Coffeehouse effect

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woman working in a coffeehouse

The Coffeehouse effect is a recent trend concerning people who go to coffeehouses to study or work productively. It is a recent phenomenon, born within the new century and widespread to workers and students. The main reasons of its birth are, on one hand, a more flexible work generation, characterized by the fact that workers don’t own an office anymore and they need a space to work. On the other hand, the phenomenon has developed due to the lack of studying spaces in universities, which have seen an increase among the enrolled students, who had to face this problem by looking for different spaces to study and meet for group-work: they found in coffeehouses a productive space to work for their projects and study.

Furthermore, the diffusion of this phenomenon has generated a series of studies from sociologists to psychologists, who investigated the phenomenon from a cultural and social point of view, discovering that background sounds, or having people around can increase one's brain productivity.

History and origins[edit]

The tendency of using coffee-shops as a place to study and work for both students and workers has its genesis in the late 20th century and it’s now a global trend.

Concerning workers, this phenomenon is deeply embedded in the 21st century Post-Fordism paradigm and in its way of conceiving flexibility as a key feature in modern age organizations. The rise of Information Technology and the shift from Mass Marketing to flexible specialization have softened the boundaries between home life and work life. Companies tend to focus on results and goals, leaving the employees free of time or place constraints. A Gallup survey showed that, not only american employees and employers are working more remotely, but this practice, viewed as broadly beneficial, is actually boosting productivity.[1]

On the other hand, students, and especially millennials, often in response to the lack of scholastic or university places to study, have started to use coffee-shops for studying and or leisure purposes. The development of internet cafés, providing Internet access to the public under the payment of a time-based fee, and of chains such as Starbucks that offer customers wi-fi connection and places to stay regardless of time spent, has boosted the spread of the coffee-shop effect.

The coffee-shop effect has developed mainly in big European (especially in Northern Europe) and American cities but is becoming more and more a global trend.

Psychological and social aspects[edit]

With the emerge of coworking and the increasing presence of such places, with the lack of available study areas in schools and universities, and namely with the growing popularity of flexible work environments and nomad working, especially among millennials and entrepreneurs, the adepts of the trend have started to switch towards an even more informal environment: the coffehouse. What makes them choose this kind of space over others, is mostly due to its direct connection with productivity and the positive impact on work’s outcome.

From a psychological standpoint, scholars in the field have identified various elements that play a role in influencing people to come to coffehouses to work or study. Firstly, it has been noted that by pursuing a mind related activity in a coffee shop, the brain’s neuroplasticity is exercised.[2] Not only that, but it also contributes to combating routine and predictability, which basically accommodate the brain with an easily formed schedule, not efficient for activities like brainstorming or innovation focused tasks. Moreover, it has been proved that by being exposed to new stimuli, in this given case, the lively atmosphere of the cafes (background noises, the scent of coffee and cakes etc.), the brain tends to create new mechanisms to accomplish tasks, and ultimately, break unproductive routines.

According to evolution scientists, the human brain is naturally, thus constantly in a search for novelty, which nowadays, coffeehouses seem to offer, predominantly from a working/studying perspective. Known in popular culture as the “Shiny Object Syndrome” (SOS), or “The Disease of distraction”, name inspired by a child’s run after a shiny object, in the coffeehouse working scenario, the shiny object, or the novelty refers to the new environment, that helps the brain to release dopamine. Until recent studies, dopamine could be felt as a reward, but currently, the scientific findings tie it to a boost in motivation,[3] therefore emphasizing the fact environments have a big say in performance and work’s aftermath.

Along with the effect on performance, working in a coffeehouse contributes to habit formation,[4] since it is likely the brain will connect the place to an environment where work is done not only efficiently, but creatively. The mental significance a coffeehouse gets after being used as an office/study zone reinforces the concept of brandscape, which was described by General Mills as “a symbolic space that is a familiar and comfortable home for consumers”.[5] Even if this notion is more effectively put into practice by the so-called experience economy retailers, such as Disney or Apple, coffehouses’ atmospherics enable their consumers to encounter a whole vibe: the musical selections (from jazz to hip indie), the furnishings with a vintage, “artsy” vibe, or the hipster staff, all contributing to the sense of community and belonging.

Through social lenses, it is important to mention the “Third Places Theory”, coined by Ray Oldenburg (1989), which points out there are some public spaces that exist between the formality and seriousness of the work sphere and the privacy and familial intimacy of domestic sphere – exactly where coffeehouses are placed in this day and age. In public imagination, they’re at the border of a variety of antagonisms, such as work and play, online and offline, public and private, presence and co-presence, individual and community, or local and global,[6] increasing their valorization for contemporary culture and constantly intertwining their meaning.

Marketing perspective[edit]

The marketing and financial consequences of this expanding trend are bipolar, creating a bifurcation in the coffee shops market. Owners of coffee shops might not always see this trend as a source of income, even though most of them consider this a great idea to improve their cafés and get more people to buy their products, others consider this counterproductive. In today's online-driven world, this might be seen as a risk, mainly because many people, like students or office workers, go to cafés just to have a space to work, occupying a table for many hours a day, provoking a loss for the owner. This means that in the short-run this trend might actually hurt the business of coffee houses, hence it's not well-seen by many café owners.

“We don't want to be an office.” - some café owners are “pulling the plug” on Wi-Fi in their bars, not only for economic reasons, but also for a problem of atmosphere: they hope to create more of a community in their bars, where people talk instead of typing on their computers for hours.[7]

Teamwork in a coffeehouse

The other side of the coin concerns the benefits in terms of revenues that this type of coffee shops can have on the business. Of course, adapting to the new standards of internet cafés, with big tables, wi-fi, and even computers accessible to the public, is an expense for the owners, but the potential profits made thanks to this arrangement could be really high. Many cafés are starting to develop a new way of conceiving their bars as a profitable coworking space, implementing areas with couches, internet lounges, wall outlets, and offering office spaces and conference rooms. The marketing strategy can also comprehend packaged deals, which could be a valid solution for those who are afraid of damaging their business with this type of activity. Packaged deals usually include promotions like “buy x time of internet and get free coffee” or to give the possibility of printing, scanning and faxing if you consume something at the bar. These are useful ways to make profits with internet cafés, since this new business can sometimes seem scary for owners.

From the brand point of view, associating work with consumption could potentially be disruptive: people going to cafés to study or work might start thinking of that particular bar as the place where work is done, and not as a relaxing pleasant space. This could affect the brand image of the café, which is going to be considered more like an “office”, which is exactly what many coffee shop owners are trying to avoid, to maintain a certain image of their shop.

That’s the case of the Rose Cafe in Venice, California;[importance?] like most cafes, the Rose doesn’t provide electrical outlets, to avoid consumers staying there all day long. Some remote workers have gotten the message and try to do their part. Jocelyn Johnson, who founded VideoInk, relies on remote work sites including the Rose. She has defined a code of conduct: her self-imposed rules include working in one cafe or restaurant no more than three mornings a week, for no more than three hours. She always orders a coffee and pastry, and frequently a lunch to go, to make sure she is not imposing on the chosen café. In an interview for The New York Times, she says that she once tried a weekend brunch there, only to realize that it felt too much like the office.[8]

Pop-culture trends[edit]

There is a website called Coffitivity[9] that recreates the background sounds of a café in order to boost creativity and help people work in a better way. The sounds are divided in specialized playlists useful for any occasion, for example some of them being: “morning murmur, lunchtime lounge, university undertones, Brazil bistro”.

Youtube has also created playlists which retreat background noises you find in a coffeehouse. The playlists vary from internal sounds of dishes, mugs and coffee machine, to external sounds like rain drop falling on the windows.

Spotify has also created coffeehouse sounds playlists such as “Café sounds”, “Starbucks coffee sounds", "The coffeehouse crowd".

See also[edit]


  • Bouw, B. (2017). “We don’t want to be an office: cafe owners are pulling the plug on WiFi.” In The Globe and Mail.
  • Jones D., Sundsted T., Bacigalupo T. (2009). “I’m outta here: how coworking is making the office obsolete.” Published by Not an MBA Press.
  • Stabiner, K. (2018). “What to do when laptop and silence take over your cafe?” In The New York Times.
  • Thompson, T. G. and Arsel, Z. (2004). “The Starbucks Brandscape and the Discursive Mapping of Local Coffee Shop Cultures.” In ResearchGate.
  • Tumanan, M. A. R., Lansangan, J. R. G. (2012). “More than just a cuppa coffee: A multi-dimensional approach towards analyzing the factors that define place attachment.” In International Journal of Hospitality Management.
  • Vallas, P. S. (1999). “Rethinking Post-Fordism: The meaning of Workplace Flexibility.” Sociological theory, Vol. 17, No. 1: pp.68-101.
  • Waldoff, R. A., Lozzi, D. M., Dilks, L. M. (2013). “The social transformation of the Coffee Houses: the emergence of chain establishments and the private nature of usage.” Hein Online.
  • Waxman, L. (2008). “The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical factors Influencing Place Attachment.” In Wiley online library.
  • Yodanis, C. (2006). A Place in Town: Doing Class in a Coffee Shop. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(3), 341–366.


  1. ^ Chokshi, Niraj (2017-02-15). "Out of the Office: More People Are Working Remotely, Survey Finds". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-02-26.
  2. ^ The Sentis Brain Animation Series. "Neuroplasticity".
  3. ^ UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. "Novelty aids learning".
  4. ^ Ralph Ryback M.D. "The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals".
  5. ^ Craig J. Thompson Zeynep Arsel. "The Starbucks Brandscape and Consumers' (Anticorporate) Experiences of Glocalization".
  6. ^ Donald Hislop. "Mobility and Technology in the Workplace".
  7. ^ "'We don't want to be an office:' Café owners are pulling the plug on WiFi". Retrieved 2019-02-26.
  8. ^ Stabiner, Karen (2018-02-13). "What to Do When Laptops and Silence Take Over Your Cafe?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-02-26.
  9. ^ Coffitivity