science of us

To Bond With Your Co-workers, Take Out the Headphones and Blast Happy Tunes

Photo: Compassionate Eye Foundation/Jan/Getty Images

Have you ever had one of those moments where you’re sitting in your cubicle — headphones in, music on, jamming out as you type — and then you happen to glance down and realize with a flash of dread that your headphones weren’t actually plugged in to anything, and you’ve unknowingly been blasting your music out of your computer speakers for all to hear?

No? Yeah, um, me neither. But for those unlucky souls who have experienced this particular form of humiliation, some consolation: Maybe you were just helping with team bonding. That’s the idea behind a study recently published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, which found that the right kind of office jams may actually increase employee collaboration.

The study authors split participants into groups of three for a multi-round game, giving each person an equal amount of money. At the beginning of each round, they could either donate their cash to the group, in which case it would multiply by 1.5 and be divided among all members, or hold on to it and have the amount stay the same. If I had a dollar, for example, I could put it in the pot, where it would turn into $1.50, and I’d get 50 cents back — but if everyone in the group did it, we’d each get $1.50, meaning there was some incentive to collaborate. (None of the volunteers knew how many rounds there would be.)

As the games were going on, the study authors set up one of three background soundtracks: upbeat, happy songs, like “Walking on Sunshine”; lesser-known, less happy songs from heavy metal bands; or no music at all. Compared to the other two conditions, the teams that heard happy music were significantly more likely to share their wealth — by the last round, they were donating their money around 50 percent of the time, compared to around 30 percent for the heavy-metal group and just 20 percent for those who heard nothing. “People listening to happy music tend to generate higher contributions to the public good,” the researchers wrote. More research is needed to fully understand the effect, but the study indicates that it couldn’t be explained entirely by the mood boost the songs gave them.

Clearly, the approach isn’t without its trade-offs. For one thing, some research suggests that listening to music while working can be a distraction more than a boon, making it harder to focus on complex tasks. Plus, as the Washington Post noted, expecting an office full of people to all enjoy the same music is something of a gamble: “What happens when a manager’s ‘Cool Fun Jams for the Work Day’ mix is filled with stuff that his employees can’t stand?”

Still, the Post added, “the study is a useful reminder that workplace music can have a significant impact on employees.” Maybe it’s best deployed selectively, depending on the task at hand. And with an office DJ that’s been chosen carefully.

To Bond with Co-workers, Ditch the Headphones