Coffee Shop Productivity – Ambient Sounds, Interesting Experiences, and Productive Work

September 11, 2020
Jayson Mueller

Even before COVID-19, more and more people were choosing to work somewhere outside a corporate office. Whether working in remote locations such as home offices and coffee shops (or skipping out to work in nature), it really does feel like the tipping point for remote workers is on the way.

Relatedly, one interesting concept which seems to have legs is the idea of coffee shop productivity – the belief that people are more productive in social gathering places like coffee shops. All this got me wondering – is there real science behind this coffee house effect that gets people working harder for longer? Does it really work? And – importantly – how can you replicate it while sheltering at home?

A busy coffee shop with people at tables

Coffee Shop Productivity 

Rise of the Internet Cafe

The coffeehouse effect is a relatively recent idea.

This trend of working in coffee shops has grown as more people transition to the gig economy, freelance work, and traditional roles worked from co-working spaces such as WeWork.

At the first sign of the trend, multinational coffee giants like Starbucks and independent corner coffee shops alike jumped at the opportunity. With people were coming to them for space first and coffee second, they looked to leverage the trend towards shared working.

Just looking at the Starbucks Mission and Vision statement gives you an idea of how seriously they saw their role as purveyors of excellent coffee AND providers of spaces where meaningful connections and human interactions happened. You see a similar effect with the rise of internet cafes and co-working spaces as well – despite the phenomenon's name, they seem to encourage the coffee shop productivity effect as well.

Freelancing Culture 

If you're are a student, freelancer, or solopreneur, you probably don't have much capital. Co-working companies such as WeWork, CO+HOOTS, NextSpace, and WorkBar know this; they made sure to provide unlimited Wi-Fi, inspiring décor, and constant caffeine to create an affordable and relaxed workspace. Playing to this crowd, they also encouraged flexible, inexpensive, easy to modify leases.

All this flexibility seems to work for independent workers. To wit, one of the world's most beloved authors, J.K. Rowling, started this way. As a single mother living on welfare, J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first book of the Harry Potter series in – among other places – various coffee shops in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Maybe we're not all penning the next Harry Potter (nor are many of us spending much time in coffee shops currently!), but the coffee shop effect is the real deal for the solopreneur.

Coffee shop table with notepad, coffee, camera, and hat

9 Reasons Coffee Shops Increase Productivity 

There's something to the phenomenon – as they say, where there's smoke, there's fire. I searched around for reasons productivity may be off the charts in coffee shops. Here's what I came up with in my research.

1. The Novelty Effect 

Working from home or designated office spaces can quickly get boring.

The human brain craves constant stimulation from new experiences and environments – and without this, creativity is quickly stunted. Coffee shops provide your senses with new sounds, occurrences, and people, which paradoxically lowers distractions and enables you to focus on your task list and get more done in a shorter period.

According to a study by Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Dünzel, dopamine releases that occur when the brain encounters anything new help stimulate you, encouraging a boost in productivity.

2. Limited Distractions 

Your productivity decreases drastically if you continuously get interrupted or if you multitask.

Coffee shops present an environment where – even though a lot is going on – it is easier to tune out these occurrences. By putting on earphones, for instance, you automatically signal to baristas and others around you that you do not wish to be disturbed. 

What's more, the little distraction from, say, the whirr of the coffee machine, clunking of coffee cups, or conversation and music do well to trick your mind into thinking more broadly through a process known as cognitive disfluency.

This moderate amount of noise coming from people who are not your coworkers (and who will not interrupt you and hinder your focus) encourages your mind to "think outside the box." This all spurs you on to faster and more creative solutions for the tasks at hand. 

3. Productivity is Contagious 

When you watch someone with their game face on cranking out tons of words on their laptop, you may not know what they're working on, but it will undoubtedly inspire you to work harder on your own project! The sense of community and shared purpose to get things done amplifies this productivity effect and makes it contagious. 

In an article for, Dylan Minor and Jason Corsello break down their research study findings for a large tech company, examining how grouping specific high-productivity coworkers influenced performance positively and boosted work performance. 

The research concluded that if you want to boost your productivity, you will do well to sit next to someone who is already productive, an environment often found in coffee shops. 

4. Ambient Noise Boosts Creativity

A moderate amount of noise seems to make us more creative.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia found in a 2012 study that approximately 70 decibels of ambient noise – roughly equivalent to the level in an everyday busy coffee shop – influenced creativity and productivity positively. Meanwhile, the 50 decibels found in a quiet room or the 85 decibels of garbage disposal lowered performance drastically.

There was a caveat, however. The positive influence of white noise on creativity quickly depleted when interrupted or engaged in conversation by others. Sound like your office's open floor plan? Hmm...

A young man works at a table with laptop open

5. Intentions Matter 

Going to a coffee shop puts you in a productive mindset by allowing you to transition from your familiar home environment and commit to working for a few hours at the dynamic coffee shop.

In this blog by Kate Boogaard for Trello, she describes how changing locations goes a long way to changing your mindset and priming you to do better and more focused work. 

The coffee shop commute gives you enough time to change your mindset from relaxed to ready to work.

6. The Third Place 

The idea of the third place is a community-centered space where socialization, relaxation, and work can occur. 

In contrast to the home – which sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined as the first place, and work, the second place – the third place enables people to put aside their inhibitions as they work or socialize, and enjoy the company and conversation of the people around them.

The third-place plays a considerable part in boosting work productivity

Organizations like Google and Facebook and co-working spaces like WeWork perfected the concept of blending the first place's relaxation with the second place's professionalism inside their offices. They incorporated bean bags, sofas, sleep pods, coffee and snack stations, as well as (infamously) TVs, and billiard and ping pong tables where workers could work and break seamlessly throughout the day. Just like in coffee shops. (Well, minus the billiard tables.)

7. Audience Effect 

When others watch us work, we do better work

The experience of working as people mill around strangely focuses our attention on what we are doing and amps up our work performance, compared to working alone in a private office or at home.

According to a study by Jill Rosen, the audience effect also improves attention spans, performance levels, and inspiration, and reduces the stress and anxiety that can come with looming deadlines.

This scenario is precisely replicated in coffee shops. There, you'll most likely be among other motivated people working hard (and occasionally looking at you!), which revises your productivity.

8. Easy Access to Coffee and Caffeine

Drinking coffee energizes you, stimulates your creativity, improves working memory, and overall enhances productivity even as it helps you remain alert. By definition, coffee shops have a constant and nigh-unlimited supply of high-end coffee, which you also don't have to make yourself!

9. It's Affordable

Internet cafes, coffee shops, and co-working spaces are incredibly affordable compared to the traditional office. 

The first two are practically free, costing you the equivalent of a cup or two of coffee but giving you unlimited internet and a workspace. And although more expensive than coffee shops, co–working spaces are also not nearly as expensive as renting an office a couple of decades ago would have cost.

A lady works from home with coffee in hand
We don't all have two laptops, but try to carve out a working niche.

Emulating the Coffee Shop at Home 

Great, I've now got you longing to get back into the coffee shop. Let's fix that – in the current times, how can you replicate coffee shop productivity at home? 

With the COVID-19 pandemic requiring many of us to work from home and limiting social interaction in public spaces, you'll have to get creative. However, there are several things you can do to recreate the coffee house effect at home. 

Novelty at Home

Change up your work environment from time to time. If you have a workspace already set up at home, change your routine on some days and work from your balcony (if you live in an apartment), or outside if the weather's good. 

You'll be amazed at how something as simple as changing your view can get you out of a slump – even for an hour or two. 

Background Noise

Also, incorporate a little background noise to help you focus better. A music playlist from your favorite bands, white noise YouTube videos, or white noise apps like Coffitivity, Noisli, TMSOFT Noise Generator, or White Noise HQ are excellent choices. 

Soothing noises from nature, such as thunderstorms, rain, or the ocean, mask distracting sounds like cars beeping, doors slamming, or dogs barking. Studies have shown that these apps and videos go a long way to increasing focus, fighting fatigue, and improving your speed and accuracy, helping you to get into the zone.

Separation of Intentions

Remember, too, to compartmentalize your "work" and "home" space, primarily if you work from home. 

For instance, do not work in the bedroom, your sanctuary and resting place, and avoid working in the living room where the TV, children, and pets can easily break your concentration. 

Identify a separate nook (or room if you have space), set it up as a workspace, and put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign that clarifies to others that you should be left alone.    

As much as you separate your workspace from your living space, you must also "psyche yourself into work mode" and commit yourself to a work mindset for a few hours each day. Still, ensure that you take regular breaks to achieve the highest productivity throughout the day.

Good Coffee

Lastly, but perhaps most fundamentally in a post about the coffee house effect, make sure you have an adequate supply of good coffee, tea, or other beverage that gets your creative juices flowing. 

If you can afford it, get a nice espresso machine or coffee maker for your productivity-boosting hit of espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, or coffee. Or stick with the tea – really, caffeine will do the trick.

Angled overhead shot of people in a coffee shop

To Coffee Shop Productivity, Even at Home

We're living in strange times, but presumably many of the skills we're practicing will continue to be useful when this is all through. I imagine that COVID pulled forward a lot of already-occurring trends, and some proportion of the workforce will stay remote.

So, whether we're headed back into the coffee shop soon or not, let's try to capture a little bit of that coffee shop effect. I hope it works for you!

Jayson Mueller
Jayson Mueller loves his house in the Bay Area. Over the last ten years, he's gone from theory to practice – researching the best upgrades and repairs for his house while trying to do as much as he can on his own. He's happy to help you make your house a home as well!

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