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Why You Can Focus in a Coffee Shop but Not in Your Open Office (hbr.org)
249 points by apress 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 150 comments

The power differential implicit in the voice of managers.

The competitive aspect of operating alongside co-workers.

The fairness of slacking off, letting one's mind wander, contemplating a hard problem while staring off into space and refraining from typing at a keyboard, maybe running late in the mornings, versus doing "real" work, ass in chair, on time, contributing ideas in meetings and phone calls, producing visible progress...

Whether or not people (who can affect your ability to put a roof over your head) ARE NOTICING YOUR EVERY MOVE.

This is what an open office is does to me. The anxiety induced by others, and their potential for influencing where the rubber meets the road.

> Whether or not people (who can affect your ability to put a roof over your head) ARE NOTICING YOUR EVERY MOVE.

I think what matters is whether I think I am being watched by my coworkers (superiors or otherwise). This uses up some part of my brain that needs to focus on my "visual performance" and thus creates stress. But when I do not think I am watched, my creativity goes up and stress drops. For example, I contribute much better in an audio conference or Slack (just text) meetings, than in a video conference or a face to face meeting. In the former case, I am more relaxed and am able to focus on the problem being discussed and in the latter case, not so much. This might be specific to certain personality types but is true for me for sure.

Absolutely. Being social creatures means we are always at least somewhat aware of how we're presenting ourselves to others. If there are other people in the room (even moreso when those people "matter" in some way), some portion of our cognitive power is attending to this process.

> For example, I contribute much better in an audio conference or Slack (just text) meetings, than in a video conference or a face to face meeting. In the former case, I am more relaxed and am able to focus on the problem being discussed and in the latter case, not so much. This might be specific to certain personality types but is true for me for sure.

I work remote from my team and thus far I've found that being in person forces me to focus and contribute more, and that I tend to slack off on audio conferences.

Different strokes for different folks?

The year and a half or so that I spent in a bullpen style open-office made me feel like I was an inmate in a panopticon style environment. I could constantly feel managements eyes on the back of my head even though I knew it wasn't literally happening. It was miserable, I'm glad that I got away from it and I will hopefully never find my way there again.

>The year and a half or so that I spent in a bullpen style open-office made me feel like I was an inmate in a panopticon style environment.

I would have replaced 'environment' with "prison" for literary effect. But well said nonetheless. Spot on.

I am in a panopticon open-office currently and it is really bad. People shooting nerf darts all the time (one hit me in the eye when I stood up, luckily I wear glasses). People are exceptionally loud. Yesterday the guy in the half-cube next to me was blasting reggae music for 3 hours even after I said "no one wants to hear that". Last Friday our dispatch manager was walking around all the cubes for 2 hours talking as loud as she could because she just got back from vacation. So I told her "Can you stop talking so loudly? I can't concentrate on my work." Her response: "You just started here what 2 weeks ago?" As if that somehow justified being a huge distraction, ok, I am the bad guy cause I don't want to hear you basically shout for hours on end, sure. Then I got asked by my boss if I said all the women in the office are loud. Then I overheard her complaining to another manager, about being told she was being too loud (talking loudly so everyone in the office can hear). They were essentially indirectly taking a jab at me. It is just petty office garbage and totally unprofessional.

I have already started looking at other companies and I've only been here 3 weeks.

I'm no fan of open offices but your workplace sounds like it has more issues than just the floor plan.

Yes, that's only about half of what I've noticed so far because I didn't want to write a novel on HN.

I'd be interested in reading your "novel" if you care to make a post. I try to learn what I can from others in these cases, and grow to recognize similar patterns... companies can be hard to read from the outside.

That said, I hope your luck turns and something better works out.

That sounds a bit rough for an org. How was their interviewing process? Did they ask for an implementation of merge sort? Other strange signals of workplace value?

The process was pretty typical, met with ops manager and another engineer. Some red flags were they were floundering a bit on process when I asked them some specifics. Another red flag was in my first week my boss asked me to basically tell me everything I thought that was wrong with the company and employees there, which I thought was interesting. My direct superior is actually a really awesome guy and I like him a lot, it is the other managers that have this power struggle thing with him going on right now that is really awkward.

Plus, there is no clear direction on what my job role exactly is. I was told project engineer, then I was told Level III Engineer, then I was told I am Level III inside a 3-tiered system, being the level 3 of level 2? All within the span of the last week and a half. It is very off-putting and awkward.

The one perk is that I am salaried non-exempt, so I get paid for overtime. But it is just so disorganized and there seems to be a lot of weird politics going on.

I really don't like most of the team here except for my director. There is only one or two guys who are mature, everyone else acts like they're 15 (the nerf gun shooting, yelling).

I also have basically no control over anything network related or back-end stuff, which is super frustrating because there is so much inefficiency going on it's insane. They haven't automated anything here.

There is so much wrong, it's hard to synthesize it all in one post. But a quick example is that we have literally no automation in place, so level 1 and 2 techs are setting up workstations manually... It's 2017... I mean really?

I am getting micromanaged over stupid little things too by a manager who is not even my direct manager. It is just frustrating.

Oh one more thing, we have a 9:30 "huddle" every morning with the ops team (like 10 guys + manager [not my direct manager]) and we have to say what we're working on, if we're stuck on anything, and what our plan is for the day. Then they read this little quote that is submitted by at least one engineer into a box and we have to guess who it is. It is ultra, ultra cringe inducing and super weird. I've never been in a company that does this. It makes me feel like I work in a daycare.

Thanks, reading this was better than the book I’m reading in my kindle right now. Best of luck finding a new configuration

Haha, thanks, I should edit the formatting above, but last night I had the shower thought of abandoning IT and becoming a journalist.

This guy was a journalist, and then went into tech-startups as a 'marketing consultant' his take on it is hilarious, very woody-allen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7vrCpWbmDw

The unrestrained happiness and the necessity of reply to all for any little thing ('You sick? Aww, get well!') rings all too true from my experience in a startup.

Has working with headphones on worked for you?

Cans do help block out the noise yeah, but open-offices are also visually distracting as well because people are always by. Cans can only block out so much noise too. I don't like to wear them all day because my ears get tired of listening to music that long, nor would I want to. Sometimes I just prefer silence.

It's that feeling of being watched - yes. I can't quantify it but since I've been accidentally promoted into an office (only managers are supposed to have offices in this company but my department's been budded off from the mothership) from the bullpen I feel more productive, stay later each day, and generally feel more confident and at peace all day long. One of my cow-workers who's still under the all seeing eye has a mirror on the aisle-facing wall of his cube. That would probably help had I tried it. My old cube was not only on the middle aisle but had one of those smokey camera housings mounted on the ceiling allegedly facing the door to the outside.

>one of those smokey camera housings

Sometimes these are empty, designed to create the appearance of an all seeing eye without having the overhead of storing data, wiring, etc.

I can probably count on my hands the amount of times I browsed HN/non work related sites when I worked in an open office environment. Much like Agile, it's an effective tool to micro manage white collar workers.

I quit a job where a manager kept bringing up my web browsing during "office hours". During a conversation, my manager was more concerned about appearance of working than my steadfast project delivery and meeting attendance. Places like that can find other warm bodies and I can find places to pay me.

Interesting. The manager at my open office position brought up how I didn't get up and talk to other team members enough. So I made an effort to have casual conversation with others during the day.....and got criticized for talking too much in my next one on one. That was likely just bad mentoring but it opened my eyes as to how someone across a large room, ironically in an office, was presumably able to monitor my activity from afar all day long.

Yikes! As an Agile Coach, I'm sad to hear this. Though I can imagine where the perception comes from. Weaponized Agile is a real problem, one that I combat actively, but it's quite hard to convince leaders that self-management is the goal, not micro-management!

Expense on company dime monitor privacy screens. Helps with another open office issue too - sunlight hitting the monitor.

> Whether or not people ARE NOTICING YOUR EVERY MOVE.

Yeah, for me the feeling of being implicitly watched and judged all day causes low-level anxiety.

And it's an aggregating effect. I did not realize this was a problem until 4-5 months into my first job in an open office. It takes a toll on productivity for sure. I notice I work way more relaxed and get more done when the people near me are out of the office or if I work from home.

I am the only person with a standing desk in an open style office layout of a few dozen people, and i can tell you that this anxiety is increased by several orders of magnitude when everyone else in the room sitting down can see what you are working on at a glance.

Its actually the other way around.

Since you are standing, its easier for you to look at them. Its very likely most of your colleagues find that creepy.


I don't see how what he's describing needs to interpreted as a lot of anxiety. He's just strongly pointing at the source of the anxiety. I think the GP's comment is dead on.

I think that sometimes depends on the work culture rather than a person's personality. I've worked at places where managers do monitor your every move, look at how long you take at lunch, etc. Also co-workers sometimes think unfavourably of you if they think you are not pulling your weight even if you spend more time thinking than coding.

Let's not jump to conclusions.

This is perfectly normal if you're in a toxic micromanaging environment. The open office is the panopticon.

I have this. It got so bad I had to quit work two years ago. After medication and therapy, I still can't work without getting panic attacks. I'm really frustrated and don't know what to do..

come work to BigCo (not FB nor AMZN though) where people are more diverse by age, not just a bunch of youngsters (who have nothing except the work and who is able to sit staring into monitor for 12 hours straight and have that collective herd - "team" - mentality that everybody should behave the same, "pull their weight", etc. - was myself that way just 15 years ago) In an age diverse environment people have children, lives, businesses, habits, and don't care that much about their own or your job, etc. There is no way the manager (who has all that himself) can make those people work even 8 hours in the office. In official language it is called life-work balance :)

Also, (IANAL nor MD) i think at any workplace you can ask for a reasonable accommodation if you have that medical paperwork stating that open office causes anxiety to the level of disability. Even without paperwork i think you can just ask for it at many places. For example, we have a cluster of several cubicles on one end of our floor, and some of them are permanently assigned to some employees (I got offered one too because i was b!tching too much and loud about our open office - i declined in order to avoid getting too comfortable and losing that minimal drive that i still have to change the job :)

Agreed - recently quit a job at a SV type company where the average age was late 20's, single with no kids, in an open office. In my 30's and also child-free and unmarried, I wasn't unnecessarily out of place, but the fact that everyone seemed to feel that work was equal to life, and everyone had something to prove by how long they could stay late or work on weekends, encouraged by the management (who had nice big offices, btw), left me feeling like I couldn't ever escape being on the clock.

I went back to my contracting job in an industry that is truly diverse - not just a few token 28 year old women team leads or POC, but actual diversity: middle aged men and women with kids, older devs in their 60s nearing retirement, naturalized citizens from all over the world (instead of the few big countries supplying H1Bs).

It's a much better environment. I'm happy to cover for my 45 year old coworker when she picks up the kids, and she does the same when I need to 'clear my head' by working at Starbucks for the afternoon. We don't stay late and play XBox or have happy hours, and that is fine with me. We're a good team during the day, and content to socialize a few times a year at the holiday party or few other office events.

Same here. I thought I was aging out of the industry. Got a job at a smallish but elite kind of place. My first day, I didn't meet anyone under 30. Most have kids. Most have nothing to prove, they have already done some very impressive things.

Its been very refreshing. There is no race to out-hour anyone, my coworkers all support one another vs trying to be competitive and back stabbing. I really thought I might have to consider another line of work at some point, but good places do exist.

Interestingly though, my one real complaint is the "open office." Its not entirely the company's fault, it used to be quite comfortable but they knew they would be growing and leased space in a building that is under construction. Shockingly (/s), its completion is very delayed and now we are starting to get crammed in.

I worked in a company known for its work-life balance (best in the country). We tried open office, solo work (team of 1) anywhere I like (if I wanted to go to the office, I could), and solo work besides a team doing related work. Nothing we tried worked, I felt I was being monitored for my performance even when they weren't physically present.

Have you tried CBD. A co-worker uses capsules from greenmountaincbd.com and swears by it. Says it saved her life from panic attacks and anxiety from work related abuse.

www.reddit.com/r/cbd might be a good place for you to start...

I would strongly advocate against working under the influence. Employers may be allowed to do random drug tests, and even if they're not, accident insurance might refuse payment e.g. if you slip on a staircase, end up injured and CBD showing up in your blood works.

I don't think it has any THC and is not psycho active. From what I understand you will not test positive for drug use and this CBD is legal in all 50 states.

I wouldn't put it past employers which do drug tests to fire you for perfectly legal CBD, though...

That open office anxiety isn't necessarily easily seen or obvious constantly. It can be very subtle and blends in to the background noise. I've gotten used to it over the years but I know it is still there. 'Comes with the territory' is how I'd describe it. My trick is to 'rise above it' so to speak. Tread water harder and try and keep more of my body out of it. Almost always easier said than done.

For me it's not about the noise, it's about whether or not the noise is in fact, just noise, or if it's interesting enough to draw my attention.

Random conversation in a coffee shop or cafeteria? No problem. People discussing the latest episode of my favorite TV show? Distracting.

Instrumental music, or songs I've heard a million times before? Just noise. A new song with interesting lyrics, or a personal favorite I've been really into lately? Distracting.

Coworkers discussing an issue I'm working on? Super distracting.

Discussing anything, for me. I never know if it's something I should be listening to or not. It might become important.

Now, since my solution is to shut my door, you'd think I could just say, "Yup, nothing matters" and ignore it. But it just doesn't work that way.

In the open office environment I used to work in I got quite good at ignoring coworkers discussions about stuff they were working on. But as they crammed more and more people into the building, the probability of being within earshot of multiple discussions at once went up. I could sit in my chair getting angry when there was only two. When it got to three concurrent discussions I found I had to leave the vicinity. Some people could ignore it all. Impressive.

Ideally, if it's something important to you, your coworkers should get your attention, or at least communicate the results of their discussion to you.

But I realize that this is supposing two idealized coworkers in a perfect vacuum.

Right, it's whether or not I can put the conversation into a context. If not, it's just noise. If I can organize it or think about how accurate the information is, you have my un-un-divided attention.

Someone mentions your name in passing? Good-bye productivity.

Yes, but I'd argue that would be an argument in favor of open offices - overhearing things that are relevant to you and/or you have knowledge of allows you to jump into the conversation and participate.

Yes, it does. God forbid I wanted to work on something and not keep listening to the five nearest conversations in case they are relevant to me, though. Why would I ever need to focus on anything at work?

> keep listening to the five nearest conversations in case they are relevant to me

What if the relevant conversation is the 6th nearest? Uh Oh!

My point is that open office doesn't really help because you can only really pay attention to the people relatively close to you and then only X conversations at a time anyway (for me, X is usually 1). Any other conversations happening anywhere else, I will miss.

Better would be a "remote work friendly" culture where discussions happen in slack or somewhere async like that. You can then check it when you're not trying to focus and you won't miss things simply because of proximity. Best of all, you don't get distracted from your actual work when you try to focus.

> Why would I ever need to focus on anything at work?

Exactly... better not do any work so you can pay full attention to what everybody else is doing, in case something is relevant to what you're not doing...

I'm in total agreement. I'd add that for me the worst kind of distraction is having a co-worker talking about something interesting on the phone. As focused as I try to be, I find my brain defies me and tries to fill in the half of the conversation that I can't hear.

Also, I'm a native English speaker. I speak very little Spanish, but when my co-workers converse in Spanish my brain gets completely sidetracked trying to understand what they're saying. It's even worse with they're speaking Spanish on the phone.

It's as if when I can only hear or understand part of the conversation my undisciplined brain sucks up loads of CPU cycles trying to fill in the gaps. So I picked up a pair of sound cancelling headphones and block everything out with white-noise or music. But now my ears sweat...

Instrumental music, or songs I've heard a million times before? Just noise.

That's why I listen to techno/trance music. High energy, but intended as pure background, always changing but never distractingly so. Enhances an experience/activity, but never demands your attention; not something you can sit down and listen to for its own sake.

>not something you can sit down and listen to for its own sake

I used to use techno for strictly background/energy, but have come to enjoy some artists independently.

Mostly in the IDM subgenre; Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Koyxen, and Square Pusher have a solid mix of enjoyable music that doesn't distract.

I've heard this from many developers. I love technowave for that reason.

I think it's more about being on display. In an open office you are on show and must look like you're working. This is hugely counter-productive, as you can't even have a comfortable "pause for thought" without someone assuming you're taking it easy! I remember feeling super tense at my desk because of this expectation to look busy.

In a coffee shop, you can be more relaxed, enjoy the environment, enjoy the hustle and bustle and dip in and out of intense concentration without caring who's judging you. It's just a more natural way to be and allows you to think clearly with a nice rhythm. Needless to say, I have spent a number of very productive hours in the coffee shops of London!

This penchant for working in 'coffee shops' or other public spaces always leaves me utterly mystified. What on Earth could be the point, instead of going home, or to some library in a pinch?

Says the attention deficited introvert in his very quiet house far, far out in the boondocks.

>What on Earth could be the point, instead of going home

Home is a very bad place for me to try to focus because I'm constantly reminded of things that need to be fixed, painted, washed, etc. And if there are other humans in the home it's even worse because you know I could be socializing with them, helping them with their homework, fixing their computer problems...

So a coffee shop is an improvement because a) Starbucks people are responsible for fixing the plumbing problems and b) I don't know anyone there.

Sometimes I want to be among people, even if I'm not going to interact with them much. This was particularly true during grad school, when I was working almost completely by myself on my own work, most of the time. Doing my work at the local coffee shop was some of the only social outlet I had. Without it, I would have felt even more isolated.

Now that I have a job, I'll often go to coffee shops if I work on the weekend. And, again, it's because doing it by myself, at home, feels very isolating. Even though I like having time to myself late in the evening, it's rare that I want no social interaction during the day. And if I need to get work done during that day, I'll often use a coffee shop.

To me, there's something slightly numbing to the part of my brain that craves distraction when I'm surrounded by other people going about life like normal--be it the workers cleaning tables, a first date or friends meeting, or the steady stream of people ordering. I also get a similar numbing feeling when vacuuming or showering that allows me to focus conceptually on a hard problem.

And oftentimes it's the novelty of a place that helps inspire some creativity when it comes to writing.

As others have pointed out, it's hard to shut out conversation from coworkers especially if you don't know if they are talking about work related to you. But when you're in public, you know those conversations don't pertain to you and you can feel no back-of-the-mind guilt about shutting them out (which, as an introvert worrying about others' thoughts, _is_ an issue).

> as an introvert

What you describe has nothing to do with being introverted.

Sorry, I was trying to describe myself in different respects. 1) Introverted, 2) Worrying about others' thoughts.

>What on Earth could be the point, instead of going home, or to some library in a pinch?

To keep home and work separate. Maybe working from home for some is perceived as never leaving work.

>working from home for some is perceived as never leaving work

That's a glass half-full/half-empty approach; conversely, I end up being more productive, working more minutes, taking less breaks to socialize/browse. One benefit I didn't recognize immediately is that I gained valuable time by being able to eat at my own pace, often while working, rather than worrying about a sustenance/obligations time management equation with my lunch break every day when I should be working.

I no longer wake up dreading going to work. I get to get up at a normal hour, feed the family every meal, and spend about an hour every morning reading. A more convenient workplace, for me, does not exist; people are different. Every day feels like hours have been added to my life.

My house has Netflix, video games, and the world's best nap room. I do go to a library instead.

I imagine in 20 Years libraries will just be packed every day with work from homers ... public space is a fkkkin problem cities need to deal with — big corps should be charged to set up public spaces or some tax incentive etc.

Libraries are absolutely filled with distracting noises. I have always had trouble in a quiet library. Every pencil drop, paper shuffle, and so on distracts me. I need headphones with music in a quiet library.

Home can be the same - I have neighbors. I can hear them from time to time. Headphones, though, are a solution, but so is just general background music. Some times of day/night are much better than others, but I don't always get the luxury of doing stuff at those times. All this said, I like working at home.

On the other hand, a coffee shop is filled with near-constant hums of noise. Park, restaurant, etc are all the same. Since no one noise jumps out to grab my attention, I'm actually less distracted. No one cares I'm there for the most part (libraries aren't so good at this bit, but are better now that I'm older).

The other positive of working at a coffee shop is the change of environment often brings a sort of creativity. I find this especially so if I've walked a bit to get there, and even more so when I'm out of town or out of country. Granted, I'm generally working on artwork instead of "real work", so maybe this bit is just me.

I saw a modern monastery once. It had a great contemporary design and the place was built to encourage contemplation and inner peace. I bet working there is amazing.

You received a lot of good general replies, but from one introvert to another: my time and space isn't respected at home living with others, libraries are suffocating in their own way and have more restrictions (protocols other than http/s generally not available, times open, more visitors explicitly looking for an outlet and desk space).

I regularly work out of coffee shops, for hours and hours at a time even, and unless you absolutely dread even the slightest interactions, "Hey is someone sitting there?", other patrons generally leave you to your devices figurative and literal. If you do summon the courage to talk to people, you get a nice mix of regular baristas and patrons as well as a revolving door of new faces to meet and exercise your social and networking skills.

The tradeoff for a few bucks a day was worth it to me. I can't afford a co-working space and while that would probably be better for long-term professional networking, you can't deny the breadth of people walking into any given Starbucks.

Library works for me, but home has the problem of either getting pulled away from work by a family member, or having to tell a family member "you have a problem now but I refuse to help you with it". Neither is good. If I'm not at home, they won't contact me for help unless it's truly a crisis.

I prefer home, but sometimes I am forced to be outside ... every Tuesday evening, for instance, I station myself at a donut shop for two hours with a decaf drink and my laptop to get some work done while my daughter is in her dance class.

Unlike others in this extended thread, I can't focus with people talking nearby or the music on the shop's speakers, so I put on the headphones with ambient music, classical, or white noise to keep out distractions.

I tried working in a library, once I'd been driven out of parks by wandering people on phones. In the library every couple of minutes someone ran outside shouting into their phone "I'm in the library! Hang on!". Grr. And when it's quiet you notice you're within earshot of someone texting on their phone with "click" sound effects.

Library has a few problems:

Too quiet.

Bad internet. Gigabit, but they filter/firewall the heck out of it.

No coffee/snacks allowed

Bad hours. Some days they open at noon, some days they close at 6p, never open after 8p or before 10a

Ha, finally someone that agrees with me. Though not everyone has quietude in their home, I dislike it when I visit a coffee shop and everyone is working or doing meetings.

I prefer to mostly work in private where I can concentrate, but it's also nice to have a change of scene as an option.

Different people are different. Mystery solved.

Yeah. I agree 100%. I can't focus in a Coffee Shop. But I sure as hell can't focus in an open office space.

I'm not sure why you'd pick the coffee shop over the library, but a big part of it is getting out of the house. I personally don't want to work from home. I don't want to bring work home; I want home and work separate, so I have a place to forget about work.

Many libraries are often overrun with toddlers and seniors during the day whose behavior is - to put it mildly - not library appropriate. A coffee shop has an incentive to keep the environment more civil and inviting.

It's pretty simple, for me: getting to a library is a lot harder (it's a half an hour trip on two trains) than getting to a coffee shop (a block and a half walk).

Got family/people I know at home who can distract me. I love them. Which is why they're going to talk to me at some point in the middle of a hard problem.

Working on laptops anywhere —​ other than as a last resort while actually travelling —​ leaves me utterly mystified. Tiny screen and execrable ergonomics.

It depends on what kind of applications and control you need. I can work on my own stuff at home very easily on a laptop because I have a fairly streamlined process. I can just tab between my terminal and text editor. I can't do that with my job, since I need probably 20 different programs running at once: multiple browser windows, debugger, specialized programs, chat window, email window, multiple text editors and guis... it's a major hassle on a laptop.

If I have to use Windows, I can't do it either. But give me virtual desktops, a tiling window manager and (sensibly laid out) keyboard shortcuts for everything, then I'll often even forget to use my second monitor.

Once the 15" retina display arrived, I instantly abandoned any notion of working on a desktop system. Far superior visuals than any big monitor I could afford, and I can work anywhere anytime.

I’m sure some people carry around those portable laptop stands that make it a little more ergonomic. A 15” screen isn’t too bad if you’re at a small table by yourself.

coffee shops are on every corner, libraries are far and you need to drive

and libraries tend to have worse hours. like there's one near me that's open 12-4 on sunday, and others that close at 6pm on a weekday. i'm only just getting home from work then.

A big difference between working in a coffee shop vs a library from what I have noticed is that a coffee shop is filled with people who appear to be somewhat similar to yourself, whereas a library seems to have a lot of homeless people hanging out to stay out from the elements. I would rather work in the coffee shop based on this.

I understand this can vary significantly based on location, but this is what I have noticed in my city.

For me it's the jarring noise. A coffeeshop tends to have consistent levels of muddied noise, whereas the office might be quiet and then suddenly a clear, loud voice starts, and another couple of clear, loud voices arrive - jarring. Also, office lights are too bright, they switch me off somehow. Then the erratic temperature - freezing for a couple of hours, then tropical for a few, then back to icy. The office is, ironically, the worst possible environment for getting any work done.

You know what makes me work even harder in a coffee shop? Leave your charger at home. You suddenly become more efficient since you know your time is limited. Assuming you're not on a thinkpad with a 9 cell battery.

Did this the other day and I had a productive 4-5 hours and called it a day. Was actually somewhat relived - as a freelancer - that my work day had a fixed limit after which you justifiable had to stop. Like leaving school in your childhood without the slightest concern.

This was similar to the approach I took early last year where I would go in 7 days a week but only spend 3-4 hours (conveniently the length of my charge) programming and sketching solutions. Interviewers wanted to laugh when I brought it up, but I really did find it productive. I'd leave the day stuck on some tasks, go about the rest of my day (outside the 3-4 hours) thinking about it and maybe quickly skimming docs when I wasn't doing anything else. At the start of the next day I easily banged out decent, working solutions in the first 30 minutes.

I guess social pressure won out in the end when even people close to me thought I wasn't doing anything. So finding myself in a similar situation to then, I stay for a few more hours (a little over the length of a charge and recharging to full; I don't take lunch breaks myself). I probably am more productive overall, but there's lots of factors to take into account (hopefully I got more skilled) and I'd say the biggest change is the more creative processes occuring in situ rather than strewn about the day. I also check my e-mails a little more often now ;-).

As a T420 owner who can barely make it through a 2 hour movie on my 9 cell battery, this comment is confusing.

X230 here, usually get 7 hours no problem.

For me it's being on an airplane. The lack of wifi means I just stub things out as "TODO" when I don't know how to do them and move on. Then when I land I have a bunch of simple / googlable TODOs to knock off.

For me, I think, the primary reason an open office often doesn't work (I say 'often' because sometimes it does) is that being physically and visibly present seems to signal that you are available for answering sporadic queries from others. Interruptions are hard to entertain when your work demands focused time-chunks. No one knows me (enough to disturb me) at a coffee-shop.

I can tune out conversations, even if the participants are people I know. A good headset comes in handy too.

I agree with the article in that some noise level helps. In fact I'd go so far as to say occasional human interactions help - it has the effect of drawing your mind out of the details of a problem and drop it back in from a high altitude (when you re-engage after the interaction), which is a process that aids problem-solving.

Fun anecdotal "evidence": there was this exam I was preparing for, for months, and then my brother informed me that he will be coming down for a month-long visit. I told myself immediately that the duration of his stay is going to be all about damage-control; we're going to spend a lot of time together, so I won't be able to put in a lot of hours, which of course means my productivity would drop. A couple of months later after the visit, when I was assessing how much I got done in which month - guess which one ended up at the top - the month my brother visited! While the no of hrs had dropped, the "density" of work had gone up.

"But new research shows that it may not be the sound itself that distracts us…it may be who is making it."

For me, the absolute perfect background noise is people talking in a language I don't understand. If you're in a big city, there are almost certainly cafes with customers mainly from some linguistic minority -- I've found them to be great places to work.

[on roughly the same principle, I sometimes listen to foreign-language pop music while working, so the vocal aspect becomes just another instrument rather than a source of distraction]

I do the exact same - listen to foreign music. I can't listen to truly interesting instrumental music because it's distracting, and music with too much emotion grabs too much of my attention. I'll add: I do well with progressive electronic music that doesn't have much going on in it, and some sci-fi movie soundtracks. Additionally, Deuter is great, and his entire catalog is on Spotify.

Working from home is friction-free, and most productive.

Coming to the office and working in my private office, if nobody else is in the building, comes second.

Working in my office at the office in a normal day when everybody is there, I can maybe get an hour or two of real work done in an eight hour day.

If I had to work in an open office, I'd give myself maybe three days before I was doing things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLdAVdc4luE

> if nobody else is in the building

private office and empty building??

Like a Sunday afternoon, say.

Or when a couple of coworkers all have their small children too ill for daycare at the same time. It's a small company...

Convos in coffee shops don't, generally, have the ability to affect yor task, position, employment, or career.

Convos in offices do.

You attune highly to the latter with reason.

I am actually ok with overhearing stuff that's relevant. It's the irrelevant stuff that kills me.

I have some neighbors who can talk for hours about cars, movies and whatever. There is a good chance that I will never have anything work related to do with these guys but I have to listen to these intense discussions for hours.

Also the background noise:

It always amazes me when power fails once a year how quiet and peaceful the whole place gets. You get used to the constant noise and only when it's really quiet you realize how stressful it is.

Good point. In a coffeeshop, those conversations are less likely to be repeated day in and day out, and if sufficiently annoying, you can choose to be elsewhere. In an office, you're stuck with the situation, and can do little about it.

Not to mention that neither do any people who glance over at you have the ability to affect your task, position, employment, or career.

That being my point.

I've found being able to migrate from coffee shop to coffee shop is very effective in helping me get unstuck from problems. Not sure if it's the 15 minute break that comes with traveling to another shop or if it's the change of scenery and atmosphere, but it really does the trick.

I do the same and it really helps my productivity. I have no clue why it actually works, but I've been using the strategy successfully for a few years now. I always suggest the idea to a coworker if they're stuck on a problem or find themselves unmotivated.

Nice, have you been working remotely the last few years?

Yes, I work remotely a few days a week.

It's more than getting drawn into conversations. In a different place, where you don't know anyone, it is also more likely that you will not be annoyed by someone that you have a history with with simply hearing their voice. So merely noticing the sound of 'johns' voice is enough to set you and distract and/or bother. But if you don't know 'john' it's simply not the same impact.

An similar example would be my reaction to leaf blowers or lawn mowers outside my office. When they come I am always annoyed and bothered. However equally disturbing or loud (if you want to call it that) noises I typically don't care about. It's the 'hear it goes again!' that makes it (to me at least) disturbing.

Back in the day when I used to work on side projects in Sydney before there was really a coworking space culture I used to work at the library.

I soon stopped because it was full of high school students who didn't want to be there and the sound of a hushed conversation against a backdrop of silence was really distracting.

I quickly started going to foodcourts instead. Those are better than coffee shops for me. There's a lot more white-noise and less pressure to order anything because no vendor feels you're taking 'their space'.

Outlets were a bit harder but doable but outweighed by food choice at meal times and ability to run quick errands if needed.

This was from Waverley Library to Westfield's food court in Bondi Junction in 2012 fwiw.

I don't need the HBR to tell me strangers are easier to filter.

A coffee shop is (usually) a threat-free environment; free of sudden power struggle, simply because I am effectively "alone".

I focus best when listening to black metal, the actual setting doesn't matter so much.

For me it has long been psytrance, but I'm sure it is the same principle.

Nile is great for this

At office I have

- Air humidifier

- Boose QC35

- 27 inch 4k monitor

- Mechanical keyboard

- Gaming mouspad + gaming mouse

- Huge desk

I seriously don't get why would anyone go to coffee shops to work. Seems totally counter-intuitive to me.

Staring at 13 inch screen without mouse and using not-so-good keyboard seems just waste of my time. Not to mention small tables they have there.

I can luckily do everything I need to on the same laptop I cut my teeth for my degree on. Thankfully no chiclet keys and I have a working track point. It's even easily user servicible, I have replaced the keyboard once already with cheap parts from eBay. I guess I'm lucky I don't need massive power to still run most things I work with natively, but if you mostly work in the commandline it wouldn't be a nightmare to ssh/mosh in wherever you need to. After that I get to enjoy working in a Linux desktop environment with all its programmability and keyboard shortcuts go a long way.

I've never known an environment like the one you describe, but it may surprise you that a relatively luddite setup can go a long way once you're accustomed to it.

I go to coffee shops usually when I have to:

- just focus on some non coding task (presentation, report, or what ever) - focus on a single problem - code something from scratch

All those are slightly easier when I don't have a huge screen, or the fastest internet (or some barrier to using the internet), or the perfect chair.

One disturbing event where I am is there are plans afoot to remodel the developer floors to remove the upper cubicle storage areas. Not quite a open floor plan but it removes what privacy developers do have. It had been done in a support areas because of managers who wanted to "check on who was where" and such.

unless an open office plan includes the management all it does is further enforce the power structure in place. first people offices to cubicles, but that became acceptable because you still had the walls to give you defined space, now that those go it is the last bastion where you can be isolated is lost.

We got kind of lucky at my office. Our floors missed the big sweep the last CEO was doing to make everything open office. They apparently hit some floors in this building and did a sort of halfway job with it to poor effect. I've been to another building where they finished and it's nice, but seems a little tense. Walking through there for meetings garners stares from everybody working in the area.

I still have something like this, Herman Miller cube with an extra moveable privacy wall out of the way of main traffic. After this thread it's feeling like a bit of heaven. It has an additional cupboard and garment locker to my left and a rolling, padded stool, drawer set. Ample desk space and modular shelving units. I'm spoiled, apparently.


The first study at least looks like a prime candidate for the replication crisis - lots of different combinations of parameters, some of which are just barely statistically significant (and others that are not).

The summary article did not tell us the measured effect size, either. I'd hope the actual paper did, though it's not something you can depend on (sheesh).

I have founds apps like Coffitivity [0] that simulate coffee shop banter extremely helpul with my productivity.

[0] https://coffitivity.com/

music without lyrics.

i decided to pay for google play music, it's probably my favorite paid service since i got it almost a year ago.

cmd.fm and jamendo are also pretty fantastic

The problem with Google Play Music, Spotify and similar services is that you must select the music, which can be incredibly distracting in itself. I like music radio stations better in that regard.

Digitally Imported (https://di.fm) is a fantastic voice-free radio network with over 300 channels/genres [1] for every kind of music (electronic, rock, pop, jazz etc). I use it every day, it's hard to not be productive while listening to their Goa-Psy channel [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digitally_Imported

[2] https://www.di.fm/goapsy

"God is an Astronaut" radio on Google Play music makes for great concentration music.

I originally found this link on the HN front page years ago and have kept it bookmarked. It's got lots of good suggestions like this. The comments on the post have great suggestions too.


Thanks for that link. I already listen to half the artists mentioned in the article, so I’m interested in checking out the others. I only recently discovered Tycho (who sound very similar to Ulrich Schnauss) while God is an Astronaut (along with Mogwai) have been on my play-list for the past decade or so. I’d also recommend minimal techno and the second wave of Detroit (Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin, etc.). I spend a lot of time listening to Warp records from the 90s. When I really need to get stuff done, I reach for Fuck Buttons (best listened to with a player capable of gap-less playback).

Post Rock in general is fantastic for this kind of stuff

this is.. interesting.

I work from home so I started playing it to see how it sounded.

Immediately I felt more relaxed with it on. I'm not sure if this is a good thing, or a bad thing. I probably need to get out more.

Maybe I should work from coffee shops more often instead of from my home office?

For me, it also made me uncomfortably aware of office politics and other crap of that sort. So, it made me very aware that, no, people were not being treated fairly. This is a thing that very much grates on me and made me feel personally threatened. I have a strong sense of fairness. My inability to shut this stuff out was a source of personal aggravation that helped me decide I did not wish to be there long term.

To me, this has always been a matter of my attention filter. If I'm in an environment where my attention is being pulled to various snatches of conversation, all of which have some tiny detail that I notice, my focus will invariably suffer.

In a coffeeshop, almost nobody says anything that triggers that filter, thereby letting me block out that noise more effectively.

The concept of open offices is the most discredited idea since phrenology, but management loves it. It's cheap, and it gives you the illusion of control. All the bad things it causes are less tangible and more easily ignored.

If I couldn't work with music, I wouldn't be able to stand working in an open office. There is just too much random, and most importantly, annoying noises.

People vary. I find it quite difficult to work effectively in an open office. Coffee shops are often better but not that great. I find either total silence or soft instrumental music is usually best for me. Some people seem to enjoy open offices although I suspect their work is different and does not require the same level of deep concentration.

The obvious solution is to allow people to select the office environment that works best for them: office, cubicle, open area etc. instead of imposing a one size fits all "solution" from above.

I can't focus on programming work in a coffee shop either.

I have a harder time focusing in coffee shops than I do in open offices.

Coffee shop noises are not really "background noises" for me. The noises I hear tend to be the people talking loudly that stick out, the people munching on food, and the people slurping coffee loudly. There are also visual distractions like people coming and going.

I think libraries offer a far better trade off between being somewhere public and being free from many noises.

I've had this experience last week, when we went to work in a hackerspace of sorts - just desks for rent in an open office space. It was relatively quiet because most people were just working on their own shit, and any conversation at another table (if there was any) was simply not relevant to what you were doing.

I don't get the Open Office hate, given that our universities and most of the companies only use this kind of concept.

The only issue is having quite places for the meetings.

The open office from which I type this is usually quiet. Three of my neighboring co-workers have chronic coughs, throat clearing, and hacks. I wear earplugs inside can headphones that are on all day, and still, it's excruciatingly distracting. I would pay several thousand dollars a year to never hear them cough again.

In university, if you were going to go and get some serious work done, it was generally accepted that you went and hid in the stacks in the bowels of the library, or some other hidey-hole where it was quiet and people wouldn't find you or bother you.

One of the best perks of having a work-study job doing maintenance and AV stuff was having a set of keys that allowed getting into out-of-the-way places so you could post up with your tote bag of sources and grind out term papers.

We didn't had such privileges.

The library only had books, laptops were out of reach for most pockets and the computer labs had about 20 PCs per room.

I hate when other people watch me work. Always have.

What part of the world are you in?

Europe, open offices are quite common office layout in the countries I lived so far.

Offices tend to be only for bosses, or mini-open office with 3 to 4 desks.

Depending on the cafe, in Berlin many of the hippest coffee roasteries blast out loud techno.

That sounds great


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