Now, a petite disclaimer. I live in Perth, Western Australia; a place often described as ‘relentlessly sunny’. The sunny days of mild weather and gorgeous sparkling water vastly outnumber the rainy days, and even the rainy days have their own Noir-style charm.
Thus, ever since I moved to Perth to live with my husband, I have been tempted time and again to work ‘outside’ despite growing up indoors and tethered to a desktop PC.
As an academic student, my definition of ‘outside’ is not quite as stark as, say, a fitness instructor. I still require some form of table, electrical outlet, and wi-fi to conduct my work, which limits me mostly to cafes. (I’m not complaining at all!) Thankfully, Perth has this by the handful.
They typically include the consideration of airy dining areas with natural sources of light, air-conditioning, and a generous coffee-per-hour system for people like myself who camp out on a table looking incredibly Hipster. My ‘Hipster’ camp out sometimes boosts the popularity of that cafe purely by appearing appealing to hipster-types. Occasionally my local area won’t have a cafe that has my ‘work trifecta’ of powerpoint, wifi and table to work on (I blame the failure rate of small businesses causing high rates of turnover & subsequent ‘new’ cafes). Then, I give a little shrug and trundle over to a tavern which will usually suffice with the same provisions. Taverns tend to get a little rowdy Thursday to Friday, but I don’t mind a little background noise.
Now, compare the two scenarios. A researcher locked in a small cubicle with no music, no human interaction, and little natural light; Coop me up in those conditions day after day and you’ll notice my morale and ‘pep’ start to struggle. I’ll start wildly overcompensating with loud outfits, soup mugs full of tea and a barrage of memes printed out to decorate my desk. While I’m still productive, I’ll get bored and – usually – a little destructive. By ‘destructive’ I mean I’ll start to organise ‘team outings’ and consider a side-career in university Radio, neither of which is something my boss will want me to focus on. This ‘destructiveness’ usually works out to annoy my co-workers in my desperate search of mental stimulation.
Now imagine; A researcher on her laptop, sitting at a well-appointed table. A gentle breeze on her face, quiet jazz music in the background, and constant movement to inspire and invigorate the researcher during moments of thought. This scenario usually boosts my productivity by 150%, as I have something to focus my attention away from, and desiring to make the most of my spot in the cafe, will waste no time in my work. I feel intrinsically happy and motivated by the hustling baristas, the chirruping of nearby birds, and the occasional dog walking past. My physical absence from the office doesn’t make me ‘absent’ from my work; rather, the opposite! I have my mobile phone next to me, my emails in an open tab, and am infinitely approachable by anyone walking past. Student, faculty or member of the community, I am genuinely happy for anyone to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘can I ask you something while you’re working?’. Provided that they don’t mind my occasionally tapping away at my keyboard (because let’s face it, you didn’t book a meeting with me), I’m happy to engage with anyone who walks past. I look like a student on an average day, thus reducing the power-distance between myself and those I teach, and watching me bop along to the beat in the cafe tends to reinforce that I’m genuinely an easygoing person despite my unfortunate tendency to display resting bitch face while concentrating. It’s hard to feel apprehensive approaching an authoritative-looking person while they’re wiggling to beat of ‘Bossa Nova Baby‘.
So, if the benefits of ‘working outside’ are so marked, why don’t more people do it?
Well, partially because different people require different working environments, and it doesn’t always ‘look’ professional to have all your lecturers on laptops in a student cafe.
I’ll admit; if I were to work for a high-profile multinational corporation, I probably wouldn’t be afforded the luxury of parking myself in a bar on Thursday to work. It would look shabby, and reflect poorly on my boss. I’m willing to admit that, but I’m also willing to admit that the aforementioned high-profile job would require a level of focus and productivity from me that would make it near impossible for me to work in a noisy social environment anyhow. I wouldn’t work there otherwise.
As a PhD student, and in most possibilities where I imagine myself working full-time, I am afforded the luxury of laid-back, self-directed work where I can operate very publicly with no productivity drawback. My work is not (as yet) confidential, nobody’s privacy is invaded, and my current output requires a level of creativity and lateral thinking that conversing with a heavily-tattooed barista benefits from. I fully enjoy this mode of working – to the point where it hardly feels like work despite the fact that I’m combing through pages of dense academic writing for methodologies, findings and insights into my field. (My average output on a good day – i.e., in an outdoor cafe environment – is about 10 – 16 papers fully read, annotated, recorded in both a spreadsheet and a word document, and filed into Endnote, plus time for email, social media and about 2 hour-long meetings.)
In short; this is why you’ll more often find me working out of my office, and I’m really happy with that.