Why We Work in Starbucks

(this is a copy of my Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers; hence no links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Why do we work in Starbucks? It’s a question I ask myself every day, because I usually find myself in one at least once. This despite having an excellent home office replete with cappuccino machine, music, ergonomic chair and, most importantly, sofa. But lo, every day I wend my way to a Starbucks, or one of those other chains, and park myself in an uncomfortable chair and too-low table, dodging the students with their bags strewn across space they’ll never use, the dregs of a smoothie enough to make it look as if they’re paying their way, babies screaming blue murder by the sugar dispenser.

Why? Why do I do it?

Well, I think it has to do with noise. And a cycle that goes back 300 years and, importantly, has to do with organ grinders.

So first, the organ grinders.

Next time you look out of your window and you don’t see an organ grinder making his way down the street, you can blame Charles Dickens. And Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and 28 authors, painters, engravers, illustrators, historians, actors, sculptors, musicians, architects and scientists. All of them, in 1863, co-signed a letter that “in their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the piece and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Most gave their home and work address as the same. The letter was the centerpiece of a 120-page bill submitted before the British parliament by one Michael Thomas Bass. The letter, and dozens of others, reflect a single themes: a rearguard action to defend the home as workplace against the slings and arrows of street noise.

This was no idle irritant. The streets of central London had become a sea of itinerant workers, musicians and hustlers. Those who didn’t like to have their ears assailed by the noise could either pay them off or complain. But the latter was not without risk. One of Dickens’ friends confronted two street musicians and was insulted, in the words of a friend, “in the choicest Billingsgate.” Another, Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, waged a guerrilla war against street musicians from Manchester Square and was not popular for it: mobs, some numbering more than 100, would pursue him, leave dead cats on his doorstep, break his windows and threaten his life.

The Street Music Act was passed the following year, and decimated the itinerant musician community—among them violin-players and street bands, Irish and Scotch pipers, a German brass-bandsman, a French hurdy-gurdy-player, Italian street entertainers, and percussionists and minstrel singers from India and the United States. Many were gone by the latter years of the century—but so were most of the knowledge workers, who upped sticks to the suburbs or took refuge in offices.

The truth is that knowledge workers, or whatever we choose to call ourselves, have long struggled to control the level of noise in our world.

I’ve waged my own noise battles over the years—dogs in Hong Kong flats, car alarms in Singapore, firecrackers in Indonesia. But at issue is not the pursuit of silence, per se, but to find a place where the noise is conducive to work. And that’s trickier—because we’re not sure what it is.

Which is where the coffee house comes in.

Starbucks likes to portray itself as a “third place”—a term purloined from Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who mourned the demise of informal public gathering places. The idea is that your local Starbucks fulfills a role beyond just providing  you with coffee, but connects you to others in your community, along with sparkling conversation and wit.

The truth is this doesn’t happen—at least not in any Starbucks I know, a point made by historian Bryant  Simon, who hung around in more than 400 Starbucks trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Despite what Starbucks would like us to believe, with its Annual Report covers of friendly people chatting in their outlets, faux artwork and lame noticeboards, and a short-lived community magazine called Joe, we don’t come to Starbucks to chat. Well, not with strangers.

That dream pretty much died long before Dickens got hot under the collar about the racket-making riff raff . Back in the 1700s there were things called coffee houses, all over the place. They were the place where men met—women were usually banned—to drink coffee, read the paper, discuss politics and basically to get away from things (meaning the house.)  These were vibrant, noisy places and there were lots of them. Samuel Johnson called them ‘penny universities.’

But they began to die out, ironically, when newspapers became cheaper and more plentiful, and were delivered to your home. Then the reason for someone to go to a coffee house declined, and our knowledge workers began two centuries of toiling, either in a cubicle or alone at home.

Starbucks—and other things—have brought us full circle. Starbucks was never what Starbucks would like us to think it is: It is, primarily, a solo-friendly environment. You can go there on your own, order something and sit there on your own and no-one is going to bat an eyelid. Social phobics feel uncomfortable there, but less uncomfortable than pretty much any other eatery. Indeed, the size of tables, the size of the chairs, the layout of the place, is designed to cater to someone alone.

Which is why it has become the perfect workplace. It’s not just the free Wi-Fi, the power outlets, the no-nag policy, although that helps. It’s a complex social and psychological thing. For students, libraries are too quiet, too noisy, too old, too full of friends. You are less likely to fall asleep in a Starbucks. For those who work at home, they feel they might be missing something. Or they like to watch other people. It’s a place for introspection, a refuge from the city, from the kids, from everything: There are people around you, but with no obligation to talk to them. The barista can be as friendly or as taciturn as you want her to be. It’s not a sexy environment, and it’s relatively safe: Leave your belongings while you visit the washroom and they may well still be there when you get back.

For people who work in an office it’s refuge from the boss, the people hanging around your cubicle, the greyness of it all, the phones ringing. In libraries it’s people whispering—loud enough to hear them whispering, but not loud enough to hear what they’re whispering about.

So it’s actually often about noise. It turns out we actually need noise. We just need a certain kind of noise.

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cafe. Stephen King writes to AC/DC or Guns n Roses. Xerox chief researcher John Seely Brown did his doctoral thesis in a bar.

Researchers in Sweden found that actually a certain level of white noise actually helped kids with Attention Deficit Disorder concentrate better. Apparently it’s something to do with increasing the levels of dopamine activity in the brain.  Canadian researchers found that masking noise—adding white noise to their work environment to reduce the intrusion of things like ringing phones—also helped office workers. Kodak issued a manual a few years ago advising offices to do just this—48-52 decibels is the best level, they reckon. Perhaps Dickens and co could have saved themselves the wrath of the mob if they’d installed a white noise machine or invented the iPod.

It’s also related to the way we work, and communicate, today. It’s tempting to imagine Dickens hunched up in the corner scribbling Nicholas Nickleby. But while we knowledge workers have something in common, our tools are quite different, and what we’re asked to do with them: we’re all touch typists, of a sort, which means we write dozens of words a minute. We answer emails as if we were flicking dust off our coat. We write proposals, reports, requests for proposals  that not long ago would have taken teams a month to write. Laptops are lighter, with better battery life, and connected to a communications network. We are our office. Companies realize they don’t need to shackle people to their desks all day—less than 40% of our time, according to one property consultancy, is actually spent at our office desk.

We operate in a supercharged environment, which makes the coffee shop of today a perfect setting. Visual and audible stimulation, but with none of the distraction of having to be sociable. Oh and the coffee. It’s no coincidence, I suspect that caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain. A double whammy of noise and caffeine.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to head off. You know where you can find me.

11. April 2011 by jeremy
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