates for allowing personal stereo headsets.

Of course, you're going to have to manage this practice so volume level doesn't interfere with others and doesn't harm users' hearing. And you'll have to explain why some people can use them while others can't, but these things you can do. Allowing the use of headphones is something you can do for your lowest level employees that will improve both performance and satisfaction without costing you a cent. You could do worse.

Reference: Oldham, Greg R., Anne Cummings, Leann Mischel, James Schmidtke, and Jin Zhou (1995). Listen While You Work? Quasi-Experimental Relations Between Personal-Stereo Headset Use and Employee Work Responses. Journal of Applied Psychology, 80 (5), pp. 547-564.

© Management Resources

Back to home page