The speakers never stop pumping music throughout the office at Codeword, a public relations agency in Manhattan. All day. Every day. Any song by any artist can play for the entire office at any time. In theory, at least, death metal, Gregorian chants, or Enya can fill the office before the 40 employees have finished their coffee.
Everyone is also empowered to skip a disliked song by using the app that controls the office’s Sonos speaker system. The rule—”Claim your song skipping,” meaning the person who vetoes a song should publicly acknowledge doing so—is stipulated in Codeword’s “10 Commandments of Sonos,” which are printed on a poster that hangs on a wall in the corner. The sixth and seventh commandments encourage “deep cuts” and introducing colleagues to “weird music,” while the eighth cautions against taking things too far: “Extreme genres,” the poster warns, “might not last long.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon at Codeword, Depeche Mode played over the speakers. A few employees were wearing headphones, opting out of the sonic community. “I have come to like it, but I hated it at first,” said Mike Barish, a senior editor at the agency. “To me, it seemed like trying too hard, like very lazily creating culture.”
The rise of the open-floor-plan office has exposed workers to many annoying habits that used to hide behind cubicle walls, from distracting personal phone calls to weird food smells. Now, at least within an emerging vanguard of music-friendly offices, add coworkers’ musical preferences to that list.
“We’re getting a nice segment of commercial businesses installing Sonos,” said Brad Duea, the managing director of the Americas at Sonos Inc., which manufactures a popular line of wireless speakers. The company doesn’t track how many offices use its system but claims it often receives feedback on Twitter from office workers. The thousands of dealers that do custom speaker installations have also reported more requests for office jobs. Mattress-startup Casper, Seattle-based marketing firm Firmani + Associates, and Brooklyn-based PR agency Praytell all have speakers that play music throughout the office during the workday. Sonos also plays music aloud in each of its three corporate offices.
The role of music at work is part of an unintentional arms race of sorts. Office workers embraced earbuds and noise-canceling headphones in large numbers as ways to cope with the lack of privacy that came with the open-floor plan. But using private music to restore some semblance of auditory personal space defeats the purpose of taking down cubicle walls, which was done in the name of company culture and collaboration. Hermits don’t make very good corporate citizens of the modern office. That’s where the shared WiFi-enabled speaker enters corporate life. Music gets workers to take off their headphones while creating at least the veneer of corporate culture.
Neil Parikh, Casper’s chief operating officer, makes a playlist of “pump up jams” to play before the weekly all-hands meeting on Mondays. Some past musical selections have included “Eye of the Tiger” and “Sweet Dreams.” (Get it? It’s a sleep pun.) At Codeword, on other side of the energy spectrum, the office playlist is used to overcome the lack of ambience. “There’s no ringing phones or typewriters. If there’s no music, it’s really quiet in there—a little awkward,” said Kyle Monson, Codeword’s founder and chief executive officer.
Studies have also found that listening to music can, under the right circumstances, make workers more productive. In one, a group of information technologists who listened to music while working completed tasks more quickly, came up with better ideas, and reported better moods. That study also found that letting people pick their own music and listen for as long as they wanted led to the best results. Other research has found that the beat of the music can have different effects on workers moods. Something with slower beats, like Enya, can relax an anxious worker. A fast pace can make workers more alert.
Then again, to some the mandatory music is another unwelcome experience, further evidence of the inhumanity of the open office. “It’s a constant, frustrating distraction for me,” said Dan Bennett, who works in IT for a hosting company in the U.K. When he turns off the office Sonos, his co-workers turn it back on within minutes. “You get called boring and a moaner, when all you want to do is concentrate!” In a column for the Financial Times, Justine Roberts complained about the soundtrack playing over the loudspeakers at a tech company she visited for a meeting. She, too, found it distracting.
There’s also no accounting for taste. Twitter is replete with jokes and outrage about office music choices.
Codeword wants its employees to embrace the office playlist. New hires learn about the office’s Sonos commandments during orientation on their first day. “We want you to be involved, be part of our culture,” explained Monson. “But you have to follow these rules. You don’t have to memorize them or anything.”
His employees don’t always do that. “More often than not, it’s a sociology experiment, like how nobody calls 911 because they assume someone else will call 911,” said Barish, referencing the bystander effect. “Surely, after this sad song, somebody’s going to make it upbeat again,” he said. That doesn’t tend to happen. Employees fear offending colleagues or exposing their bad taste, and new hires tend to be too scared to touch the playlist. “I very carefully change the music, and I don’t always let people know that I have,” said Barish, who favors nostalgic hits from the 1980s.
Austin Johansen, an assistant editor at Codeword, waits until after 4 p.m. to play his preferred genre: hip-hop. Before then, when a song he doesn’t like comes on, he puts on headphones. “I don’t want to be like, ‘What is this new crap? I don’t like this,'” he said.
Employees can also petition to put songs on the banned list, which includes Edward Sharpe’s “Home,” “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers, and other overplayed coffeeshop earworms. To get on the banned-song list, an employee just has to ask coworkers; if there are no objections, it gets written under the Ten Commandments. “I unsuccessfully tried to ban ‘Santeria,'” Johansen said of the 1996 hit by Sublime. “I hate that song.” Movements to restrict the playing of rap and punk rock before noon have so far failed.
Monson, Codeword’s CEO, uses the music for a different purpose: his own privacy. He and his co-founder sit in a corner of the open office space, where they control the volume on the nearest Sonos speakers. When they want to discuss something sensitive, they turn it up. “I don’t want to sit in an office with a door closed. I want us out in public. But there are moments when we’re talking about someone, or salaries, or a new hire,” he said. “It’s like in The Americans: when they think the room is bugged, they’ll turn on the faucet or the shower. That’s us.”