Businesses of all sizes have been trying to figure out how to design the perfect office, but it turns out, fewer workers might end up using those spaces, anyway. In the not-so-distant future, the humble coffee shop could be standing in for millions of formal work rooms. Let's break down why this might come to fruition.

1. Coffee shop noise can help us be creative.


In a recent Harvard Business Review article, David Burkus highlights two studies. The first study, led by Ravi Mehta of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, showed that the right level of ambient noise helps the brain think more creatively, with those exposed to noise around 70 decibels (about what you get from coffee shop chatter) outperforming those exposed to other decibel levels. The researchers hypothesized that the white noise might disrupt normal patterns of thought, thereby allowing the brain to dive into the more abstract processing needed for creativity. The second study, led by Luke Laverty, had similar results and used EEGs to show that white noise positively influenced creativity. The EEGs also demonstrated that exposure to conversation and interruption, such as in common in the daily office, negatively affect creativity.

2. We easily can escape the petty and annoying behaviors of coworkers.

In looking at the Harvard Business Review article cited above, my Inc. colleague Geoffrey James aptly explains how other social factors might come into play when it comes to coffee shop focus and creativity. He points out that

  • All patrons are equal in coffee shops, compared to in the office where there's a hierarchy. In the traditional workspace, certain individuals might purposely engage in loud conversation or other interrupting behaviors to prove their clout.
  • Coffee shop conversation is likely easier to tune out, as it generally isn't personally relevant to us the way office chatter can be.
  • You have more control in a coffee shop, such as being able to reinforce that you don't want to be interrupted by wearing earphones with the expectation no one will ask you to remove them. In a regular open office, people can feel like they're entitled to or doing the company a favor if they pull you to what they think is important.

3. Employees already have shown they can work outside the hive.

A study by CTrip of 500 volunteers found that individuals who worked from home were 13.5 percent more efficient and 9 percent more engaged than their peers working in the office. They also took shorter breaks and sick days and took less time off, and attrition rates were 50 percent better. Job satisfaction was higher overall, too. Another study by TINYpulse had similar positive results. Subsequently, more and more companies--particularly those in the transportion, computer, information systems and mathematics industries--are giving workers the leeway to work outside the standard cubicle. These companies don't particularly care where workers work, so long as they finish the jobs they're assigned on time with the expected quality level. In fact, they're using flexible work options to attract new hires, particularly millennials.

I should point out here that, in the CTrip study, many workers eventually went back to the office when given the opportunity. Workers want flexibility, but they also wanted to get away from being so isolated and to combat the accurate perception that they wouldn't be considered prominently for bonuses and promotion. With this in mind, research by Adam Henderson showed that 0 percent--yes, zero--of surveyed millennials want to work exclusively from home. This suggests that, while the coffee shop might become where workers spend the bulk of their time, businesses do need to get workers face-to-face at least some time during the week, wherever that might happen to be.

4. The effort we see at coffee shops is contagious.

A study led by Belgian researchers showed that people put more effort into tasks when they see others working hard, too. The team concluded that exertion of effort is contagious. And in a coffee shop, your models typically are people honed in on what they're doing, as they can focus effectively. Being around them can lead you to work harder as a result and, subsequently, be more productive for yourself or employer.

5. Companies and workers both can demonstrate trust by cutting out the cubicle.

In his 2015 article on LinkedIn, Henderson asks an important question: "If you can't trust your employees to work flexibly, why hire them in the first place?" That said, employees conversely are particularly concerned with working for companies they can trust. Letting people work in coffee shops or other remote spaces is a simple way for employers to demonstrate faith in their staff, and when workers experience this trust, they more likely to reciprocate and feel like the business will treat them fairly.

6. The gig economy is growing.

Intuit projects that as much as 43 percent of the American workforce will be involved in the gig economy by 2020, meaning many more people will be in need of a place to complete tasks. While some individuals within this economy, such as Uber drivers or voice-based online tutors, won't necessarily find coffee shops to be the ideal work space, others who do work like writing, graphic design or even website creation might find it more than suitable, particularly since it's cost effective and, to a degree, can provide a sense of not being completely cut off from others.

Of course, this is all from the employee and employer perspective. The response of coffee shops will affect how quickly workers invade, too. Workers in some shops can't stand people who come in and lounge all day, as it means there's less room for additional patrons. Employees from other shops are fine with loungers, provided they keep buying through their stay. These businesses even go out of their way to offer ergonomic, inviting design and reliable, fast Internet. It might be that certain shops become hubs for workers while others become go-tos for general buyers. We'll all just have to wait and see, but on the upside, there are plenty of beverages and snacks to enjoy from where we're observing.