By Shannon Vicic Managers who want to boost employee productivity may elect to turn to an unlikely motivational tool: the personal stereo headset, popularly known as the Walkman. Research directed by Greg Oldham, a UI professor of organizational behavior, suggests that employees allowed to wear personal stereo headsets on the job may exhibit increased productivity, a better attitude and greater satisfaction with their company. The study, published in the October issue of The Journal of Applied Psychology, was based on surveys and work evaluations from employees asked to wear personal stereos at the business office of a large retail organization. Of the 256 non-supervisory employees who participated in the study, 75 were allowed to use headsets at work and the rest served as a control group. During the four-week study, headphone wearers experienced a 10 percent overall gain in productivity compared to their output during the previous four weeks. "Stereo users turned their headsets on and their productivity increased substantially," Oldham said. "In the control group, productivity remained fairly stable." Employees with less complex jobs saw the highest productivity gains, experiencing a 14 percent increase, while those whose jobs required more attention to detail saw gains of about 7 percent, Oldham said. The researcher believes that headphones served as a slight distraction during more complex tasks. Because headphones may hinder communication, he also doesn't recommend them for those who work in teams, talk on the telephone a lot, or have to interact often with others. Daily diaries completed by headphone-wearing employees indicated that they used the stereos for an average of 20 hours per 36-hour work week and tuned in to music rather than talk radio. Oldies and country music were the favored station formats. Personal stereos had "mood-enhancing qualities" regardless of the listener's musical preference, Oldham said. People who listened to headsets were "less nervous, less fatigued, more enthusiastic and more relaxed at work than were people in the control group." Stereo users also expressed fewer intentions to leave their jobs in the near future. Along with the productivity and mood-enhancing benefits of personal stereos, allowing workers to use headphones in the workplace can help resolve issues that sometimes surface with background music systems - who should select the music and when it should be played. "Anytime you have the ability to empower people by giving them some choice, there seems to be a positive effect," he said. But, he cautioned, there are risks to headset use in the workplace: Headphone wearers may not hear warning alarms or sirens; headphone cords can become tangled in machinery; and headphones used at high volumes may cause permanent hearing loss, which could lead to lawsuits against the company. Employers need to evaluate carefully whether personal stereos are right for their specific situations.