How the coffee shop came to symbolise the new era of workplace design

coffee3According to the annual Workplace Survey for 2016 from architects Gensler, the most innovative employees are those given the chance to work in a wide variety of spaces that meet their needs, and use that option to maximum effect – whether they need individual space to focus, a conference room to brainstorm or learn a new skill, or a social space to chat with co-workers during a coffee break. Key findings on the habits of top innovators include that they spend only 74 percent of the work week at the office, they are at least twice as likely to have access to, and use, cafeterias, coffee shops, and outdoor spaces and have twice as much access to amenities including speciality coffee, restaurants, gyms, and childcare facilities.

One of the interesting points in the research is how much the c-word arises. Coffee is not only the grease that lubricates the UK’s wheels of commerce, the places it is sold are now one of the most important places people go to have ideas and work. Indeed, in a number of surveys that mirror the findings of Gensler’s, people describe their ideal workplace as somewhere that offers them the features of the best coffee shops – WIFi, good coffee, a choice of food and comfortable and relaxed surroundings.

So it’s no wonder that offices are adopting the form and function of coffee shops as they look to attract employees to the office and make them as happy and productive as they can be. This is the underlying principle behind the rapidly growing coworking phenomenon but it is also increasingly evident in mainstream office design.

We shouldn’t be too surprised about this because our feelings about the design of offices are shaped by their communal spaces. Exhibitions, books, case studies and features are invariably skewed towards receptions and meeting rooms because what happens there is more interesting and attractive to us than what is going on at desks. It has to be like this for the same reason car makers don’t sell their products with pictures of engines.

There is a problem with it however because it distorts perceptions of trends in office design and the ways people work. When we actually  walk around a lot of offices, what we tend to see is that for the majority of people, work involves a desk and a task chair in an open plan. When we experience the same office filtered through the media what we see will be the reception area, the meeting rooms, break out spaces and any quirky features.

The problem with this is that it feeds into the idea that the traditional office is dying. If depictions of workplaces in the media and at shows focus on the spaces that look most like cafes and hotels, it’s easy to conclude that the very idea of somebody working with a laptop on a desk is somehow on its way out. This can easily lead to distortions in the way jobs are briefed to designers by their clients, as was made clear to us in a recent meeting with one of London’s largest office furniture firms.

Of course, there is a great deal of truth in the idea that shared spaces are becoming increasingly important, that offices are taking on more of the  forms and functions of hotels, universities, cafes and coworking spaces. It is also true that when you ask individuals to describe their ideal office, what they tend to describe sounds remarkably like Starbucks. They like free coffee, comfortable, non-corporate surroundings and the company of others. If they could work anywhere at all, it would be in one of California’s tech palaces  which not only offers them their cafe culture but also a sun-dappled  cycle to work, landscaped campus grounds, beautiful young things for colleagues, a gym and the sort of welcome usually reserved for guests at a Dubai super-hotel.

What we need to remember is that all of these new forms of work are not replacing the old ways of working at a desk and a chair but increasing the choices we have. The desk and chair is a perfectly evolved combination based on the human form and the tools we use to get work done. It may not be as interesting or attractive as one of the office’s shared spaces, but it is every bit as important in creating a welcome and hospitable working environment.

This does not detract from the importance of a new era of coffee house culture which is not only about how workers are colonising the nation’s cafes to get what they need, but also how the coffee shops themselves are making their presence known in a new era  of workplace design.