The rise of the cafe office

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The rise of the cafe office

Taking your laptop to your favourite coffee bar is more productive than going to the office, argues a new book. But who do you bounce ideas off?

Some years back, a large publishing company expressed an interest in investing in Mumsnet, the website I run.
At that time we had no office beyond my back bedroom, so I suggested we meet for a chat in a branch of Starbucks on the local high street. It didn't go well.
First, it turned out that there were two branches of Starbucks, and inevitably we each picked a different one.
Second, once under the same roof, the only table we could find was tiny and squidged amid a gaggle of excitable overseas students on a tour of London.
The nature of our conversation was such that discretion was required, so we both kept our voices low - meaning we couldn't hear each other over the top-volume anecdotes about trips to Madame Tussauds. Unsurprisingly, investment was not forthcoming.
Chris Ward's book, "Out of Office: Work where you like & achieve more" is a paean to the pleasure and productivity of cafe working.
All of which left me agnostic about the benefits of the coffee-shop workplace. But Chris Ward has seen the light, and with his new book, Out of Office: Work where you like and achieve more, he's setting out to convince the rest of us.
The book - a collection of anecdotes, mantras and aspirational shots of deli counters and stripped pine tables - is as brisk and perky as your morning espresso; a paean to the pleasure and productivity of cafe working. Digital technology, Ward says, is at saturation point and these days every coffee shop worth its organic French roast has free Wi-Fi.
Now is the moment for us to throw off the shackles of the office - the overheads, the 'presenteeism,' the time wasted on commuting - and embrace the 'Out of Office state of mind', where freedom, flexibility and the stimulation of being out in the world leave you happier and, crucially, more productive than you ever were before.
Too good to be true? For most of us, it may be.
In the first place, not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur and sacrifice the security of a monthly pay cheque.
For those who choose not to go it alone, persuading the boss to let them decamp to the nearest cafe for the day will be a tough sell, and for anyone involved in a location-specific profession it's not an option at all.
Then, of course, there are the advantages of office working. Even in these days of Skype and Google chat, communication is still easier and more effective face to face; many of the best ideas emerge out of the babble of desk-based conversation.
And offices are where all the big-ticket equipment - printers, photocopiers, multimedia kit - are kept.
Despite Ward's own success (since swapping office for cafe, he has 'started two successful businesses and helped raise hundreds of millions for charity') and that of the examples he cites, for many people the efficiencies of the office still count for much.
But if collectively forsaking the office for good is ambitious, Ward makes some valuable points about work culture.
Working life, he points out (quoting a memo from that famous office refusenik Richard Branson) 'isn't nine to five any more'.
Increasingly, we're expected to be available on email and mobile during evenings and over weekends. Everyone is happier (and consequently more productive) when this flexibility is extended in the other direction and some remote working is allowed.
This is, of course, particularly relevant for online businesses. Sites like Mumsnet don't shut down at 5pm: our staff know that they'll sometimes need to be online when they're out of the office, but the quid pro quo is that we recognise that there'll be times when they'll need or want to work remotely.
Equally, while the office is a useful place to pool ideas and resources, turning up every day to sit at the same desk, with the same view of the same filing cabinet and the same chalky cup of tea, can be stultifying.
Ward notes that many successful companies (Google being the obvious example) are 'moving away from structured rows of desks ... to open-plan studios that resemble playful areas' - a 'halfway house to the complete mobile lifestyle'.
If we can't all forsake the office for the cafe, we can at least make our offices more cafe-like.
Last but not least, of course, there's the coffee itself. Ward is very good on the role that caffeine has to play in his free-and-easy utopia.
Coffee and creativity - particularly of the original, anarchic variety - have, he claims, fuelled one another for hundreds of years, from the London coffee houses of the 17th century, frequented by the likes of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, via the cafes of 1930s Paris and the coffee shops of the 1960s counterculture to the laptop-filled chains of today (Barack Obama's speech writer, apparently, wrote his inaugural address in a Starbucks).
My advice to CEOs reading this book is if you take nothing else from it, at least give some thought to the quality of coffee you serve in your workplace.
Justine Roberts is CEO and co-founder of Mumsnet.
Copyright © Management Today. All rights reserved.

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