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Music hath charms for some workers — others it annoys
The first thing Adam Weissman does when he arrives at his public relations job isn't to grab a cup of coffee or gab with his co-workers. Instead, the account executive with DBA Public Relations goes to his small office and turns on his iPod to listen to music through his speakers.
Music is hitting a high note in the office. Portable music players such as iPods are increasingly showing up on the job, a trend that's being praised as a boon to productivity as well as criticized as a safety risk and employee distraction.
For Weissman, some days he listens to mellow music such as America's Horse with No Name. Other days it's ZZ Top. He says the portable music player that stores his 3,600 songs keeps him focused when he's not on the phone.
Not all his co-workers are singing the same tune. When he recently asked them what they thought of his office pastime, his colleagues admitted that sometimes it's annoying when Weissman drums on his desk or sings along.
"Sometimes I play the wrong type of music at the wrong times of day. One of them said, 'Earth Wind and Fire at 9:30 a.m. is just not right,' " he says in an e-mail. "Sometimes in those random occasions when someone is having an extremely bad day, there is nothing quite like scrolling through my iPod library and cranking the Muppets theme song."
Music at the office is nothing new — Walkmans first began showing up in the workplace in the 1980s and radios have been a staple for generations.
More than 40 million Apple iPods have been sold as of January, and at offices all around the USA employees can be seen working or walking the halls with the telltale white Apple iPod ear buds that trail from the portable MP3 players. Use of MP3 players tends to vary with job type. Eighty percent of technical and creative workers listen to music more than 20% of their working hours, according to research on MP3 use by CIMI, a Voorhees, N.J.- based research and technology assessment firm.
At the management level, the proportion of workers listening to music more than a fifth of the time drops to 20%. About 40% of clerical workers listen to music more than 20% of their working day.
"MP3 use is also getting higher in certain types of factory and other jobs," Says CIMI President Tom Nolle.
Not all employers are welcoming the development.
"We do not look kindly on anyone who puts on earphones and starts listening to iPods," says Mario Almonte, a vice president at Herman Associates, a New York-based marketing and communications company. "It looks like you're not working, and it's not a professional presentation. It's still a device that distracts you."
Among the concerns:Employee communication. MP3 use can be inappropriate in some work settings or can stifle communication because employees may have a hard time catching the attention of a co-worker with ear buds. Some co-workers may play music through speakers, which can annoy colleagues within earshot.
"I'm all for it, but it can be a distraction, and we have to remember we don't want to cross a boundary and be rude," says Laura Stack, a professional speaker and author of Leave the Office Earlier, a book on how to reduce employees' workweeks. "I wouldn't recommend the speakers being allowed."
Sam Glazer at Planned Television Arts in New York listens to his iPod through his computer's speakers almost every day at work. But it has caused some problems.
One co-worker complained that the music was too loud, and whenever Glazer would leave his desk, the colleague would go and turn the tunes down. Eventually, the co-worker got so disgruntled that he threatened to alert management.
"I love music, and it's motivating to me, especially if it's a power song like Eye of the Tiger," Glazer says. The co-worker didn't agree. "There was a time I was playing my music a little loud, and he'd come by and ask me to turn it down. He said he could bring it up to management. It put a little bit of tension there."
Employee safety. IPods can pose a distraction and may prevent the wearer from hearing warning alarms and bells or warnings shouted by co-workers, e-mails Linda Tapp, of Crown Safety in Cherry Hill, N.J. MP3 players can prevent wearers from hearing other workplace sounds such as moving forklifts, which can lead to serious injury. MP3s can affect the safety of workers in non-industrial settings as well, she says, by masking the sounds of strangers who are in the area or approaching.
Network security. New digital storage devices can store company information, trade secrets or customer data. Employees connect MP3 players to a company's computers to download and store songs, but those same players could be used to download other information as well. It's also possible for a player to infect a network with a virus.
"It's a huge security risk," says John Colbert, CEO of Guidance Software, a Pasadena, Calif.-based provider of computer investigations. "They're very easy to transfer files to."
The video capability on some iPods also raises the possibility that employees could watch pornography or other inappropriate material on the job.
Music as motivator
That's not to say the MP3 craze is all bad. Many employees and employers are singing the praises of the small, handheld players that can store hundreds of songs. In some cases, iPods can be a valuable workplace tool. Some employers, such as Capital One, are using iPods as part of audio training programs for employees.
How it works: Podcasts are downloadable files or shows. Companies can put training on these podcasts. Instead of spending two hours in a meeting, an employee can take the training on the go — listening to a podcast while riding the subway to work, for example.
And not all music is bad. Research from Advanced Brain Technologies in Ogden, Utah, found that certain types of music, such as some classical, made participants more responsive and productive.
Alan Wallace, 41, a publicist in Glendale, Calif., uses the iPod to be sure he's up on news. Some of his sources use podcasts to share information, and Wallace says he can listen to them when he's on the road.
"It allows me to be continually up to date on the news," says Wallace, who also has a video iPod. "I use the video a great part, both personally and professionally. And my son also loves to watch the Pixar movies. He's almost always looking for my iPod."
And some employers are welcoming the use.
Four months ago, Homestead Technologies in Menlo Park, Calif., gave all 77 employees engraved iPods as a 10-year anniversary gift. Managers at the company, which helps people create websites, began handing them out from a rolling cart. As word of the giveaway spread, employees came running. Now many staffers use them regularly.
"We always try to go out of our way to come out with cool and unique ways to show our employees they're doing a good job," says David Wu, chief operating officer. "People loved them. Productivity is as high as it's ever been."
Productivity experts such as Alexandra Levit, author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World, says employees who want to use their MP3 players at work should first check around.
"Are other people doing it, or would you be the only one? Talk to your boss upfront to see if it's a problem," Levit says. "You have to face it head on, so it's not a perception problem."
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