Is music at work a “grey area”?

In my research, I found that IT managers as well as employees felt that the rules relating to music listening at work were vague. Music was often seen as a “grey area” at work.

“Are we allowed to listen to music at work?”

“Do we have to pay license fees for having music on in the office?”

“What if people download music illegally, or spread viruses on the company network?”

These concerns points to the fact that very few workplaces have any clearly defined policies on music listening. Often, it is down to individual managers. Some allow music, some don’t. Some employees do as they are told, some don’t.

In my research, music was often viewed as something “private”, “individual” and “leisure-related”. Yet, it was also often viewed as functional and useful for work. Music as representing leisure (or private life) was met with mixed emotions in my studies. Some interpreted music as leisure as a sign of a liberal and positive approach of the company, and felt it represented an attempt by the company to distance itself from a traditional and controlling (Taylorist) approach to the relationship between managers and workers. Others, who viewed work mainly as a drive for efficiency, felt music listening at work signified laziness and unavailability. The fact that music sometimes evokes guilt (some felt “naughty” for listening to music at work) suggests that there may be clear boundaries between work and leisure, that the existence of music blurs these boundaries, and that some people found this problematic.

If leisure and work are considered as two separate entities (in the industrialised sense), then defining music as leisure at work can be a way to undermine employees’ private habits, by defining music as something that does not belong at work (i.e. music is not compatible with work). But if leisure and work are viewed as more integrated, then music as leisure at work can be viewed as a compliment to work, and as a way to structure and manage the work environment as well as the individual in that environment.

Understanding more about the effects of music in workplaces, and the different associations it may evoke, is useful for organisations.  It can help companies developing policies that clarify what is accepted music listening and what is not, which means employees know how to behave without being worried about doing something they shouldn’t.

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