Office or Cafe: which is the better workspace?

About a year ago now I had a phone conversation with @bjkraal who showed me his excellent and funny “Brown car blog”.  I got nerdishly excited about the potentials of using a photo blog like Tumblr to do crowd sourced research. My HTC Android phone has a  great camera in addition to 3G access and apps which allow me to upload straight to Tumblr. This makes it the ideal data collection instrument – hello ethnographic fun!

@bjkraal and I started to toss around around some ideas for a photoblog theme and came up with a research question to drive it:

Is there any evidence to support the idea that the presence of senior professors and VC’s at university events is co-related with a higher quality of catering?

Exhibit A: tray of snacks at the 2011 AUQA conference, Melbourne.

Of  course it’s a rather silly question, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise – plus there was the added bonus of not having to seek research ethics approval because that food was at risk of being eaten anyway. So as soon as I got off the phone I started a blog called “Refreshments Will Be Provided”. The blog is (and will continue to be) open to contributions from others. Quite a few people, mostly PhD students, have been so kind as to submit photos. As a result I was able to develop a bigger and more interesting data set which doesn’t just reflect my own corner of the academic world.

Now I have been collecting data for a year I think I am in a position to state that the answer to our research question is Yes – the more lofty the company, the fancier the snacks.

Consider Exhibit A on the left, a plate of petit fours at a rather high powered conference about quality assurance in higher education. The conference was full of ex VCs and professors as well as assorted government and union types. The snacks were almost as intimidating as the company (at least to this early career researcher, who is constantly on a diet – or anyone with a food intolerance, as this picture sadly shows).

While collecting this data on food I found a number of interesting things, which probably need another post. However the most immediately fascinating observation was how much of my own academic work gets carried out in cafes. I write, read, take notes, think and meet people in cafes on and off campus on almost a daily basis. I am such a regular at one on campus that it’s really my second office. I like this kind of ‘free form’ academic practice so much that I take a lead role in organising the weekly “Shut up and write” session at RMIT university (9:30am, Friday mornings at the bench table at ‘Pearson and Murphys’ cafe if you are interested).

Dueling laptops at RMIT's friday morning "Shut up and Write" session.

It seems I am not the only one to love a cafe, in fact @KathrynPaterson sparked off the idea for this post by recommending it as the remedy when I complained about how distracted I was in my home office. Isn’t it odd that these noisy, busy spaces seem conducive to research writing and reading? Especially when you consider that the primary reason academics resist open plan offices is that the presence of other people is distracting. What is going on?

I wondered aloud on Twitter why it sometimes is preferable to work in a cafe than at one’s desk and got a number of interesting replies. @LizDobsonUoH pointed out that such a practice has a proud heritage; JK Rowling famously wrote the Harry Potter series in a cafe. @RebeccaRDamari sent me an extremely funny and interesting article called “Destination: LAPTOPISTAN” where a reporter describes his visit to a particularly famous cafe where:

“Laptops had colonized every flat surface. No one uttered a word; people just stared into screens, expressionless. It felt like that moment in a horror movie when the innocent couple stumbles into a house filled with hibernating zombies, and they listen, in terror, as the floorboard creaks.”

It seems the motivations described in the New York Times article are similar to people on Twitter. @idreamofcodiene, described her motives for occupying cafes as stemming from “a desire to appear studious to those around you”. @orientalhotel expressed similar motivations and added: “I think cafe time allows me to focus on just one thing w/o pressure to feel I should 10 books/websites at once”.  @shannonej summed this up nicely when she remarked: “As a social person a cafe is a social setting but I’m not interacting so work gets done. In a quiet office I get distracted @ misskatielow agreed and pointed out the importance of caffeine in this process.

@ai1sa pointed out that you are ‘off the grid’ when you are in a cafe – unless you take a call, no one has to know you are there.That is unless, like @levis517, you can’t resist ‘FourSquare’ (” I couldn’t STAND to have ANYONE ELSE be mayor of MY cafe it’s MINE ok no I don’t own it but it’s still mine.”)

@sannapeden sent me off on an interesting tangent when she remarked that working in cafes is “equivalent to the inflated cushions fidgety or ADHD kids sit on to get them to concentrate in school… ..except, you know, with cake.” (I had never heard of such devices, but apparently they do exist). @jazzlinguist added an interesting twist when she told me about studies of kids which found that they concentrated better when they had diminished sensory input.

I started to wonder about the complex relationship between noise and distraction. I talked to a friend of mine who has adult ADHD who told me how much working in front of the television helped her to concentrate. Looking up the symptoms of ADHD on wikipedia was a bit confronting I have to say – I could certainly tick off a few, especially a few of the ‘inattentive’ ones:

  • Easily distracted, miss details, forget things, and frequently switch from one activity to another
  • Have difficulty maintaining focus on one task
  • Become bored with a task after only a few minutes, unless doing something enjoyable
  • Not seeming to listen when spoken to

There’s no room to outline all the distraction literature here – definitely a post for another time as I am running out of words in this one. If you feel so moved to contribute to Refreshments Will Be Provided I would be delighted of course, but maybe there’s the possibility for another crowd sourced research project here? I wonder if we could compile a worldwide google maps mashup of thesis writer friendly cafes? You know – so we can share the cafe love (if you don’t know what I mean, look at this one for fast food restaurants in the USA).

I declare the nominations open! What is your favourite cafe to work in and why? Tell us in the comments or enter it in the Thesis Whisperer google map (if you need instructions on how to add a location to it or start your own, go here)

Related Posts:

Shut up and Write!

A visit from the procrastination fairy

29 thoughts on “Office or Cafe: which is the better workspace?

  1. perkinsy says:

    I find there is nothing as distracting as silence! The hum of a cafe is ideal for concentration.

    I have wondered if there is a business model that could take advantage of this. Like many of us I buy drinks while I am occupying a table in recognition that a seat at a table in a cafe is one of the ways cafes earn money. But what is the going rate – 1 cup of coffee an hour? Is that too mingy or can I stretch my limited funds further? The trouble is that the rate of hire for a seat is not advertised so I tend to have a worrying niggle at the back of my mind while I am writing.

    So, perhaps cafes could advertise an hourly rate and writers could pay this up front and have a guilt-free writing session. Food/beverages to the amount of the charge could be ordered by the customers if they chose. The cafe could limit this service available at certain times of the day so that at their busiest times they could maintain a faster turnover of customers.

    I reckon that cafes, like the one you use at RMIT could work with this further and help foster communities of writers with special events etc.

    Of course this comment is really a procrastination – time to get back to my research!

  2. Zelda (@tassie_gal) says:

    Sigh, I miss a good cafe. Lithgow is sorely lacking…much as I LOVE our little hospital auxillary cafe its TOO DAMN CLOSE to my office, and people may find me.
    Is there an optimum distance do you think from the office that a cafe should be located?
    In Hobart I whole heartedly recommend the 2 tables @ the back of Pigeon Hole Cafe in West Hobart – they are the only ones that seat 4 (unless you take the big communual table at the front).
    Staff are friendly, and will keep supplying you with coffee for as long as you need. They will only ask you to move if they are massively busy and need the table (which is fair enough in my opinion).

  3. ingermewburn says:

    Interestingly, the cafe owners in the ‘laptopistan’ article were pretty canny about it:

    “Observing the gross daily consumption in Laptopistan, where people seem to nurse a cup of coffee and a cookie for hours, I could not imagine how the two managed to stay in business. But they said the laptops were a stealth economic engine.

    While the people behind the screens spent a paltry $6 to $10 per day, their true value is as a draw for more profitable takeout customers, Mr. Lorenzetti said. From the moment the door opens at 7 a.m. until it closes at 9 p.m., the place is buzzing, a productive society, visible from the street through wraparound windows. “People come in to buy food and coffee to go, because they see a full crowd,” he said. “They think ‘Hey, this place must be good if I can’t even get a table.’ ” “

  4. kerstinsailer says:

    I love the cafe in the British Library in London to write. There is a nice background hum in contrast to the dead silent reading rooms, there’s free wifi, no one bothers how long you stay over a cup of coffee and some tables even have power sockets. The British Library are well aware of providing a home to nomadic workers and they are doing a brilliant job of making you feel welcome. They even offer different types of seats and situations that suit the needs of laptop users.
    I’ve once done a research project supervising students who collected data in three London suburbs over the course of one whole day in each of them and I needed to be around for them as a back up in case they had questions. So I spent three days in different coffee shops. In my experience small independent places are much more welcoming because they realise you are on a mission. On one occasion they were asking what I was doing (because my students kept dropping in asking me things and then left again) and they were super friendly and supportive. The two other days I spent in big chains (Starbucks and Cafe Nero) and you did get the odd look and had the feeling you weren’t quite welcome. But no one talked to you. Interestingly enough, the other large group of users in that Starbuck during the day were mums and babies.
    So where’s the google maps mashup? Would love to contribute and spread the word. Nomadic working is one of my research interests, so let’s get going…

    • ingermewburn says:

      thanks for such a long and interesting response! I was hoping to collect a list from the comments here and on refreshments of places people write. Doing the mashup would allow me to visualise where people were working. Maybe we could talk more on email sometime? ‘Nomadic work’ sounds very interesting.

  5. TokenLefty says:

    I discovered last week that there is a cafe in Canberra that bans laptops between 12pm and 2pm! Just as I opened up my laptop to get stuck into an hour of power :-), I was swooped on by a staff member to tell me about this rule!

  6. Ernesto Priego says:

    The map is a great idea. Have made some additions. I spent considerable time when I was doing my PhD trying to find places that were appropriate for the way I work and the kind of working I was doing at the time. Some places work well for certain things and at certain times of the year only… I love the British Library but I was never able to do any proper writing there. Too many distractions. I preferred to work where I was not likely to run into anyone I knew.

  7. Claudia Asch (@crasch77) says:

    As a geographer, I’m really pleased you launched the mash up. Also, thinking along the lines of ‘nomadic work,’ many academics travel a lot, and I’m definitely going to check the mash up for a coffee spot when on the road. I don’t enjoy chain coffee shops, so I hope people will mostly place local coffee shops on the map. Noting wi-fi capabilities would also be helpful. Personally, I think it’s all about change of scenery that seems to affect my ability to work. I’m sure too there’s a communal thing happening when seeing others work in a café. Of course, when I have run into colleagues in the past, productivity plummeted and shop talk commenced. It’s difficult to find a perfect balance, however, multiple coffee shop options might reduce the likelihood of running into colleagues. 🙂

  8. pravinjeya says:

    I am in love with the idea of writing and reading in cafes. But, as an introvert, I find that they are in fact of limited benefit. I have had moments of inspiration and productivity but, on the whole, the level of noise does diminish my ability to concentrate. I know this so boring but, for me personally, the best places to work are the library and the park.

    • pravinjeya says:

      Having said that, I think that the branch of Costa Coffee in the basement of Waterstones just round the corner from UCL, London is particularly conducive.

      I am also blessed with a 30+ minute commute into central London and the quietness of a train is good for reading and writing too.

  9. Kat says:

    Since my comment on twitter I have thought about it more and for me cafes are useful for the way I can use them to focus me to just one task. As I only have a home office atm I can find it incredibly hard to do some kinds of work, or just to get started on them. I remember a few months back I had an abstract for a conference that was overdue but I just wasn’t writing it, so I took myself off for coffee at Arcadia in Gertrude st and had it done in an hour.
    During my thesis I used to take my printed chapters to cafes to edit as it made me focus on just the editing and not following up loose footnotes or new ideas. I often don’t take my laptop to cafes, I treat them as a chance to read books or hard copy articles that get ignored in favour of just accumulating more material to read online.
    I also think as someone who has not often had an office at uni I sometimes just need to get out of the house, often trotting out to a cafe about 2:30pm gets me over my afternoon slump.

    My favourite places would be Journal and Mr Tulk (library attached cafes FTW), Lot 6 at Melbourne Uni, Grocery Bar in East Melbourne, and I am currently living in Daylesford and have discovered Wombat Hill House in the gardens.

  10. Georgia says:

    In Melbourne, 1000pound bend has a large laptop brigade at all times of day, and the terrace at the Workshop is my favourite place for writing in summer when it’s quiet and I need to warm up (due to RMIT’s penchant for over-cooling my building)

  11. R says:

    I’m not giving out my favourite cafes to study in because then y’allz will steal my precious mayorships.

    I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a cafe without something to study. On weekdays I go into the city and traipse around the law district. On weekends I set up shop in one of my locals. But there are a few rules that my chosen few must abide by:

    1. Their coffee and equipment must be just so
    2. They must be hidden away – not (just) because I am a trendy cafe hopper, but because they tend to have a steady, quiet clientele.
    3. They mustn’t be too crowded. If groups of people start tumbling in, it gets a bit uncomfortable and I prefer to leave.

    As mentioned, 1000 pound bend is great for solo work. Coffee’s a bit rubbish but they let me stay without forcing me to drink it. My local places are also great because they know me well enough to have tuned into my habits and know things like when I need a break and a refill. You have to be careful with suburban cafes on weekends because you don’t want to get in the way of the breakfast rush.

    Some cafes won out simply because I went there so often I made friends with the people who worked there. They’re useful because I can stay there till and a little beyond close doing my thing and trying not to get in the way (I always take permission first)

    But mostly cafes win because libraries don’t let you bring coffee in.

  12. Louise Mayhew says:

    I hated libraries as an undergraduate: too quiet, too many rules, no snacks, no radio in the background… I always borrowed books and read them in cafes before my shift, on trains on the way home, and in my room with the radio on once I got there.

    But somewhere along the way, without even noticing, I fell in love with libraries. These days I rarely work in cafes or at home and cherish a long, successful day spent in my library study space. *My* study space is probably the clincher here. UNSW provides desks, drawers, computers and filing cabinets for their PhD students. It’s the perfect cross between an office and a library, you’re surrounded by studious individuals quietly working away, but when you’re ready for a break meeting rooms, lounges and a kitchen provide communal areas for catching up and chatting.

    I still love cafes, but I normally only use them for research if I’m in a city away from home.

  13. PhDandworkingmum says:

    Writing in a cafe and spending longer there than it takes to down a cup of coffee is new to me. PersonaIly the idea of ‘shut up and write’ sessions is very appealing, but if you are going to have a regular event is it etiquette to speak with the cafe owner first?

    • ingermewburn says:

      We didn’t, because it is a large cafe and we are not affecting their seating capacity. If the cafe is smaller if might be polite. I think the Atlas cafe people in that article are very clever to see how it helps their business model. Best of luck!

  14. sophie says:

    I often used to sit in Costa Coffee (a UK chain) working on my PhD on my way home from work – either paper stuff or with my laptop. I also liked the Hub at Lancaster Uni – coffee and a large open (indoor) space. Since moving to Norway I’ve not really found an equivalent (though some are close). I liked the background noise with no distractions of home or work and of course the coffee and cakes (raspberry and almond slice anyone?).

  15. Anonymous says:

    I think this is an AWESOME map idea. I’m currently living in Vienna Austria and working as a researcher. I’ve never been productive at home but have recently become so. Aside from that though i’ve a few favourite places that I would and could definitely hang out and work in. The best thing about Austria is you can sit for hours and only have ordered one coffee and no one complains!! Here goes:
    Das Möbel Cafe, Burggasse. It’s right down the street from my house and frequented by laptop types.
    COSPACE Vienna. Recently opened up a cafe service and provides workspace for hire. I’ve never been because they aren’t open outside of normal office hours, but if i had an independent project to work on or had a thesis to write full time (already finished my PhD) I’d be there in a heartbeat.
    Pickwick’s English Cafe – Marc Aurel-Strasse. English bookshop cafe. Wonderful old furniture and some nice small tables nestled in corners perfect for solo working.
    Just a bit of feedback on the google map though. I went to look up the pigeon hole cafe in hobart and found the map reference in the middle of the southern ocean 🙂 Might need to check up on some of the map points 🙂
    Otherwise great project, keep up the good work.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I am currently in the process of getting a writing group going for grad students in my department. However, I’m getting a lot of resistance from my advisor. He claims that in the “real world” we wouldn’t meet up with others to get our work done, and that we should be able to motivate ourselves independently. We are required to be in the group office from about 9 – 4, and with the exception of classes, we are expected to tell him where we are/why we aren’t in the office. I would really appreciate some advice from other folks who enjoy a more free-range work style about how I can handle this.

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