COFFEE SHOP CULTURE SEEMS LIKE A RELATIVELY RECENT IMPORT TO BRITAIN, but we have been at it for years. Turn the clock back to 1688 when merchants and shipowners gathered at Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop on London’s Tower Street to hear the latest shipping news… this was the forerunner of today’s eponymous insurance market.
Despite that long heritage, the coffee shop as a meeting place has really come of age in the past decade. According to market research firm Allegra, there are now almost 19,000 coffee shops in the UK, up from 10,685 in 2008. This figure is expected to reach 27,000 by 2020.
Statistics from Concur show that, among the expense management tech provider’s 27 million users, coffee chain Starbucks is the number one location for out-of-office meetings. The chain is so important for Concur it has now enabled business users to earn My Starbucks Rewards Stars for business-related purchases. But the rise in what some people are calling ‘cappuccino commerce’ also has its downsides. Research for London’s Clubhouse found that business people without a base in the city are spending £5,824 a year in cafés, hotel lobbies, bars and restaurants to pass time.
Chris Ward, successful entrepreneur and author of coffee culture books Out of Office and Grounded, is a firm believer in the coffee shop as a place of work. His introduction to coffee shop culture started a few years ago. “I was running my own company with 100 staff and finding I was getting nothing done because there was always a queue outside my office,” he says. “I disappeared to the coffee shop opposite and found I was more productive and creative.”
The glorification of start-up culture has also imbued the coffee shop-as-workplace with a certain sexiness. “Being an entrepreneur is more attractive than what we grew up with – the job for life working in an office,” says Ward. He frowns on the idea that a coffee shop can be considered a rent-free office. “If a sandwich costs £8 I have no problem paying that. I know what it costs to run these places and I pay my fair share – plus it’s still cheaper than renting.”
Ward was recently asked to spearhead a campaign by screenwriter Richard Curtis, who was working with the United Nations. The brief was to get the CEOs of 35 mobile phone companies to agree to send texts to all their users promoting the UN’s Global Goals. “One of the big ones was getting Telenor,” says Ward. “We had a conference call, and I could tell there were four or five people sitting in a room in their suits. I was halfway through a bike ride and had stopped in a coffee shop in a Surrey village. If they had known I was dressed in Lycra, I wonder if they would have taken me so seriously.”
PUBLIC vs PRIVATE
One of the main concerns about coffee shop meetings is privacy. Nicola Spence, travel category manager at Balfour Beatty UK, uses public areas for meetings, but only when the discussions have no commercial sensitivity, such as introduction meetings with suppliers. “But this is only when I’m unable to secure meeting space, and it’s not my preferred approach,” she says Chris Ward says the privacy issue does not bother him. “There is so much information out there. Who is actually interested in what I am talking about?” He says that in a world of sharing, privacy is increasingly illusory and elusive.
Others are recognising the potential in non-traditional work and meeting places. At the end of 2014, Regus launched the Workpod, as part of its Regus Express concept of meeting spaces outside its traditional business centres. The Workpod is an enclosed space just larger than a photo booth with a desk, computer, wifi and power sockets. Usage is charged at £10 plus VAT for half-an-hour, and they have been installed in a range of high footfall locations, such as airside at Gatwick airport and motorway service stations.
Other players in the mobile working market include Neardesk, which offers flexible, by-the-hour online booking of work stations and meeting rooms. Sharedesk offers a similar service, while French start-up Bird Office has been described as the Airbnb of meeting space bookings. MWB Business Exchange offers a range of pay-as-you-go serviced offices and meeting spaces across the UK.
Regus CEO Richard Morris says: “The growth in demand for flexible workspace will continue – we believe people will want to consume office space as a service rather than sign up to long-term, inflexible lease arrangements.” Regus is also looking at extending its Express services to universities and public libraries. “It’s about expanding our network, turning it into a public utility in the same way you think about broadband,” says Morris.