Cubicle or Coffee Shop: How to Remain Productive

As I sat at work today, amongst an overcrowded building and barking dogs, I couldn’t stop thinking about a question I was asked the other day: “How do you work best?” I picture the physical location as a metaphor for the type of worker I am. And I’m not talking white collar vs. blue collar here, but rather a 9-5’er vs. entrepreneur.

Since I tend to veer towards the latter, I have never envisioned myself as someone to end up at a large company which required you to track your hours, take exact lunch breaks, and require you sit in a cubicle. And alas, many of my friends are the same. Among the Seattle start-up scene, specifically, I’ve found it quite common for workers to spend a lot of their time working in coffee shops and I’ve often wondered how that would suit me.

I’ve always wondered how productive I could be, since I have this deep fascination with people and people watching. This forced me to poll a few of my coffee shop dwelling friends to find out how exactly they remain productive amongst the constant flow of people and conversation. Here are some useful tips I stumbled upon:

  • Head in with a plan: have a clear idea of what you want to get done that day
  • Bring headphones: sounds silly, but drowning out other peoples’ conversations will make you more productive
  • Sit facing away from the door: resist temptation to observe every single person who walks through the door and find a nice quiet corner

The one plus side to a cubicle environment is the constant access to people and information. If you have a quick question, it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to get up and go ask a coworker. While this is a plus, it can also be a negative. As someone who has wound up in somewhat of a cubicle environment, I wanted to offer some pieces of advice on how to remain productive:

  • Carve out “email time”: while it’s easy to watch every single email in, this can also be extremely distracting. Instead of allowing email to disrupt you constantly, turn off the pop-up notifications and let yourself get some solid work done for at least 1 hour increments.
  • Limit access to instant messaging services: these tools can be great for cross-office communication, but also have a tendency to be a distraction. Only allow people who you know won’t distract you constantly.
  • Use headphones: for those of us who work in a crowded environment (dogs or no dogs), it helps to drown out conversations and extra noise.
  • Play nice with the people around you: okay, so you’re stuck with a room full of people for at least 40 hours a week, unless you play nice, you may find yourself in a world of discomfort. At the very least, remember all the things you learned in kindergarten.

As I return back to the original question, ‘how do you work best’, I imagine myself moving around. Since I get antsy if I’m sitting in one place too long (whether that be a coffee shop, desk, or cubicle), I picture my ideal day as one with some serious “me” time: heads down, earphones in, coffee in hand, coupled with getting the opportunity to collaborate with other people, share ideas, and perhaps a few laughs.

I’m hoping that as more companies strive to keep their employees happy (as I feel this is the best way to keep them productive), they will find that it’s okay to switch up the working environment.

If you could write your work day, what would it look like?


  1. Jul 14, 2011
    7:14 am

    Chris Miller

    For me, it’s about removing distractions – and different flavors of distractions can happen in any environment, but the worse battle is at home – I tend to multi-task with non-work (TV, World of Warcraft). At the coffee shop, it’s mostly the tempeture changes from the door opening and closing, uncomfortable (or too comfortable) chairs, watching the table with the outlet like a shark.

    In my cube at my present job it’s always the ideal temperature, the chair is ergonomically correct, and I have no software that isn’t work related (by choice). With a little Bose noise canceling headphones and fine-tuned Pandora station, I can get quite a bit done.

    Funny though, I *hated* cube life until I started freelancing for a living, then realized how good cube-life and steady paychecks can be :)

    • Jul 14, 2011
      9:45 am


      Hey Chris! Thanks for popping in. You bring up a really good point around the comfort that a professional office setting can bring, and I really appreciate your feedback as someone who’s done both. My issue, as I mentioned, is that people have constant access to you. I’m constantly interrupted which is really hard when you get in a groove! How do you deal with that?

      • Jul 15, 2011
        7:12 am

        Chris Miller

        I think it has a lot to do with how you set up expectations. Coworkers are just another form of the client relationship, it’s not friends, or family – you have to kind of set boundaries. For example at my work, about half my time is spent interacting with other people on the design and development teams (meetings, training… socializing ;) but the other half is sitting down and coding out wireframes and interaction modules – during that time, I usually have noise canceling headphones on, and am purposely unaware of my surroundings. Someone has to specifically come up to get my attention, and when they do, I finish the thought / sentence / whatever I’m in the middle of, make eye contact so they know I’ll be with them in a second, but finish the thought.

        That probably makes me sound like a jerk, but it’s about prioritizing work – if someone is already interrupted enough to need to walk over to my cube, they can probably wait another 30-60 seconds. I also give the same curtosy whenever I walk over to someone elses cube, letting them know I’m there but then stand away and wait for them to finish what they’re doing (which again, sets expectations).

        (wow that was a long response for 7am ;)

  2. Jul 14, 2011
    10:18 am


    Mel, I could not agree more about Carving Out “Email Time”! I have been known to be one of those compulsive checker / responders at work, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but often, I find it takes me away from bigger projects requiring attention. I now follow this rule and it’s helped me become more productive :) .

    Switching up the work environment – wouldn’t it be the day when all companies offer their employee’s a “one-day-a-week option”. I say Seattle should definitely give this a try! We do have a wide array of coffee shops :) !

    • Jul 15, 2011
      7:15 am

      Chris Miller

      Another trick is to come in later / earlier than everyone else, so you’ve got some time at the start or end of the day (and when everyone’s on lunch) to do focus-reliant work – then do email in-between those times.

      I also ask people to put important documents in a shared folder that anyone on the project can access (and do the task), vs relying on my email which I purposely loose track of ;)

      Ah, the life of a cube.

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