The idea of the coffee house as the place to be if you want to get good work done is not new. In his informative TED talk, Steven Johnson highlights the role of the coffee house in the era of enlightenment: a place for people to meet, engage in discussions, think, read and write. Ideas were born and innovations came to life because of coffee houses.
What once used to be a hotspot due to a lack of technology – everyone could go to the coffee house with a pencil, a piece of paper and their brain – is now becoming a hotspot again because of the widespread availability of mobile technology: laptops, mobile phones, tablet computers, ebook readers and the likes make it easy to move your workplace around wherever you want it to be. Recent articles highlight this phenomenon, for instance the New York Times on ‘Laptopistan’ or the story of how foursquare was invented and developed in coffee shops across downtown New York City.
So is the coffee house the new and better workplace? Probably yes and no.
Coffee shops work specifically well for certain groups of people, such as writers, entrepreneurs, freelancers, PhD students, academics, business people on travel – essentially those with flexible working arrangements, or those without an office to call their second home.
In an interview, David Sax, author of the article ‘Laptopistan’ pointed out the many things that make coffee houses perfect workplaces: beginning with the atmosphere, you are surrounded by other people working and that makes you focused and concentrated as well, so in essence, the silent social pressure to be productive; the structure those places provide, almost like the business hours of an office; the social aspect of not working alone, even if you are your own business; the fact that you are sharing a space makes coffee houses democratic and diverse; the feeling that anything can happen – you might meet your next client, business partner or spouse.
Interestingly, not any coffee shop will do. People value quite different things when it comes to the perfect coffee shop for nomadic work, as can be seen in the crowd-sourced project of mapping writer-friendly coffee shops around the world and the accompanying blog post. Some people point out the essential wifi connection, while others praise places for exactly their lack of internet connections, because that means they cannot procrastinate on Facebook. Some love the humming background noise of coffee shops, while others find it distracting and prefer libraries or parks.
But it should not be forgotten that the good old office offers all of these things as well: you are surrounded by others doing work, there is social life and chat around the water-cooler, there is a lovely background noise in our mostly open plan offices, and there is a good internet connection, too. And the coffee house is certainly also not made for everyone as a place for work. Certain jobs simply cannot be taken anywhere, for instance when they involve sensitive or confidential data. Moreover, being able to interact with your colleagues face-to-face and immediately can be a real blessing. Even with chat channels, videoconferencing, email and other methods of virtual collaboration, there are things that cannot be replaced: eye-contact, gestures and mimics, tone of voice; but also scribbling together on a whiteboard, or just exchanging some nice words in a spontaneous meeting in the corridor.
So while trend forecasts typically predict the death of the physical office in the near future and praise ‘virtual working arrangements’, most workplace professionals actually agree that we will still need buildings that bring us together. But maybe some of them may look and feel more like coffee shops, as a vision for the future workplace by architectural practice tp bennett suggests.