Some of the most successful people in history have done their best work in coffee shops.
Pablo Picasso, JK Rowling, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Bob Dylan – whether they’re painters, singer-songwriters, philosophers or writers, people across nations and centuries have tapped into their creativity working away at a table in a café.
Of course, Covid-19 has put the kibosh on lingering for hours in cozy rooms packed with people sipping lattes. As we begin another year living amid a pandemic, many of us continue to work remotely on our own. And if remote work becomes permanent for some – as many experts predict – we might ask ourselves why, when things settle down, we should bother going back out to work in public, only to ostensibly isolate ourselves with our heads down – something we’re already doing at home.
But putting on your noise-cancelling headphones to toil away at your desk is actually different than doing the same surrounded by other people buzzing over your shoulder. There are many ways coffee shops trigger our creativity in a way offices and homes don’t. Research shows that the stimuli in these places make them effective environments to work; the combination of noise, casual crowds and visual variety can give us just the right amount of distraction to help us be our sharpest and most creative. (So, no, it’s not just that double espresso.)
A sweet spot of noise and crowds
Some of us stick in our earbuds as soon as we sit down to work in a public setting. But scientists have known for years that background noise can benefit our creative thinking.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that a low-to-moderate level of ambient noise in a place like a cafeteria can actually boost your creative output. The idea is that if you’re very slightly distracted from the task at hand by ambient stimuli, it boosts your abstract thinking ability, which can lead to more creative idea generation.
The Elephant House in Edinburgh is famous for being the café in which JK Rowling originated the Harry Potter series (Credit: Alamy)
Another study from 2019, which had similar findings, zeroes in on what’s called “stochastic resonance”: originally observed in animals, it’s the phenomenon in which just the right amount of noise benefits our senses. And while that ‘Goldilocks’ level of noise is different for everyone, audio stimuli in the background also help us improve decision making. Some have even dubbed “the coffee shop effect”. So, the jazz muzak, light conversation and barista banging coffee grounds out of the grinder aren’t a nuisance – they could help you come up with your next magnum opus.
There’s also the fact that in a coffee shop, we’re surrounded by people who’ve come to do the same thing as us, which acts as a motivator. A 2016 study backed up this idea when researchers asked participants sitting next to each other in front of a computer to do a task on the same screen. The study showed that “simply performing a task next to a person who exerts a lot of effort in a task will make you do the same”.
“It’s analogous to going to the gym for a workout,” says Sunkee Lee, assistant professor of organisational theory and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pennsylvania. “One of the biggest things about coffee shops is the social-facilitation effect: you go there, you see other people working and it puts you in a mood where you just naturally start working as well. Just observing them can motivate you to work harder.”
One thing that can making working from home (and the office) feel onerous is the visual environment; often we sit in the same chair and look at the same four walls without reprieve.
The combination of noise, casual crowds and visual variety can give us just the right amount of distraction to help us be our sharpest and most creative
“Visual stimulation – how the office is decorated – has an effect on people’s creative thinking process. [It] is called convergent creative thinking,” says Lee. In his research, he’s found that visual variety helps in “solving a problem that has an optimal solution, but requires you to think outside the box”. While Lee tried to address this by adding neon lights to the walls of his home office during the pandemic, he soon found that the wacky furnishings quickly became familiar and boring. Coffee shops, though, generally have visual stimuli in spades. (And hitting up different coffee shops each time keeps things even more varied.)
“Even if you think that you are working in isolation – in the space of your computer screen and noise-cancelling headphones – there are still things going on around you,” says Korydon Smith, a professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo in New York, who co-wrote a recent article on the benefits of working in coffee shops. “People come and go. The daylight changes. The aromas of coffee and food vary. While we tend not take conscious notice of these micro-stimuli, and likely don’t overtly choose to work in this location because of them, these activities around us prod our brains to work a bit differently than at home."
‘Air of informality’
And while the stereotypical coffee-shop user might be a lone worker struggling with a creative endeavour, experts say these café settings can also benefit work groups who are brainstorming and building camaraderie.
“There is an implied formality when gathering on digital meeting platforms. By contrast, there is an air of informality when meeting up at a bar or café,” says Smith. All those audio and visual stimuli help groups, too, compared to the dearth on Zoom or in a formal meeting room.
Although working on your own in public seems comparable to working on your own at home, research says the environments are much different (Credit: Alamy)
Office-based meeting spaces or platforms also come with other constraints. “Agendas are not required to meet someone for coffee, but are inherent in a scheduled meeting, virtual or otherwise, which can kill creativity,” says architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie, director of campus planning at the University of Buffalo and one of Smith’s co-authors. She says that university campuses, like open-air offices, have blended elements of coffee shops into their design to prompt people to gather and collaborate, as part of a trend that’s been happening for more than a decade.
One caveat, though: not all public spaces are equally work friendly. “One difference between the café and bar is the level of ambient noise, where many bars have background music and athletics that don’t always promote small-group conversation to the extent that you more commonly find in cafés,” says McAlonie.
…and about that coffee
With Covid-19 still raging in many countries, many still several months away from being able to work from a coffee shop.
And over the last year, we’ve all – of necessity – found ways to be productive at home. When social-network management company Buffer surveyed 3,500 remote workers around the world for its 2020 State of Remote Work report, it showed that 80% of them prefer to work at home, instead of places like coworking spaces and cafés. That sounds like a lot, but it’s actually a similar figure to 2019 and 2018, meaning lockdowns don’t appear to have made more workers bond with their home offices. That indicates that for some, the thirst for public settings is still there, even after a year of social distancing.
Lee believes that people have those “past experiences of the positive aspects of coffee shops”, and that the “coffee-shop effect” will likely lure us out of our home offices. “No doubt about it, [we’re] going to go back,” he says.
Even if working from home remains an option long-term, the benefits of temporarily relocating to a coffee shop may be too good to pass up. “And maybe the coffee is better, too,” adds Smith.