Hot Cakes and Shared Space

The woman in the photograph is Jolene. She opened a café on the corner of a street in a residential area. The choice of location could have been disastrous (not on the high street so very little footfall) yet the place is an enormous success! I like to call in for a coffee when my work pattern means I drive over to that area. I was there eating cake (courgette and lime sponge) and thinking about my new book one day last week. My thought process was somewhat anxiously running along the lines of:

‘Are people really aware of how much things have changed in the way we work now, are they interested in exploring what the changes mean for their businesses and for their lives?’

Then I happened to tune in to the conversation Jolene was having with two customers (or were they friends? the relationship wasn’t absolutely clear) seated on stools at the high counter that separates the kitchen area from the public space. They were talking about their own work lives and those of family members. It wasn’t a static conversation, all the while Jolene was warming tarts, arranging salads and grinding peppercorns. I was lost in my own reverie, letting the talk flow around me and absent-mindedly admiring the dexterity with which the dishes came together. Then someone said:

‘Of course, everything has about that kind of work has changed since then…’  

It was like the answer to my question coming directly back at me: a definite yes!

One big change to the way we work is the location in which it takes place. With the growth in the number of coffee shops has come an extension of the activities that take place in them, particularly those related to work. It’s common to see a group of people having a meeting, or someone taking a business call on a mobile phone or using the free wi-fi to check emails or catch up on social media.

Coffee shop proprietors are disposed to be generous with their space, seeming to consider it a resource for the community. They welcome mother and baby group meetings, sales conferences and Tarot card readers, chess players and novelists. For me, this makes coffee shops part of the sharing economy. The deal is that the facilities – space, sofas, newspapers and the attention of the people who are baking sponges and wrangling the coffee machines, are available on immediate demand. In return, customers are only expected to purchase the beverage and/or food item of their choice.

The sharing economy is assumed to involve the internet in some way. On AirBnb, for example, first contact between the parties involved is likely to be via the website. With coffee shops, it is more likely to be the other way round. Customers would visit the premises and meet the people, then they might choose to follow them on Facebook or Twitter. Both these social media platforms provide opportunities for businesses to communicate very directly with their customers.

Coffee shops today are offering so much more than a place to rest after a strenuous shopping expedition, or somewhere to pick up a snack in the middle of a busy work day. They are a symbol of how the boundaries between work, social and family life are becoming blurred. And after my own experience with Jolene and her friends, they are clearly also still places where ideas can be discussed and exchanged, just as they were in London coffee-houses in the 17th century and Parisian cafés at the turn of the 20th.