Wanted: A better workplace coffeehouse

As I’ve documented many times on this blog, I work alone, from my home office. This is usually great, but sometimes the house gets too quiet or constricting, or I’ve spent too many days in a row with the same walls around me. When that happens, I usually head to a local coffeehouse that has free Wi-Fi, usually Panera Bread.

CoffeehouseToday I’m working at Starbucks in the Barnes & Noble near my house. I needed to buy a book so it was more convenient to stay here rather than make the 10 minute drive to Panera. But here the Wi-Fi’s not free. Granted, it’s only $3.99, but instead of buying the 2-hour pass, I’m opting to do all the offline work I can, and then send everything when I can connect again at home. Not ideal.

All of this has started me thinking about the trend of remote working and the virtual company. The more wireless devices we have, the more places that have access to broadband, the easier it is to work from home, vacation…anywhere really. And companies like Sun Microsystems are even starting to make moves to dismantle entire offices in favor of the cost savings that they get from having an at-home work force.

I am clearly in favor of telecommuting and working from home. But I realized today, in my imperfect, impromptu Starbucks office, that the at-home worker is up against a number of challenges that a better workplace coffeehouse could help fix.

First, the obvious source of the trouble is that humans have issues with isolation. People are born into communities and we are geared toward being around people. Even the extreme introvert likes their aloneness more when they have recently been around people. There are days when the solitary at-home office is too much and we just need to see little kids doing handstands in line while their frazzled mom waits for her Vanilla Latte. (Yes, that is happening in front of me right now.)

Second, the current options to escape that isolation aren’t really working. Aside from the coffeehouse with Wi-Fi, the only option that I have is the library. But both of these options have problems – the library doesn’t allow the conversations and social interactions that at-home workers are craving, and the coffeehouses aren’t equipped for workplace needs (and there are people trying to enjoy a cup of coffee or lunch without having to be immersed in other people’s work).

Finally, there is another problem with the at-home worker that isn’t often talked about. There is a hole that is left by the lack of idea interchange, the constant refining and tweaking of ideas that happens in an office environment. Even with social networking tools and technology to keep us connected at our disposal, at-home workers do the majority of our thinking and planning and decision-making in a vacuum. It’s not our fault – the majority of decisions that are made day-to-day are too small to set up a conference call to discuss. But without the constant input from our co-workers, and the benefit of the collective brain of the group, our decisions are going to lose some edge, some brilliance will be lost that could have been found if we had a group around us to help us refine our visions.

My suggestion to solve this issue is a workplace coffeehouse. My imaginary coffeehouse would have:

– Free unlimited Wi-Fi.

– Coffee and food to be purchased. Perhaps also some kind of a fee structure for use (a monthly membership, like the gym, perhaps?). This business would have to be able to make money, even with a clientele that doesn’t turn over frequently during the day.

– Tables with locks to secure laptops. Nothing is more annoying than having to pack up all your stuff to use the restroom. Locks that can be used temporarily by the person at the table at the time would be incredibly helpful.

– Comfortable chairs that are meant to be sat in for long periods of time without hurting your back.

– Different areas that can be used for different things. There should be areas for tables of 1, 2, 4, 6, and 10 people scattered throughout the room, as well as a couple of glassed-in rooms that people can use for brainstorming or meetings.

– A start-up open pitch night. Once time per week, people would be able to get up and pitch their ideas and invite the crowd to give them instant feedback – this is like an open mic night for businesses.

– A schedule of speakers who would come in periodically to give advice for the at-home worker. Help desk people to answer questions about home networking issues. Financial advisors. VCs. And even management specialist, all with seminars on how to work remotely better.

– Ways for people to meet each other. Too often people look up from their computer only to avert their eyes if they accidentally look my way. These places would need to encourage communication and interaction.

– Social events surrounding the coffeehouse. The coffeehouse’s softball team could compete in the city league, bowling teams could be formed, or maybe the coffeehouse has a bocce court next to it.

Does it seem like I’m recreating the office? Maybe I am, just a little bit. But this could be the office of the future, where people go to work with other folks from their geographic area, all of whom are working on different projects, jobs and careers. Sounds like an interesting place to me.

What other features would you like this workplace coffeehouse to have?

UPDATE: Another possibility would be for bars to do something like this during the day, when they otherwise wouldn’t be making any money. Just think – WiFi during the day, vodka tonics at night. I think that the clientele would become much more dedicated…

Photo by John Althouse Cohen

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