Harvard Business Review recently posted an article exploring why a coffee shop might be more conducive to focus than working in an open-plan office, even though both environments can be noisy.
The article cites research showing that people tend to be more creative in the presence of noise rather than in complete silence, and that EEG readings reveal that “a certain level of white noise proved the ideal background sound for creative tasks.” The kind of noise seems to make a big difference.
What is it about open offices? The quiet chatter of colleagues and the gentle thrum of the air conditioning should help us focus, Harvard noted. The problem may be that, in our offices, we can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into co-workers’ conversations or from being interrupted while we’re trying to focus, Harvard wrote.
Indeed, the researchers found that face-to-face interactions, conversations and other disruptions negatively affect the creative process.
By contrast, a co-working space or a coffee shop provides a certain level of ambient noise from strangers while also providing freedom from interruptions.
I think that’s true, but there’s more going on here than meets the ear. Coffee shops (and co-working spaces) operate under different social systems than offices and workplaces.
For example, in a coffee shop, all patrons are created equal. There is significant social pressure to adhere to common-sense politeness, such as no cellphone calls (you take it outside) and no loud talking.
By contrast, in an office, social pressure exists within an informal hierarchy of clout. While there may be rules — even posted rules — similar to the unspoken rules of coffee shop behavior, breaking those rules, and escaping censure for doing so, is a highly visible and universally understood way to establish dominance.
Indeed, sexual harassment (especially when committed in the presence of underlings, as has been the case in many of the recent horror stories) is the most extreme form of this kind of status-establishing bad behavior.
Less heinous, though equally status-driven behaviors plague most workplaces. For example, in a high-tech firm, a project leader might (consciously or subconsciously) hold a loud conversation in the middle of a shared work area simply to prove to everyone else that his project is more important than whatever they’re doing.
Is he being a jerk? Sure. But while people may resent it, if he has enough political clout, he can get away with it and because he can get away with it, it will emphasize and reinforce his status as well.
Another difference between coffee shops and open-plan offices is the nature of the conversations that you’re likely to overhear.
In a coffee shop, there’s an infinitesimal likelihood that an overheard conversation will be relevant to you or your job. By contrast, in an open-plan office, any conversation is potentially relevant. As a result, your brain is going to keep you partially engaged when anybody is talking.
Another big difference is your level of control. If you’re in a coffee shop and find the noise distracting, you can wear noise-canceling headphones with a reasonable expectation that nobody will ask you to remove them.
In an open-plan office, though, other people (especially those who believe they’re more important than you) feel empowered to catch your eye and demand your attention. They may even believe they’re doing the company a favor by pulling you away from your playlist and back into the real world.
In short, it’s not the noise that makes an open-plan office such a miserable place to work — it’s the inability to escape the proximity of the petty and annoying behaviors of your co-workers.
While I’m on the subject, I’ll share how I dealt with some status-driven annoying behavior back in the day.
Early in my career, I worked for a company where everyone, even the C-level execs, had cubicles. I made the best of it by requesting a cubicle off the beaten path, next to two cubicles that were reserved for visitors.
One day, a salesman used one of the visitor cubicles to make cold calls, and he was a fast-talking loudmouth who used the same lame script over and over.
After about an hour of this, I popped my head over the partition and asked politely if he could please keep it down. He railed that his job was more important than mine and ended the conversation with a suggestion that I commit an unnatural act upon myself.
I waited until he went to the restroom, unscrewed the handset mouthpiece, removed the microphone and replaced the mouthpiece. When he returned and resumed cold calling, everyone hung up on him because they couldn’t hear what he said.
Cursing, he went to find somebody who could fix the phone. While he was gone, I replaced the microphone.
He returned with a support engineer, who tested the phone, confirmed it was working properly and went away. By this time, it was lunch hour. The salesman, still fuming, headed toward the cafeteria. I removed the microphone again.
He came back and resumed cold calling. Soon he was so frustrated that smoke was practically coming out of his ears while I maintained an innocent expression. Finally, he stormed out of the building, never to return.
Keep in mind: I’s always a good idea to be respectful of your co-workers.
Geoffrey James is an author and professional speaker. His latest book is “Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.”