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Why do so many people use coffee shops as an office?

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What’s the appeal and how can you replicate it back at the office?

Walk into any coffee shop and you’ll inevitably see rows of people sitting in front of laptops working. Freelancers (of which there are now 1.9 million in the UK) plus home workers trying to avoid the distractions of laundry and Netflix have created a sustained trend that shows no signs of slowing. Apart from the obvious attraction of good coffee and cake, what is it about coffee shops that makes them such popular places to work? Is it mandatory to work on a Macbook? And if you and your colleagues are office-based, how can you recreate the coffee shop atmosphere in your workplace?

The concept of working in coffee shops isn’t new. In the 17th century there were more than 80 coffee houses in the City of London, each of which was a centre of specific mercantile or entrepreneurial expertise. In the late 1600s Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop was the place to go for marine information and later insurance; from these humble beginnings the venerable insurance legend that is Lloyds of London began.

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The Third Space
A few centuries later, when Starbucks landed on our shores in the 1990s they brought with them the concept of the ‘third space’. Not work, not home, but somewhere comfortable in between. It’s a concept that has barely changed, apart from the addition of wifi, and has since been emulated by its many successors. The soft furnishings provide behavioural cues that this is somewhere relaxing, while the buzz of commerce creates a stimulating environment that suits both social and business encounters. We think and feel differently when we’re in a coffee shop environment rather than an office; it’s less formal, we can be ourselves and it feels more fun.

From a furniture standpoint, it’s a blend of natural finishes (wooden tables and chairs) and soft seating which offers variety and good acoustics plus lighting that would be equally at home in your home. It’s easy enough to replicate in an office situation but be sure to include soft finishes and fabric to dampen sound.

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Noises on
Although this might be slightly counterintuitive, it’s partly the noise that attracts people to working in coffee shops. The study Is Noise Always Bad?* published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that an ambient noise level of 70db enhances performance on creative tasks. Perhaps because we are essentially social beings, we like being surrounded by the hubbub of others, without actually having to talk to, or be interrupted by, them. The low level hum creates a purposeful atmosphere rather than the soporific peace of a study or a deathly quiet office where you feel self-conscious making or taking a phone call. If you can’t make it out to a coffee shop there’s an app, Coffitivity, that will play you the sounds of a coffee shop (choices include Morning Murmur, Lunchtime Lounge or you can upgrade to premium and enjoy Texas Teahouse or Brazil Bistro) so you can enjoy the café atmosphere from the comfort of your home or desk. Yes, really.

At work, you might already have quiet zones for focused work, but do you have a loud zone where people can chat, take and make calls? If you can’t stretch to a barista and coffee cart for the authentic hiss and bubble, having a kitchen area with kettle and coffee machine could work almost as well.

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Variety is the spice…
Another reason people populate coffee shops is for a change of scene. Boredom is the enemy of both creativity and productivity; staring at the same four walls all day every day is a direct route to tediumsville. Switching around your work locale also introduces variety in the people you see, so you get to develop networks beyond your immediate neighbours (be they desk neighbours or the people next door). You never know who you’ll bump into or what they could connect you to.

Offering a variety of spaces to work prevents ennui from setting in, and with pods, booths and touchdowns it’s not difficult to do. Failing that, just make sure your office is near a coffee shop and drop in when you need some ambient noise and caffeine-driven inspiration. Macbook optional.

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