I’m finding it harder and harder to answer a simple question.
Where do you work?
There are two traditional choices: at the office or at home. And there are two newer options: at a co-working space or a coffee shop.
But what if the best answer is “it depends”?
Truth is, we know embarrassingly little about where we’re all working. The latest U.S. Census figures, from 2010, track “onsite workers,” “home workers,” and “mixed workers” — people who spend some time at work and some time at home — and that’s it.
According to that data, 6.6 percent of all workers work “exclusively from home” and everyone else is either sometimes or always at an office.
But as anyone who’s taken a laptop to Starbucks knows, there is more than one way to not work from “work.” And as much as we’d like to put the alternatives in one big not-the-office bucket, the differences matter.
In fact, working from several spots may be the biggest productivity hack of all.
Exploration & execution
I got a whiff of that last month when the umpteenth person asked if I worked at home, and I noticed, finally, the increasingly convoluted answer I’d been giving for months.
Where I choose to do my independent work — so, not including calls and interviews — depends on which of two phases of work I’m in. Phases, I think, apply to a lot more than writing.
The first is exploration. Finding the seed of an idea to write about, testing it, expanding it, emailing about it and making my own kind of sense of it. Execution is what I do when I’ve gathered and crunched enough information to start writing. I wrestle the lede, tease out the story and turn something in.
My favorite spot for exploration is the Vios Cafe at Ravenna Third Place Books or, if I’m downtown, Uptown Espresso in Belltown. My favorite spot for execution is the library, or, when I’m writing my weekend column early Friday morning, our downstairs guest room.
After no more than a few hours anywhere, I get in the car to finish the day somewhere else. Grateful Bread. Starbucks. Home. Whatever new ambiance feels right.
That’s “where I work.”
Here are just a few reasons why.
Coffee shops and creativity
Maybe you’ve heard of Coffitivity. It’s an app that plays ambient noise you’d find at a coffee shop, and it got kind of big after a 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that the background buzz like what you hear at coffee shops actually boosts your creativity.
Noise that’s too loud won’t let you think, but researchers believe moderate ambient noise distracts your brain just enough that it dismisses predictable answers in favor of new ones.
Everyone’s different, but if you, like me, find that you do better creative work at a coffee shop, this — along with the casual atmosphere, friendly chatter and camaraderie with a busy, buzzing world — could help explain why.
The flexibility of home
Every Friday morning my alarm clock wakes me up between 5 and 6 a.m. I roll out of bed, rub my eyes and carry my laptop to the guest room downstairs, where for the next several hours, in my pajamas, I do the most efficient, undistracted writing I do all week.
It took me years to realize that the new-day clarity with which I wake up every morning, mixed with an impending deadline, makes for excellent execution. But the freedom to work the way I work best — in PJs, if need be — is a freedom I only get at home.
A 2013 Stanford University study tells the story of a large Chinese company that conducted an experiment on its workers. The company found that working from home led to a 13 percent increase in productivity, both from fewer sick days and more work done per shift.
It’s one example, but a compelling one.
A change of scenery
It’s long been common wisdom that breaks, when you’re working, keep you fresh. I’d go one step further: Actually changing your scenery — not just going for a cup of coffee and coming back — could keep you fresher.
The most magical place I work, believe it or not, is my car. When I drive to the coffee shop or to the library or home between work sessions, that’s when my brain unties some knot I’d been picking at and finds a way forward. Invariably, I sit down at my new destination and new ideas flow.
Author Malcolm Gladwell likes to take his work to-go.
“I refer to my writing as ‘rotating,’ ” he told The Guardian. “I always say ‘I’m going to rotate’ because I have a series of spots that I rotate.”
And why not?
When work is this portable, there’s no reason you have to do it all in one place.