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10.5.98  
Office Music: How to Keep the Peace
Once you establish the etiquette, you can start to worry about the repertoire

Adeo Ressi, the CEO of methodfive, a Web development firm in lower Manhattan, still remembers the great battle of the stereos. His 30 employees were merrily working in their loft space one day last spring while British pop music boomed from their imposing sound system with its 4-ft-high speakers and 100-disc CD changer. Across the room, employees of MY-CD, a tenant that creates customized CDs, thought they would express themselves, too. They cranked up the volume on their country western fare. ''It got pretty rough,'' concedes Ressi. Eventually, the conflict was toned down with headphones at MY-CD and more respect all around.

These days, CD players are standard in most PCs, audio streams in from the Web, and offices are becoming more casual. ''Music keeps people creative,'' says Marsha N. Cook, a principal at Hendrick Associates, a 30-person architectural firm in Atlanta. ''I don't want people getting too edgy.''

But how do you keep the workplace harmonious when music is wafting freely through the corridors and employees are arguing over Handel vs. Hendrix? Greet Street, a San Francisco electronic greeting card company, prides itself on its freewheeling atmosphere where tattooed programmers and straight-laced business strategists work side by side. But the office sound system soon became a source of constant discord, says co-founder Tony Levitan. ''We battled over the type of music, anywhere from grunge to Vivaldi,'' he says. Over time, Greet Street moved its employees to headphones. That satisfied most people, but left the business staff with the occasional grumble. ''A lot of my work entails talking on the phone,'' explains Samantha Cho, Greet Street's director of corporate sponsorships. ''It's difficult to immerse myself in music.''

Of course, where private offices abound, musical taste is a nonissue. But in open-plan offices and Dilbert-style cubicle farms, most employees either have to adopt the ''mission-control'' headphone look or rely on small speakers plugged into their computers with the volume turned down low.

The most cutting-edge listeners are pulling their sounds off Web sites that offer a huge menu of options. (It works best with a continuous, high-speed Net connection.) For example, VTuner.com gives users access to radio stations worldwide. Just click on a station selected from the index. If you've already downloaded the RealAudio plug-in, you're in business within minutes, listening gratis to a sonata on Radioemisoras Beethoven in Santiago, Chile, or grooving to funk on Radio Free Orleans in New Orleans. Then there's Spinner.com, which hosts 125,000 visitors a week, most of whom click in from work to choose among 100 preprogrammed sound tracks such as movie scores and gospel. At SongHits.com, there's even a ''tension relief'' section that features Barbra Streisand singing ''The Lord's Prayer'' and various works by the master relaxer, Yanni.

But is it healthy to let your employees work to nonstop music? Don G. Campbell, a corporate consultant, lecturer, and author of The Mozart Effect, which details the emotional and physical benefits of music, doesn't think so. He recommends musical interludes, especially after lunch and during the late afternoon, as an energizing break. But, he says, they should last no more than 20 to 30 minutes. ''What's not healthy is keeping on talk radio or music day in and day out,'' says Campbell. ''Our ears have to work to cut out sound.''

That wisdom notwithstanding, methodfive continues to subsist on a continuous diet of mostly rock, jazz, and techno. ''The music makes it seem a lot more playful,'' says Dave Prior, a project manager. Also, the company's huge stereo system offers a hidden incentive for employees to arrive early: First one in gets their pick of CDs. Now that's sound management.


By Dennis Berman in New York

This article was originally published in the Sept. 14 print edition of Business Week's Enterprise.


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