Why You Might Want to Trade Your Open-Plan Office for a Coffee Shop

With open-plan offices, you either love the casual coffee-shop vibe or hate it. Now new research suggests that you may be more productive if you take your work to an actual coffee shop.

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times before: A lot of folks think the open-plan office is a bad fad in the business world, while others have come to embrace it.

It’s a debate that’s been going on for years, and it shows no sign of going away anytime soon, especially as shared spaces with open formats, like WeWork, gain popularity. (That company is growing so fast that it recently opened a gym concept.)

These spaces aim to create an atmosphere of casual community to fuel creativity, not unlike the vibe you may find in your local coffee shop. But now some business-world experts say coffee shops may be a better bet for getting things done.

Last week in the Harvard Business Review, David Burkus, an associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University, noted that coffee shops are good places to work because they have the right level of background noise, but that noise doesn’t tend to draw people into the conversation. He cited research from multiple sources, such as a 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Research that found that the right level of noise can maximize creativity.

Conversations in an open office, meanwhile, have the opposite effect, according to a 2016 study published by the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture that used frontal lobe electroencephalographic (EEG) machines to test creative thinking in different sound environments. Burkus suggests the X-factor of coffee shop work might be that you’re not being called to engage with the surrounding noise.

“The problem may be that, in our offices, we can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into others’ conversations or from being interrupted while we’re trying to focus,” Burkus wrote. “Indeed, the EEG researchers found that face-to-face interactions, conversations, and other disruptions negatively affect the creative process. By contrast, a coworking space or a coffee shop provides a certain level of ambient noise while also providing freedom from interruptions.”

Rethinking the Office

So how do we make work environments more like calming coffee shops and less like distracting offices? British futurist Dr. Nicole Millard recently noted a trend toward “coffices,” or small teams that work out of coffee shops, bringing their laptops to the work environment of their choice.

“The problem of the future is switching off. The big damage is task switching. You can tell you have been task switching when you switch off your computer at night and find there several unclosed windows or unsent emails still there because you were interrupted,” she said at the New Scientist Live conference last month, according to The Telegraph. “So we will become shoulder-bag workers. Our technology has shrunk so we can literally get our office in a small bag. We are untethered; we don’t have to have a desk anymore.”

Some have suggested that the open-office model needs to adapt to the changing work environment. During a recent panel discussion held by Bisnow in Charlotte, North Carolina, Greg Pappanastos, president and founder of Argos Real Estate Advisors, noted that decisions about what the office looks like are becoming less top-down.

“Ten to 15 years ago, the employer made all the decisions about where they were going to be. Now they’re letting the future employee drive that decision,” Pappanastos said,
according to Forbes.

“The trouble with open-plan offices is they are a one-size-fits-all model, which actually fits nobody,” Millard said at the conference last month.

What are your thoughts on open offices? Share your take in the comments below.

(PeopleImages/DigitalVision/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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