Work Culture

​​Working “alone”: How togetherness helps us focus


Published on April 15, 2022

My most played YouTube video is eight hours long. There’s no storyline, lesson, or even much in the way of graphics. Instead, “Rainy Night Coffee Shop Ambience with Relaxing Jazz Music and Rain Sounds” simulates the kind of auditory experience you might encounter at an actual coffee shop. If the title didn’t immediately give it away, here’s a spoiler: there’s a lot of soft jazz, background chatter, and rain sounds set to a slightly animated image of a cafe.  

In the early days of lockdown, when I was new to working from home, this video was the only thing that I could put on in the background to quiet the ambient agita of being holed up in my apartment and help me find focus. Looking through the comments, I wasn’t the only one. “I feel in a place full of life...not just like I'm listening to some video alone in my office or at home,“ one person wrote. “I can't study without this playing in the background,” commented another. Or, “I don’t care how far we are around the world,” someone said. “This is a cafe. And we’re all having our coffees together.”  

Despite all the implied benefits of solitude for achieving focus, people still gravitate towards communal spaces when looking to get some work done. There’s the traditional office setting, sure, but these spaces can also take the form of restaurants, libraries, and even parks. For remote workers, that can often mean trying to replicate that experience when those spaces are not an option. But what is it about the sheer presence of others—imagined or real—that helps us better concentrate and get into “flow”? And what does this mean for an increasingly virtual and distributed workforce?

Alone but somehow together

The pull to do independent work in the presence of others has long been reported in the field of social psychology and can even be traced back to early childhood development. Take the term parallel play, which describes when children play alongside each other without necessarily interacting. While it’s a key step for social development, it’s also something that we continue to come back to as we get older. 

“Initially, it was viewed as a developmental stage of play children pass through as they learn how to cooperate and coordinate with other children,” says Natalie D. Eggum, social scientist and associate professor at Arizona State University’s school of social and family dynamics. “More research has illustrated that parallel play is something that many children continue to do even after they start learning to play with peers."

When we observe others exerting attention-based effort, or focus...we’re compelled to do the same. 

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, can draw a straight line from children engaging in parallel play to knowledge workers in a communal setting. “With kids, they kind of just look over at each other and play independently. And adults do this at the office too—you look over and you see what [others] are doing, but you don't really get involved,” says Hirsh-Pasek, whose research examines the development of early language and literacy and the role of play. There are levels to learning and, for children, parallel play is foundational to richer interaction. When this kind of behavior is missing in adults at work, it contributes to an “I’ll do it on my own” mentality, and sometimes, further isolation. “That's not to say that you can't do it alone. Sure you could, but the product won't be as good,” she adds. 

While it’s been argued that parallel play can be a bellwether for healthy, adult personal relationships, it’s easy to see how this kind of activity can also play out in our working lives, especially when we need to get into a focused flow and complete tasks. Since working from home, I’ve joined a number of virtual work sessions where attendees hop on a call and work quietly with some music in the background. When a friend wanted to ramp up her homemade goods business, she started a weekly knitting circle that met at a library. Consider coffee shops (real ones this time): you can walk into one at any time of the day and find a handful of people, heads down, headphones on, squinting into their laptops—alone, but somehow, together. 

Without the experience of these passive interactions, it can be more of a challenge to tap into a focused mindset. From the perspective of work, this siren call for alone-but-togetherness is not only just an urge to get out of the house (besides, hopping on a group Zoom call or listening to a playlist of background noise isn’t quite that); it’s also a reach for something else. For some, that’s better focus, productivity, concentration—or simply, just getting things done.

Can effort be contagious?

One of the answers as to why we seek parallel play-like activities for completing tasks or getting into flow may lie in what’s known as social facilitation. “We imitate people as we observe them,” says Professor Kobe Desender from the KU Leuven about this collective tick. “A typical example would be something like yawning.” This mirroring effect can play out inconspicuously, like smiling or touching your face when you see others do the same, but it can also manifest in more complex ways. 

In a 2015 study Desender co-authored, researchers found that more sophisticated behaviors can be contagious too. The experiment asked two participants to perform two types of tasks in view of each other: a low-level, simple task and one that required more mental effort. They observed that when one participant successfully performed the more difficult task, the other would exert more effort. 

“[The results] weren’t showing that if I yawn, you yawn too, which is what we know already,” says Desender. “It was a more high-level cognitive thing, that it’s really the effort that we're copying from each other.” When we observe others exerting attention-based effort, or focus, that mirroring effect kicks in and we’re compelled to do the same. 

Social skills are not soft skills and they are not non-cognitive skills—they are the actual syrup that makes it all possible.

Social facilitation happens when performance improves in the real, implied, or even imagined presence of others. It’s no surprise then that when we want to get unstuck or simply focus on a task, we seek out an environment where others are attempting just that—even if it’s just a virtual gesture to that experience. 

“It's kind of the culture of work and the culture of expectations,” says Hirsh-Pasek on why it’s easier to get into flow under these circumstances. “And when you're in a space where there are certain expectations you stick to those expectations.”

‘The actual syrup that makes it all possible'

At the time of writing this, “Rainy Night Coffee Shop Ambience with Relaxing Jazz Music and Rain Sounds” has over 12 millions views, a signal that I’m not alone in trying to tap into this feeling of existing in a larger, shared orbit. It’s my shortcut to focus and for other remote workers like me, it can be a lifeline when those interactions and environments aren’t built into a daily schedule. 

But soundscapes aren’t the only way we can tap in. “Technology has aided our ability to engage with others even when not in close physical proximity, and we can play and collaborate using tools like Dropbox, Zoom, and online gaming,“ says Eggum. We don’t have to look very far—consider the ongoing pandemic that caused thousands to shift to remote work in the first place—to see that finding different pathways to communal experiences is possible. 

“Have we totally been blocked out of [connection] for the last two years? No, we have not.” says Hirsh-Pasek. “How do we do it? We create space, like breakout rooms for example, for being with other people, for sharing ideas, for working together. That time has to be there.” 

In this way, investigating our urge to work alongside others can be a stepping stone to a deeper understanding of how to work better with others. “There's absolutely something to the dance of human behavior, from nonverbal behavior to working together and creating communities,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “The human brain thrives on social interaction, that’s how we learn. Social skills are not soft skills and they are not non-cognitive skills—they are the actual syrup that makes it all possible. Without that foundation, there is nothing else.”