Your Learning & Work(space) Future is Bright — and there’s coffee

The last cover letter I wrote was mostly about the piece of banana bread I was eating at the café I was working in. When I was finishing my undergraduate thesis, I did so for the most part in the cafeteria of the gym I was frequenting (sort of) at the time.

These days, my flashes of written coherence at their most generous will hit me during rainstorms on my balcony in the middle of the night — but when they don’t, you can usually find me in any utilitarian underground mall cafeteria, sunlit or dungeon-esque. There’s something about being surrounded by strangers in a busy, semi-social setting that creates just the right amount of background movement to trigger my creativity. I’ll soon find myself contentedly tapping away at a keyboard that remains otherwise dormant in most libraries or offices, amidst wailing mall babies and gossiping gym bros having post-workout Pad Thai.

There’s something about being surrounded by strangers in a busy, semi-social setting that creates just the right amount of background movement to trigger my creativity.

So what does this say about me? That I have a dormant New Jersey enzyme that detects malls with wifi and reprograms me to finish my work there? That I’m an unfocused, easily side-tracked writer who needs Level 6 white noise to accomplish anything? Maybe. But what’s more important is what it says about the new ways in which we think about work, do work, talk about and plan for work — and how we’re struggling, or triumphing, to adapt our work spaces to meet us where we’re at.

We don’t work like we used to. Heralds of the early days of the “meetings are wastes of time and offices are soul-sucking” (roughly) mentality opined in Remote: Office Not Required — the remote work proponent’s bible— that the soul-crushing details of our static office environments can all be eliminated, lest they “stab at your happiness.” Everything from even the shortest of commutes to that weekly meeting that you already know will be a waste of time and a distraction.

Where perhaps “work” was once used to connote a passion, a career, or a goal, it now has become synonymous with a place — one that we dread going to, to say nothing of whether we’re actually productive when we’re there. The reality is, humans don’t seem to have been made for an uber-structured 9–5 schedule, and our workspaces certainly haven’t been designed to take anything like body movement or natural light into consideration. Instead, we’ve distracted ourselves by waging a vehement multi-year debate about the benefits of standing desks vs. sitting, invented fiber optic synthetic sunlight channeling tubes for our desks to simulate direct sunlight, and my personal favourite, launched a noise-blocking concentration helmet to make us feel quiet and alone even in a crowded office.

Prototype of the ‘helfon.’

It’s clear that we’re in a new era of work — where remote work is the norm, digital nomadism is prevalent, and even traditional companies are embracing work-from-home policies. If the future of work looks more independent and decentralized than ever before, instead of designing adaptive workspace gadgets (is there a space suit yet for full-body simulations of weightless solo working environments?), it’s time to innovate on our places of work themselves.

My favourite example of future-facing workspace innovation is of course my own Montreal place of work and workspace of choice, Crew Collective & Café. Located in a revitalized 1928 heritage building — the old Royal Bank of Canada headquarters — at the heart of Old Montreal, Crew was designed to be your dream workspace of the future to accommodate this new wave of professionals.

It’s now 2017, we know why you come to cafés, and it’s not just for croissants. Crew’s core concept is built on the uncomfortable truth that certain cafés began to confront circa 2011 when faced with the realization that laptop users were starting to feel free to use café plugs to prolong their cafe experience perhaps beyond their welcome.

Cafés began to scramble to figure out how to accommodate laptop users camping out for hours at a time in their prime window-seat real estate. From protected networks to wifi-free zones, their solutions had one thing in common: they revolved around managing the wifi more proactively, and not necessarily adapting the physical spaces to accommodate an increasingly obvious need for internet — aside from of course, the classic cyber café.

Early Cyber Café — not so welcoming.

The truth is, there’s just something about diving into a chunk of work surrounded by strangers, munching on something delicious in a comfortable, coffee-ready space that seems to appeal to many of you, and wifi time-outs won’t solve that. Cafés tend to bring out our best work — whether from the passive social pressure of peering strangers, the low rumble and hiss of a coffee machine, or the comfortable anonymity that comes with a new setting designed to make you feel at home. We like to feel both cozy and challenged, part of something exciting when we feel like it and yet still able to toss headphones on and focus.

Balconies in Crew’s membership space.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of our largest client groups at Crew is students: CEGEP, university, Masters and PhD students, students studying for MCATs and GMATs — they’re all there. Some of my most frequently answered questions include — Do you mostly just have students here? Who comes in to actually work here for a full day?

My answer is always that yes, we certainly do see many students come spend their workdays with us. No, they’re not 100% of our clientele — it’s an extremely diverse group of users, given our location in corporate/touristy Old Montreal. After becoming friends with many of the students who spend their days with us, I’ve come to understand the draw of a space like Crew’s as a new expression of what traditional learning spaces might look like.

Casual, social environments make for lower-stakes learning and work zones.

Big, open concept, socially-focused spaces encourage you to unselfconsciously concentrate on your work. For example, no one’s peering over your shoulder to see if you’ve made it further through a chapter than they have. The silence of a classroom during a test or a library during finals season is imposing: it presses down onto students and forces them to turn inward simply because the other kids in the library are surrounded by empty Red Bull cans, tupperware with the remnants of some kind of pasta, glasses cases, a rainbow of highlighters…all that is stressful. It removes you from yourself and your work, and forces you to wonder if you’re working as hard as the girl next to you is.

Big, open concept, socially-focused spaces encourage you to unselfconsciously concentrate on your work.

Instead, in a non-traditional environment like a coffee shop or coworking space, you’re able to focus on learning at whatever pace or in whatever way is comfortable for you. There’s background noise, there are interesting (or not) strangers, there are snacks…and that anxiety-inducing, energetic hum of a university campus building just doesn’t extend down to a coffee shop in Old Montreal, for example.

In cafés, and perhaps particularly in establishments that like Crew try to emphasize prime workspace functionality as much as they do aesthetics, I’ve seen that learning might just occur more organically. When your surroundings are designed specifically to encourage focused work, while still providing you with ample opportunity to let your gaze drift upward and your mind to wander, perhaps your ability to focus becomes sharper. The stakes are lower. You don’t have an audience. Social pressure doesn’t reign.

If you’re surprised to see me going from mentioning work to talking about learning, don’t be. In today’s work environment, independents, freelancers and even ‘knowledge workers’ in general end up sharing quite a few characteristics with students. They are always learning, adapting to changing conditions, collaborating with others, sometimes across multiple teams, and find themselves jumping between settings to fit their surroundings with the level of concentration and the type of tasks they need to accomplish.

Which is part of the reason why we’d like to think of ourselves as a learning-ready space, and we ourselves are learning right along with you. We’ve updated our own seating arrangements multiple times (trust me, we’re almost there) to reflect our evolving understanding of how people love to use our space. When we realized how many learners and do-ers were headquartering themselves with us, we created multiple levels of seating to accommodate all kinds of learners and workers: from linear communal tables, to tiny nooks with comfy chairs, to long sofas and even more secluded balconies. Our design hopes to anticipate what sorts of learning environments someone may need over the course of a day.

Our design hopes to anticipate what sorts of learning environments someone may need over the course of a day.

Crew’s own services are adapting to meet the needs expressed by a broad range of learners. We launched a new, lower-cost and flexible-commitment membership that caters to those with smaller budgets than a traditional remote office may have. In April, we simply removed a few giant private desks from our coworking space in favour of more shared seating to accommodate this change. Even then, after studying behaviours of our members for four months, we’re now able to change our program up once again to adapt to the way we saw our members using the space.

We swapped these out in favour of shared tables, couches and comfy lounge zones.

We found that most of our members only came two or three times per week, and very few of them simultaneously. Therefore our fears of overcrowding the space disappeared — and we’re now able to welcome more people at a lower cost while still maintaining a beautiful, open space that has plenty of privacy for those who need it. I’ll spend the next few months at Crew studying and meeting with new members to see how their space use evolves over time…and I’m sure we’ll update our program once again to reflect our new findings.

The future of work and learning will have been founded on the principle that social connection and human interaction are one of its most important catalysts.

As we try to increasingly leverage simple human connection as a gateway to a precious learning moment, we’re seeing environments like festivals and conferences suddenly turn into new landscapes for meaningful social learning. Transforming traditionally social environments into productivity hotspots in this way means that the future of work and learning will have been founded on the principle that social connection and human interaction are one of its most important catalysts. And it also might mean that atypical learning environments — think back to those gym cafeterias and perhaps an old bank — could be the future of our physical workspaces.

e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.