Are your corporate overlords controlling you with light and sound?

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Many corporate work environments are designed to encourage optimum efficiency. Managers want to encourage productivity with the amount of light and music, or discourage socializing by erecting walls. Do any of these tactics work at all? And if they do, how is your work environment influencing you?

Top image by 79Silver on Deviant Art.


Soothing Sound

In the early 1920s, U.S. General George Squier noted an increase in efficiency in his workers when he piped music into factories with his Muzak process. This led to a focusing of Muzak's approach, with their current corporate statement professing an ability to mold customers minds:

Founders of piped music and the science of how music affects the behavior of customers.


The Muzak corporation learned that the number of instruments and the tempo of a song created a profile. To maximize impact, the company developed a rather scientific system of arranging song. The system is termed Stimulus Progression and aimed at providing a cyclical psychological boost to the worker.


Muzak impacts the worker by keeping music at a low level of awareness. While in this low level of awareness, the progression system and alters the tempo of songs, building to a song with a high stimulus value and then disappearing into the void. The system might also play more rambunctious music during times of the day when workers are likely to be tired (the period around lunch). A piece of text from one of Muzak's early corporate documents does not hide the company's intentions:

Muzak is science. And when you employ the science of Muzak: in an office, workers tend to get more done, more efficiently, and feel happier. In an industrial plant, people feel better and, with less fatigue and tension, their jobs seem less monotonous. In a store, people seem to shop in a more relaxed and leisurely manner. In a bank, customers are generally more calm, tellers and other personnel are more efficient. In general, people feel better about where they are; whether it's during work or leisure time.


In addition to setting an office tone, music affects the behavior of customers, with holiday shoppers often matching their browsing pace to that of the music piped in around them. Muzak offers its services to retail outlets, banks, and hospitals – services affecting not only the consumers, but the workers serving them within the walls.


The Trouble With Windows

The levels of light along with the color of light influences the quality of a worker's experience. A paper called The impact of light and colour on psychological mood: a cross-cultural study of indoor work environments synthesizes the impact of light on 988 workers from across the globe.


The study finds, in general, that the mood of office workers farther from the equator (like the UK) is affected more than those living near the equator (Argentina). The amount of light present in office environments is measured in the study with a luxometer, and the researchers find that extremes of light – too much (2,000 lux) or too little light (30 lux) is disturbing to workers.

Distance from windows is also observed, yielding a bimodal distribution. If you are stationed too close a window, you are not as happy, but happiness increases until the approximate center of the room, where mood decreases and then the increases again as the people near the wall enjoy their separation from the outside world.


I empathize with this, working next to a window overlooking a campus commons area for several years – you feel like a caged animal, with your only release coming through annoying the students outside. The paper also suggests that color in the work environment affects mood, with the presence of a small amount of color beneficial.


These tactics, on the surface, might make a worker more comfortable – brighter light helps one see, music provides a nice pace. An ethical tight rope, but not a malicious act. Sound manipulation becomes a particularly questionable method for workers in a retail setting, as they are continually exposed to music intended to guide a customer. I imagine the long term effects of listening to muzak eight hours a day are frightening. Perhaps someone should conduct a study and find out.


Images courtesy of Trustella/flickr, Wes Clark, and Muzak. Sources linked within the article.