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Scenes from a Coffee Shop

Gensler office

The coffee shop comes up in discussions about workplace design often, as a desired amenity, but also as a model of how people today can work “alone together.”

Thinking about my favorite coffee shop—a place where the coffee is strong and so is the WiFi—workplace designers can, indeed, learn valuable lessons from these unique environments, but it’s not just providing a big open room with a bunch of tables.

  1. People like to sit with their back to the wall. At my favorite coffee shop, the tables with seats against the wall are always taken first, yet typical workplace design does just the opposite, placing people with their backs to the action. Reorienting workers to face forward is more comfortable for them (and it’s good feng shui).
  2. People do not like to sit near heavy circulation areas. At my favorite coffee shop, the tables and seats adjacent to circulation go last; in fact they’re often unoccupied even when the place is crowded. Separating heavy circulation areas from the work floor helps minimize visual distractions.
  3. People are territorial, even in temporary settings. My favorite coffee shop has a few regulars and they almost always sit in the same place. If someone is sitting in their spot when they come in, you can feel the frustration ooze out of them. Office hoteling strategies are interesting in theory, but need to account for the likely possibility workers will gravitate to the same place day after day, and may be aggressive in defending that place.
  4. People tolerate more when they have a choice not to. My favorite coffee shop can get too noisy, too quiet, too cold, too hot, or too dull, but people seem to tolerate it. I'm guessing it's because they can leave if they want. Knowing you have an exit makes any situation infinitely more bearable. Workplace strategies targeting higher density or more openness can make the transition more successful by empowering employees with some autonomy in choosing where they work.
  5. Not everyone can work in a coffee shop. I’ve logged many a laptop hour in coffee shops, but I know many people who find the buzz (no pun intended) too distracting. This is because for every person who can work comfortably in an open environment, there is a person who cannot. Workplace designers too often make an illogical leap that what works for some, works for all. Providing a variety of work settings allows people to match a space to their workstyle.
  6. Generation X, Y, Z, Boomer, etc. are pretty similar. Whether it’s an old man or a teenage girl coming into the coffee shop, the points above remain pretty much consistent. Generational differences and their impact on the workplace are interesting to discuss, but not compelling in terms of driving design. Other differences—introvert/extrovert, urban/suburban, creative/analytical, etc.—offer richer avenues for design exploration.
  7. Great coffee is an amazing draw. My neighborhood coffee shop has a fantastic latte and offers a discount on a second cup. How could I not stay and work a bit, even with the loud talker on their cellphone at the table next to me?
  8. Erik Lucken
    Erik Lucken has played many roles in the design industry— from architecture, interiors and strategy to research, marketing and communications. For the last decade he has studied the intersection of business performance and the built environment, and now leverages his unique range of experience to help clients identify workplace design opportunities through unconventional insights into people, place, policy and process. Contact him at erik_lucken@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (18)

#1 is dead on! It's basic Feng Shui not to sit with your back to the room. Benching systems are the worst offenders. They're the veal farms of workplace design: workers crammed in facing either a wall or another calf. Is Gensler really designing this thoughtfully or is this post just PR spin?
12.21.2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrad J.
I agree on all counts. I think #4 is particularly insightful - it's amazing how much more you'll put up with when you know you don't have to.
12.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim P.
Number 7 is what I love the most! A great coffee is a tension remedy for me! -Sarah-
All of these are total head-smackers -- so obvious! How could no one have realized this?! Love #1, and it's opened my eyes to why I don't like my bench workspace. In my case, the facing-the-wrong-way problem is compounded by having a major thoroughfare at my back, so aside from my work surface, itself, I have no definable personal space.
And really -- no designer has ever stopped to realize that one of the biggest reasons people gravitate to coffeehouses is because of the coffee??? This should be a wake-up call for everyone to take off our blinders and learn to see bigger pictures every time we're researching, observing, or just experiencing a moment!
12.27.2011 | Unregistered CommenterCristian Asher
Thanks for sharing. As a member of Generation Y, I think all of these coffee shop observations can be used to describe an office setting just the same. (Minus the territorial part, I call it personal space.)
12.27.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMonica V.
Great post, I'm agreed on nearly all fronts... I'd add that #1 and #2 aren't always hard-fast rules though. I'd hate to be stuffed in the back of a coffee shop, away from all the action. A window seat is prime territory for me. (Though this may speak more to typical storefront architecture, applying less to offices with windows on the periphery.)
12.28.2011 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Derrick
This is all great feedback -- much appreciated! And Brad J, I'm working on a case study post of the Gensler project that implemented lesson #1. Not PR spin, Gensler really is committed to learning from people the kinds of space they want and need in order to work at their best.
12.28.2011 | Unregistered CommenterErik Lucken
and you forgot the reasons why I used to go to my (former Seattle) coffee shop: comfortable armchairs, near a fireplace, populated by people I liked to see and a barista who knew everything about everyone. I could talk with my local congressman (yes, really); the shop owner down the street; the neighborhood cop (who also was a board member of the Seattle Film Society) the bookseller and the local butcher. In short -- I could share information with people from my neighborhood who don't do what I do. All those inputs made my work a lot better. As a work space it wasn't that great; but as a work enhancement -- it was unmatched. I didn't need a community newspaper -- I just had to drop into Pat's Coffee every day.
12.29.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Whitacre
A great set of observations, and I generally agree. It's also true that the majority of people working at coffee shops are working solo and not actually collaborating. Sitting with your back to a wall, while understandable as an individual preference, is partly driven by the desire for privacy within a public venue. Balancing individual preferences within workplaces that seek to sponsor collaboration - which is generally (but not totally) absent in coffee shops - is the real trick. I look forward to hearing more about the case study!
01.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterKen Sanders
"Great Good Place" by Ray Oldenburg... Fantastic read about the history of coffee shops, beer gardens, the english pub and the american tavern and how they foster communication and interaction. I would recommend it to others interested in the concept of 3rd place! I love hearing and seeing this concept applied to other building types!
01.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Shealy
People tend to be more social then they might seem.A new trend in the coffe shop might include a point where people can meet conversate an relate bussiness & news. With regular trips to cofee shops one looks for appeal, comfort and location.
01.8.2012 | Unregistered CommenterFrancisco R.S.
Great article with dead on bullet points! Will have to save this one and share with clients. Thanks for posting! Look forward to future posts.
01.10.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRhonda E.
NIce oberservation
01.11.2012 | Unregistered CommenterEhren
Great article and valid observations! I'm particularly intrigued with point #4. It's amazing what people are willing to tolerate, when it's their own will. Thanks for sharing!
01.19.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJaimelynn S.
Well, I also used to work in coffee shop more often.
1/2/3/4 are all backed up by research on dining environments, some currently being conducted at Cornell University.
07.11.2012 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine
Great observation!
07.12.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSonmoy Chatterjee
Such a great observing post. I do agree with all the points that you mentioned regarding scenes. coffee shop is a place where people feel relaxed and satisfied.
10.29.2012 | Unregistered Commentercoffee shop ocala

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