iPods at Work – January 10, 2007

iPods at work

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 26 – January 10, 2007


Happy 2007!  I wanted to get this to you before Christmas because I am sure some of you had an iPod on your Christmas list – but it wasn’t meant to be.

My son’s grades arrived in the mail about a week ago, they were by no means bad, but I must admit that I expected them to be a bit better. After all this kid has been scoring top marks since he was six years old and even skipped ahead a year in school when we moved to Australia. If a person does not do as well at something as you know they can, you cannot help but wonder why. I suppose it is human nature to want to point the finger at something as a catalyst to the change and in this particular situation I am pointing my finger straight at the Sony Corporation. Why, because it is Sony who developed the iPod that is permanently attached to my son’s ear.

Soon to be 17, my son is quintessential Netgen – he blissfully multi-tasks, IMs, e –mails, reads and does all of this while he talks on the phone and listens to his iPod. Prior to this set of grades, it appeared he was quite capable of doing this all at the same time. I think extension English was what upset the apple cart, they made him read Dostoyevsky. Doing that and listening to the iPod appears to have tested the limit of his multi- tasking brain. Call me old fashioned, but being from a generation that believed it  risky to light a cigarette while holding an open beer for fear of spillage, it is difficult to comprehend how effective work can be done with so many distractions. Especially reading, even I miss important information when I try to read New Idea while watching Australia’s Biggest Loser, just imagine Dostoyevsky.

You can’t grow up surrounded by gadgets and not expect to bring some of your toys to work with you when you grow up.  Looking around the office I see I am pretty much alone, being one of the only people in my immediate area that is not supporting the Sony Corporation by listening to an iPod. The reality is that one in five workers is listing to iPods or similar listening devices at their desks. Obviously, the type of work that one does has an impact on whether they can listen to music:  80% of technical and creative workers listen to music more than 20% of their working hours, while at management level the proportion of workers listening to music drops to 20%. Clerical workers spend 40% of their working day listening to music.

With over 40 million people worldwide using iPods, there is bound to be an impact in the workplace. Determining the distraction level of these devices, and weighing their risks and benefits will be a challenge for many employers. Companies will struggle with drawing the line because many employees will argue that using a personal music player helps them concentrate and therefore improves productivity. It is true that in today’s ‘always on’ culture people find it difficult to concentrate. No wonder, a report from New Scientist noted that petty distractions: e mails, phone calls, people coming to your desk and computer generated reminders take up on average more than two hours of our working days. Another study by London’s Institute of Psychiatry found constant disruption had a greater effect on IQ than smoking marijuana.

Years ago while doing work for Netscape I was told that if a computer programmer was interrupted while writing code it would take him or her 30 minutes to get back to the same place. According to a University of California study, if you’re interrupted while trying to remember what it is you were doing you might as well go home. The study showed more than 20 percent of interrupted tasks were not resumed the same day. The same study found that most distractions in a typical work day are self- inflicted: sending e mails, playing with things on your desk, bothering your busy colleagues, getting 37 cups of tea.

Tuning out distraction is only one of the reasons people listen to music at work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and you thought Aznavoorian was a mouthful) who directs the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Management says workers are turning to music as a form of distraction from otherwise boring work. The implications here are far greater. If employees are so uninvolved in what they’re doing that their minds need to be distracted, at the least there will be losses in productivity, in the worst case scenario there may be safety risks. If our people, particularly the younger ones, are listening to music because they are bored what hope do we have of keeping them in the workplace?

Some of the problems with iPods at work are the real or perceived message wearing headphones sends of being inaccessible or not wanting to be bothered. Some believe that this is creating a wedge between older and younger workers due to the fact that it is predominantly younger people donning the headphones, making the older ones feel alienated. There can also be risks to the company’s network when employees connect MP3 players to their computer to download and store songs; those same players could be used to download other information making it possible to infect a network with a virus. In the event that you have not thought of this, MP3 players that have the video capability may be used to watch pornography or other inappropriate material on the job! Of course you would have to be pretty dumb to do that, the screen is too tiny and you would strain your eyes.

The more obvious issues are with not being able to hear people talking to you, or the phone ringing, which puts a real damper on the type of collaboration we are trying to encourage in many of the workplaces we design. In some industries not being able to hear can be a source of broader safety issues; particularly if it is critical to hear warning alarms and bells, warnings shouted by co workers or other workplace sounds such as moving forklifts. Some claim there are also problems with inaccuracies and mistakes on the job due to people being more mentally engaged in the music than the task at hand. If the TV dramas are accurate, this is not true because doctors always have rock music pumped up to the highest volume in the theater during surgery.

In the event an employee is tuned out a co workers may be forced to get their attention by other means. As an example when I want Josh I just throw one of my old imperial scale rules or an adjustable triangle at his head, it is good to put this obsolete drafting equipment to use. However, employees with poor aim may be required to get up to touch their co worker to get their attention. This can scare or startle the person, or in extreme cases (like if you live in the USA where suing others is as common as birth and death) the touching could be misconstrued as harassment. The lesson here is that if you want to get a co workers attention it is better to tap their shoulder and not their behind, breast or crotch area.

In some instances listening to music can be a distraction to others. Surely you have had the experience of being next to someone listening to music with the volume on so loud that it is clearly audible right through the earplugs. The only thing worse than this is those people who like to sing along, dance or drum on their desk.  Also not everyone likes the same music – Adam Weissman from DBA Public Relations says “Sometimes in those random occasions when someone is having an extremely bad day, there is nothing quite like scrolling through my iPod and cranking the Muppets theme song” Yep I bet there is nothing quite like that, thank goodness Adam does not work here. When you add  visual distraction to auditory, environmental distractions such as thermal comfort and air quality and the internal distractions we all have: your hungry, your sleepy, your feet hurt  –  there are so many distractions encountered in the typical work environment you wonder how we get anything done.

So what is an employer to do – ban the iPod?  Cary Cooper a professor of organizational psychology and health at LancasterUniversity said “It’s crucial to give workers autonomy and bans of any sort can alienate them. Bosses shouldn’t care about how employees accomplish their objectives as long as the job gets done” (sounds like something the late Kenneth Lay would have said). Others believe that if people spend time listening to music instead of working it is a firms right to ban MP3 players. In the end it is up to employers to establish protocol for personal electronic devices and enforce them.

Some companies are being quite innovative when it comes to iPods and are using them to their advantage. Capital One uses iPods as a part of an audio training program for employees. Pod casting enables companies to put training programs on files or shows, which enable employees to listen to them when it suits such as while riding to work. Other companies like Homestead Technologies in Menlo ParkCA have used iPods as a perk when they gave all 77 employees engraved devices as 10-year anniversary gifts.

Clearly office cultures vary, a technology company in the Silicon Valley will be different to a law firm. Either way the atmosphere in the workplace is changing by becoming more informal, more gadgetized, and more employee centric. The demands and expectations of the next generation of worker we hope to attract are having an impact on the work environment, and the rules are shifting for everyone.  As these shifts take place grey areas in workplace decorum will emerge, in sorting through those many employers will be put in the uncomfortable position many of us with children find ourselves in – determining whether something is really bad or just different to the way you did it.

Whether to allow flip flops to work, strappy tank tops, encourage properly punctuating e mails, allowing the use of  emoticons and acronyms in office correspondence, as well as when and how you can use your iPod all be a parts of the new work landscape companies will need to navigate their way through. As for me, my son can keep the iPod. After a summer working for Hoyts sweeping up popcorn off the floor he now understands the importance of getting better grades. He now recognizes that without a formal education the best he can hope for is being elevated to the Hoyts candy counter, and if he is really stellar, some day ticket sales.


“The Disrupting Influence of Technology”

By Tim Dowling

The Sydney Morning Herald

August 21, 2006

“MP3s Banned as Workers Switch on and Switch Off”

By Ben Quinn

The New Zealand Herald

November 2, 2006

“Going toe-to-toe in office etiquette”

By Olivia Barker and Sarah Bailey

USA Today

August 14, 2005

“iPod use in the workplace”

Employment Law Bits

August  28, 2006

“Are iPods Good for the Workplace?”

The Chicago Tribune

February 13, 2006

“Music Hath Charms for Some Workers – Others it Annoys”

By Stephanie Armour

USA Today

March 23, 2006

“iPod @ Work”

By Matt Krumrie

Star Tribune – Minneapolis – St. Paul Minnesota

October 30, 2006

Auditory, visual and physical distractions in the workplace

By Justin Mardex

Cornell University, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis




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