Music in the Office (and Neurodiversity)

There’s an article in The Guardian today about music in the office.

I find this kind of discussion fascinating because it is essentially a neurodiversity problem – what works for one person’s brain doesn’t work for another. As a rule, we humans are very prone to assume everyone else’s experience of the world is the same as ours, that everyone processes the world as we do, and that anyone who therefore wants to structure the world differently from us is “wrong”.

Working with Caitlin Walker of Clean Learning we did a lot of work in our software company on how our brains work. The results are fascinating. Things like:

  • For some people, the structured use of coloured pens on white boards is hugely important, for others it doesn’t matter.
  • For some people noise behind them is hugely distracting yet for others a completely quiet office drives them crazy.
  • For people with misophonia, noisy eating, sounds of a mouse on a desk, etc are infuriating. Really properly rage inducing.

That’s just the start – there’s so many other small environmental things which prevent people working at their best in an office, which are easily fixed.

My bet is that this company could benefit a lot from some neurodiversity awareness – chances are they are screwing up elsewhere, too. There’s a lot of easy productivity wins for knowledge workers.

Here’s what we do for music in our office:

  • We have a Sonos system with speakers dotted around the office (generally, the smaller Play 1).
  • The volume level is low because there are lots of speakers, and anyone can adjust the volume of the speaker near them.
  • We can all control what’s playing.
  • Anyone can skip anything for any reason.
  • Anyone can stop the music temporarily – e.g. for a conference call.

This works really well, and I believe is an excellent way for the team to collaborate. It is always a milestone when a new person does their first Sonos action, because that tells us they are starting to feel empowered in the team. Similarly, unhelpful comments is a sign that there’s something amiss.

In addition, everyone has Apple AirPods and/or Bose QuietComfort noise cancelling headphones. If you need to isolate yourself, you can. If someone has headphones on that’s viewed as “Please don’t disturb, I’m doing focused work” and it is polite to use Slack, or walk into their visual field, to capture their attention.

The gentle background music is there for people who find it helpful, it can be stopped at any time, and people who want to check out are welcome to put in headphones. That’s a nice compromise.

One thing we never do is have the Radio on – that’s a mix of music and talking, which is devastating to my ability to concentrate. The way my brain works I can have music in the background, but if there’s voices on a radio it constantly pulls my attention away. In addition it is hard to find a DJ who doesn’t intensely annoy at least someone.

1 thought on “Music in the Office (and Neurodiversity)”

  1. Simon,
    What a refreshing approach to a very common workplace issue! Having been to your office I experienced first hand how people are treated as individuals and very much encouraged to find their own style.

    As ‘control’ has been found to be one of the biggest indicators of workplace performance, it always baffles me why other organisations fight difference and promote uniformity!

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