It's Easier to Focus in a Coffee Shop Than an Open Plan Office, According to Brain Scans

Yesterday, the Harvard Business Review published an article asking why people feel they can focus better in a coffee shop than in an open plan office, even though both environments are noisy. 

The article cites research that people tend to be more creative in the presence of noise than in complete silence and that EKG readings reveal that “a certain level of white noise proved the ideal background sound for creative tasks.”  

Considering that white noise is fine and even beneficial,

“Why do so many of us hate our open offices? The quiet chatter of colleagues and the gentle thrum of the HVAC should help us focus. The problem may be that, in our offices, we can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into others’ conversations or from being interrupted while we’re trying to focus. Indeed, the EEG researchers found that face-to-face interactions, conversations, and other disruptions negatively affect the creative process. By contrast, a coworking space or a coffee shop provides a certain level of ambient noise while also providing freedom from interruptions.”

I think that’s true as far as it goes, but there’s more going on here than meets the ear. Coffee shops (and coworking spaces) operate under different social systems than offices and workplaces.

For example, in a coffee shop, all patrons are created equal. There is significant social pressure to adhere to common-sense politeness, such as no telephone calls (you take it outside) and no loud talking.

By contrast, in an office, social pressure exists within an informal hierarchies of clout. While there may be rules–even posted rules–similar to the unspoken rules of coffee shop behavior, breaking those rules–and escaping censure for doing so–is a highly-visible and universally understood way to establish dominance.

Indeed, sexual harassment (especially when committed in the presence of underlings, as has been the case in many of the recent horror stories) is the most extreme form of this kind of status-establishing bad behavior.

Less heinous, though equally status-driven, behaviors plague most workplaces. For example, in a high tech firm a project leader might (consciously or subconsciously) hold a loud conversation in the middle of a shared work area simply to prove to everyone else that his project is more important than whatever they’re doing.

Is he being a jerk? Sure. But while people may resent it, if he’s got enough political clout he’ll not only get away with it but the fact he got away with it will emphasize and reinforce his status.  

Another difference between coffee shops and open plan offices is the nature of the conversations that you’re likely to overhear. 

In a coffee shop, there’s an infinitesimal likelihood that an overheard conversation will be relevant to your or your job. By contrast, in an open plan office any conversation is potentially relevant. As a result, your brain is going to keep half-an-ear cocked when anybody is talking.

Another big difference is your level of control. If you’re in a coffee shop and find the noise distracting, you can wear noise-cancelling headphones with a reasonable expectation that nobody will ask you to remove them.

In an open plan office, though, other people (especially those who believe they’re more important than you) feel empowered to catch your eye and demand your attention. They may even believe they’re doing the company a favor by pulling you away from your playlist and back into the real world.

In short, it’s not so much the noise that makes an open plan office such a miserable place to work, it’s the inability to escape the proximity of the petty and annoying behaviors of your coworkers.

One point that the HBR article entirely missed was that there’s a perfectly reasonable alternative to both open plan offices and coffee shops/shared work areas: working from home and using tools like Skype and Slack to control your interactions with your coworkers.

A Personal Victory

Anyway, while I’m on the subject, I’ll share a real-life experience of how I dealt with some status-driven annoying behavior back in the day. 

Early in my career, I worked for a company where everyone, even the C-level execs, had cubicles. While I found the environment distracting, I made the best of it by requesting a cubicle off the beaten path, next to two cubicles that were reserved for visitors, and therefore usually empty.

One day, however, a salesman sequestered one of the visitor cubicles and started making cold calls. (This was back before cell phones, so the only way to make calls was on a wired handset.) Normally, I’m sympathetic to salespeople but this guy was one of those fast-talking, loud-mouths who uses the same, lame script, over and over and over.

After about an hour of this, I’m about to lose my mind, so I pop my head over the partition and ask, politely, could he please keep it down. He gets all in my face about how his job is more important than mine and ends the conversation with a suggestion that I commit an unnatural act upon myself.

Fine, I say to myself. 

I wait until he goes to the restroom, go into his cubicle, unscrew the handset mouthpiece, remove the microphone, and replace the mouthpiece.  When he returns and resumes cold calling, everyone hangs up on him because they can’t hear anything he’s saying.

He eventually gets so frustrated that he calls technical support who, of course, also hangs up on him while he’s explaining the problem. Cursing, he goes to find somebody who can fix the phone.

While he’s gone, I replace the microphone.

In about fifteen minutes, he returns with a support engineer, who tests the phone, confirms it’s working properly, and then leaves, making it clear (in a voice of belabored patience) that he thinks the executive is either incompetent, crazy or both.

By this time, it’s lunch hour. The exec, still fuming, heads towards the cafeteria.

I go back into the cubicle and remove the microphone again.

The exec comes back, starts cold calling. Soon he’s so frustrated that smoke is practically coming out of his ears whilst I’m maintaining a innocent expression, all the while mentally ROFLMAO.

Finally, the salesman storms out of the building, never to return.

And I go back to work… with the satisfaction of a job well done.


Exclusive: T-Mobile, Sprint plan merger without selling assets

(Reuters) – T-Mobile U.S. Inc (TMUS.O) and Sprint Corp (S.N) plan to announce a merger agreement without any immediate asset sales, as they seek to preserve as much of their spectrum holdings and cost synergies as they can before regulators ask for concessions, according to people familiar with the matter.

While it is common for companies not to unveil divestitures during merger announcements, T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s approach shows that the companies plan to enter what could be challenging negotiations with U.S. antitrust and telecommunications regulators without having made prior concessions.

Reuters reported last week that some of the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust staff were skeptical about the deal, which would combine the third and fourth largest U.S. wireless carriers. However, regulators can only begin reviewing a corporate merger once it has been agreed to and announced.

T-Mobile and Sprint are preparing a negotiating strategy to tackle demands from regulators regarding asset sales, including the divestment of some of their spectrum licenses after their deal is announced, the sources said.

The companies’ announcement of a merger agreement, currently expected to come either in late October or early November, will focus on the potential benefits of the deal for U.S. consumers, including the advancement of next-generation 5G wireless technology, which requires considerable investment, the sources added.

The sources asked not to be identified because the deliberations are confidential. T-Mobile and Sprint declined to comment.

“It is better for Sprint and T-Mobile to listen and learn the concerns of regulators first, and see whether there is anything that can be done to address those concerns,” MoffettNathanson research analyst Craig Moffett said.

A combination of T-mobile and Sprint would create a business with more than 130 million U.S. subscribers, just behind Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N) and AT&T Inc (T.N).

Companies often chose not to make any pre-emptive announcements on divestitures when they announce mergers. For example, when U.S. health insurers Anthem Inc (ANTM.N) and Aetna Inc (AET.N) separately announced deals two years ago to acquire peers Cigna Corp (CI.N) and Humana Inc (HUM.N), they did not reveal which assets they would be willing to divest. U.S. federal judges shot down both mergers on antitrust grounds earlier this year.

Some media and telecommunications deals in recent years have been announced with divestitures, such as U.S. cable operator Comcast Corp’s (CMCSA.O) proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable in 2014, which was later called off after regulatory pushback. When U.S. TV station owner Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBGI.O) announced its acquisition of peer Tribune Media Co (TRCO.N) in May, it said it might sell certain stations to comply with regulators.

Companies often also choose to place caps in their merger agreements on the size of divestitures they would be willing to accept in their negotiations with regulators. T-Mobile and Sprint have not yet agreed to include such a cap in their merger agreement, though it is possible they will do so, one of the sources said.


UBS research analyst John Hodulik said in a research note earlier this month that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will likely force T-Mobile and Sprint to make some divestitures of spectrum, since the combined company would have the most airwaves in its sector with more than 300 MHz, putting it ahead of Verizon’s and AT&T’s holdings.

T-Mobile spent $ 8 billion in a government auction of airwaves earlier this year. Sprint stayed out of the auction, touting its holdings of high-band spectrum, which it says can move large volumes of information at high speeds.

Having access to a lot of spectrum is particularly important for the 5G wireless offerings that AT&T and Verizon hope to launch to better compete with high-speed Internet services from cable companies.

T-Mobile and Sprint believe that the U.S. antitrust enforcement environment has become more favorable since the companies abandoned their previous effort to combine in 2014 amid regulatory concerns, according to the sources.

The two companies have not yet introduced a breakup fee in their merger negotiations that would compensate one side if regulators reject the deal, though it is possible one will be agreed to by the time the deal is signed, the sources said.

Investors have been waiting for the deal to be announced since Reuters first reported last month that T-Mobile and Sprint were close to agreeing tentative merger terms.

Sprint shareholders are expected to receive little to no premium in the deal, meaning that Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp (9984.T), which controls Sprint, and other Sprint shareholders will own around or more than 40 percent of the combined company. T-Mobile majority owner Deutsche Telekom AG (DTEGn.DE) and the rest of the T-Mobile shareholders will own the remainder.

It is still possible that the negotiations between T-Mobile and Sprint will conclude without a deal, the sources have cautioned.

Reporting by Liana B. Baker in San Francisco and Anjali Athavaley in New York; Additional reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis


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