No Office? No Problem. Meet Me at Starbucks

By Bonnie Rochman / Starbucks Newsroom

The business plan took shape over a laptop, a latte and a chocolate chip cookie. On evenings and weekends, Joel Gascoigne would meet friends at a coffee shop in Birmingham, U.K., where they’d congregate at wooden tables, warm a hodgepodge of mismatched chairs and nurture a side of entrepreneurism.

Coffee fueled him. The other customers motivated him. With electronic music pulsing through his headphones, Gascoigne started up his start-up, Buffer, a social media management platform for small businesses.

He launched in 2010, growing to 50,000 paying customers, which made it worthwhile to open an office in San Francisco, where Buffer’s employees could convene. But Buffer closed down that office two years ago after realizing that no one really wanted to be there: Coffee shops proved a more attractive venue for getting the job done.

“It’s worked really well for productivity,” said Gascoigne, who now lives in New York City. “It’s great for how fulfilled people feel and that translates to loyalty because they can choose the ideal environment for getting work done.”

Bob Sullivan, one of 15 million or so Americans who are self-employed, considers Starbucks “the world’s conference room” – and his office. “It helps to be in an atmosphere where other people are doing stuff,” said Sullivan, a Washington, D.C.-based business and technology freelancer and author. “Those people mean business and it helps you to mean business too.”

For years, coffee shops have been the de facto workplace of Freelance Nation. The atmosphere is social (you’re surrounded by people) but not too social (you don’t usually know the people). There are no regularly scheduled meetings to attend and no co-workers to distract you in the break room. While it’s unlikely that major corporations are going to start canceling their leases, an increasing number of small businesses are allowing employees to work from coffee shops because they recognize that offices can stifle creativity. (Last year, in an acknowledgement that many employees hold business-related tête-à-têtes at coffee shops, Microsoft Outlook introduced a new feature that allows users to schedule a meeting at Starbucks.)

It’s not just a whimsical, hip trend. There’s actual science behind the relationship between work and coffee shops.

One day several years ago, Ph.D. student Ravi Mehta joined colleagues in a Starbucks located in some big, bustling hotel lobby so nondescript he doesn’t even remember where it was. They were there to brainstorm concepts for potential research projects, but one colleague protested that it was too noisy; there was simply no way they would be able to come up with good ideas. And that got Mehta thinking: “Maybe we should study this.”

After all, Mehta himself has always preferred to get work done in coffee shops rather than, say, libraries. Even when he’s at the office — he’s now associate professor in the Department of Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — he sits in his building’s atrium to bask in the academic hustle and bustle. “When there’s very little noise, you focus too hard on a job,” he said.

To determine how distraction affects the brain, Mehta and his colleagues examined different levels of noise on research participants’ ability to generate ideas for new products. They reached the conclusion that a moderate level of noise, such as the music and conversation that suffuse your average coffee house, provides a commensurately moderate level of distraction that actually elevates your thinking to a higher plane. The steady hum promotes more abstract thinking, activating the subconscious and facilitating creative problem-solving — the kind involved in coming up with new ideas, not technical analysis.

In 2012, Mehta co-authored a paper published in The Journal of Consumer Research that presented these findings and read like a love letter to coffee shops in the gig economy.

Coffee shop chatter? There’s an app for that

It’s that research that Ace Callwood and his business partner, Justin Kauszler, discovered shortly after they graduated in 2012 from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Both freelancers, they needed a place to work and found that they gravitated to coffee shops. Curious about why, they started digging around online and found Mehta’s study.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Background chatter and clatter didn’t only help them concentrate; a bona fide peer-reviewed study had validated the effect. “The question we had been asking was how do we facilitate the opportunity to do good work as often as possible? Now we knew,” said Callwood, who responded by launching Coffitivity, an app that provides coffee shop buzz in the form of recorded audio to help workers focus when they’re not able to make it into a real, live café.

“Justin said this is the thing we should do,” said Callwood, who is creative director. “I told him it was dumb.”

He’s since changed his tune. Since its launch in 2013, Callwood says 5.5 million people have used Coffitivity, a mash-up of “coffee” and “creativity.”

Users can choose audio from the VCU business school coffee shop and from additional locations including Texas (“Texas Teahouse”), France (“Paris Paradise”) and Brazil (“Brazil Bistro”). The selections are mixed and scrambled so that listeners can’t follow any one particular conversation, which is what gets distracting as anyone who’s sat beside someone talking loudly on a cell phone can attest. Subscribing costs $9 a year, although some soundtracks are free.

“We are coffee shop crusaders, as we see it,” says Callwood.

Coffee has fueled ideas for centuries. One of America’s most prolific inventors, Benjamin Franklin, convened his Club of Honest Whigs, a group devoted to the discussion of philosophy and science, at St. Paul’s Coffeehouse in London, and later the London Coffeehouse, during the years he worked in the British capital as a colonial representative of several U.S. states. The first coffee houses sprang up in the 1500s in the Middle East, the birthplace of the coffee trade. The cafes served as social outlets and as venues for the exchange of information, which led to them being known as “Schools of the Wise.” Today, of course, modern-day customers access wisdom in coffee shops via Internet connections available in nearly every café.

Adding productivity

Once upon a time, coffee shops frowned upon workers camping out for hours in a row. But in 2009, Starbucks began offering free, unlimited Wi-Fi at its stores, an acknowledgement that customers who can pull out their laptops are more apt to stay longer — and hopefully drink and eat more. Many other establishments followed their lead, if they hadn’t already had a similar policy in place. “Having an Internet connection should be as frictionless as possible,” said Adam Brotman, Starbucks executive vice president of global retail operations. Brotman, who led the transition to free Wi-Fi, said that offering complimentary online access dovetails with Starbucks’ mission to serve as a “third place” in a world where the way that work gets done is fast evolving.

“This is who we are,” said Brotman. “Our environment is so much more than just a place to enjoy your beverage or food. We provide a comfortable venue where you can be alone or with other people and think and do work. That’s always been the case, but it’s more important than ever now that work is so modular and bite-sized.”
Of course, there’s an unwritten code among those who ply their trade at coffee shops: buying the cheapest cuppa on the menu and relying on multiple free refills is bad form.

On a typical day, Sullivan, the writer, rotates among several coffee shops, moving from one to another at least once a day, and placing an order wherever he goes. His go-to location is the Starbucks across from the National Zoo, which can get packed with tourists on a warm, sunny afternoon but at other times provides the perfect set-up for Sullivan, who walks or bikes there from his home. “Since I grew up writing in newsrooms, I need to be around people,” said Sullivan, who has written four business books. “Everyone who goes solo and leaves the workplace misses having coworkers. A coffee shop provides that.”

Coffee and creativity

It’s not just about camaraderie. Eileen Chou, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, documented in a 2016 study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making that the mere presence of other people encourages us to take more risks. Now she’s extending that research to explore whether the presence of others can spur people not only to live on the edge but to think outside the box when working toward solutions. Chou is specifically looking at the impact on creativity of working alongside others in coffee shops. “When we’re around others, it gives us a sense of security,” said Chou. “Being in the presence of others could help us come up with better innovative solutions to existing problems.”

Another critical component of creativity is autonomy. “If you have to show up to work in a cubicle, that can stifle creativity,” said Chou. “The option of freely choosing which coffee shop to go to fulfills that need for autonomy so we can be creative.”

Importing the benefits

Even companies that remain office-centric are acknowledging the value of the coffee shop vibe and bringing cafes in house. Google Coffee Lab serves free espresso drinks and pastries to employees at its Mountain View, Calif., campus. The eighth floor of the Starbucks Support Center, the company’s headquarters in Seattle, features a full-scale Starbucks store that doubles as a common meeting spot. And a leading manufacturer of workplace furniture routinely suggests that companies incorporate what they call “WorkCafes” into office redesigns.

For those employees not lucky enough to be masters of their own domains, Steelcase, which designs office furniture, is bringing the coffee shop to them. In 2010, after a review of how to forge more meaningful connections between employees, company leaders came up with the idea of a WorkCafe. At their Grand Rapids, Mich., headquarters, the café model combines the old model of the corporate cafeteria and extends it to casual spaces, conference rooms, booths to take private phone calls and even an outdoor fireplace, all centered around an open floor plan. When Steelcase saw how enthusiastically their own workers responded, they began pitching the concept to customers. “It’s a great recruiting tool,” said Cherie Johnson, Steelcase’s director of global design. “It enables workers to have the freedom to choose where they work best. Coffee is a social lubricant. No matter if you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you can always come together around coffee and food.”

thumbnail for Barbie, Senior Product Specialist at Starbucks Asia Pacific

Barbie, Senior Product Specialist at Starbucks Asia Pacific