Listen to music while at work? Bosses in Japan say it improves employee performance

On a recent work day, jazz music played in the background in the sales department of a trading company in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. The murmur of a river occasionally joined the melody as more than 100 employees worked. -- PHOTO: AFP
On a recent work day, jazz music played in the background in the sales department of a trading company in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. The murmur of a river occasionally joined the melody as more than 100 employees worked. -- PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network) - On a recent work day, jazz music played in the background in the sales department of a trading company in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. The murmur of a river occasionally joined the melody as more than 100 employees worked.

The music is played for 12 hours from 8am from 24 speakers at the office of Uchida Yoko Co., according to Nobuhiko Hirayama, 57, an executive officer at the company.

"The sounds are soothing to the ear so they won't affect the work," he said.

An increasing number of workplaces have begun playing music or sounds at levels that don't disrupt workers' concentration. The idea of playing music was prompted by complaints from some workers that they hesitate to discuss business or chat with coworkers because their workplaces are too quiet.

Employers hope the background music will help promote exchanges among their workers.

Uchida Yoko's sales department office has used a sound system from Victor Entertainment Corp. since 2012. The speakers are installed around the feet of workers and near the ceiling. The system plays instrumental music mixed with sounds of nature, such as forests and rivers.

The music helps prevent distractions and mental stress caused by other people talking and the sound of tapping on keyboards, and increases workers' concentration and ability to relax while working, according to the company.

"In the past, our office was noisy with ringing telephones and the sounds of printers. But with the use of more advanced office-automation equipment and e-mail, our office has become very quiet," Hirayama said.

Some employees began saying such things as, "I can't concentrate because of the voices in the business meetings of other workers," and "I'm worried about chatting with my colleagues because I'm afraid it may disturb other workers." So the company decided to introduce the sound system, Hirayama said.

"Chatting with coworkers is important for communication and coming up with innovative ideas," said Masayoshi Aihara, 43, a section chief of the company's finance and sales department. "Now that our workplace isn't too quiet, we can talk with each other more comfortably."

The system has been introduced at about 50 locations, including universities and libraries, according to Victor Entertainment.

Overly quiet workplaces are a common problem among many businesses.

According to a survey conducted last year on 400 workers in their 20s to 50s by broadcaster USEN Corp., 53 percent of respondents say that they feel uncomfortable working at places that are too quiet.

USEN developed background music last year to deal with this problem. The company now offers Mental Care, a music programme supervised by a psychiatrist, in addition to regular music programmes.

Ito Human Resource Research Institute in Tokyo uses the new USEN system.

"We do a lot of work on computers, making our office very quiet, so we were reluctant to talk with colleagues. It was a kind of vicious cycle," said Ayako Takata, a worker at the institute.

"Since we have background music now, we can work in a more relaxed atmosphere and feel like just striking up a conversation. We can also work more efficiently."

Itoki Corp. in Osaka and Yamaha Corp. in Shizuoka Prefecture also started offering similar programmes to other companies last year - audio equipment playing ambient sounds and piano music.

Companies are beginning to regard communication among their workers at the office as important.

Active conversations during breaks contribute to increasing work performance throughout the workplace, in addition to stronger leadership from superiors and improved worker skills, according to a survey on 130 telemarketing workers jointly conducted by major telemarketing company Moshi Moshi Hotline, Inc. in Tokyo and Hitachi, Ltd.'s Central Research Laboratory also in Tokyo from 2011 to 2012.

"If workers build good relations with their colleagues so that they can have a good time with them outside the office, it leads to an improvement in work performance," said a worker of the research laboratory in charge of the survey.

"Conventionally, building good work environments usually means preventing work-related accidents and improving safety and sanitation. With regard to the sound environment, great efforts had been made to prevent noise," said Kaori Nose, a researcher at The Institute for Science of Labour in Kanagawa Prefecture.

"From now on, more companies will make efforts to build comfortable work environments by incorporating sounds and other new elements to increase productivity."