Plugged in

They’re crunching numbers to Mariah Carey. Creating a PowerPoint to Vampire Weekend. Or polishing off a competitive analysis to The Clash.

A generation of workers, accustomed to carrying the soundtrack of their lives wherever they go, is popping in earbuds and plugging into their music at the office.

Behind their desks, younger workers are moving to the beat. A 2006 Harris

Interactive Poll found that nearly 90 percent of workers age 18 to 39 say music improves their job satisfaction and productivity. About one-third of employees were plugged into personal music devices at work in 2006.

Few companies ban or officially limit the use of earbuds and music-listening at work.

A 2006 survey of 452 human resource professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 88 percent of firms do not have a written iPod policy in place.

“The computer has made music so accessible that companies would have a rebellion on their hands if they were too punitive there,” says John Challenger, chief executive officer at Challenger, Gray and Christmas, the Chicago-based outplacement consulting organization. “I think most companies don’t make policies because they trust their people to listen to music with some discretion.”

Not all workplaces embrace a “live and let listen” philosophy, however.

Although his firm has stopped short of banning earbud use at work, Mario Almonte, a managing partner at New York-based Herman and Almonte Public Relations, says listening to music on the part of employees there is frowned upon. Earbuds make employees look unprofessional, Almonte believes. He says that the issue most often pops up with interns, young people whose experience with the company is limited.

“It doesn’t occur to them that anything is wrong with it,” Almonte says. However,

“People around them feel somewhat annoyed that they see someone listening to music. They feel they’re not really working.”

Almonte believes that earbuds and work just don’t mix. “If you are really concentrating on your work, music will distract you,” he says. “It doesn’t allow you to totally focus on your job.”

Those who enjoy listening to music are quick to disagree with the idea that tunes interfere with their productivity.

Alexander Halavais, assistant professor of interactive communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., says he started listening to his music with earbuds when he began working from a cubicle surrounded by loud talkers. “The music made it possible to concentrate on my work instead of one-sided personal and professional phone calls on either side,” Halavais says.

Besides, he points out, music and work go hand-in-hand.

“Work songs have a very long history,” he says. “Much of our musical history might be traced to singing at work.”

The lack of formal guidelines regarding music-listening at work has led to problems. San Jose, Calif.-based Novellus Systems recently settled with a worker who was fired after complaining about racially offensive rap music a coworker was playing and singing along to.

Marcia Stein, a human resources consultant in Silicon Valley and author of “Recruiters on Recruiting” (WJT Bashamer, 2008), says the Novellus case could prompt companies to establish policies and guidelines governing the playing of personal music at work. In addition to music causing friction between workers, portable music devices can pose security risks, since downloading and exchanging information on them is so easy, she points out.

So should ears be open and hands be glued to the keyboard? Or is the sound of an iPod scroll wheel and a tinny treble from a coworker’s ’buds here to stay? It’s a question companies will continue to face as Gen Y finds their way into the workforce.

Stay tuned.

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