Connecting the Disconnected: Coffee Shops and Pubs as the Office…Again

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Gritty McDuff’s, Portland, ME

Originally uploaded by sogrady.

In a guest post on Om Malik’s blog, Jackson West posits that coffee shops are the new office space. The piece resonated with me on two levels. First, I’ve been considering the implications of business model innovation outside the confines of my industry, particularly with respect to the types of venues I might frequent. For an idea of what I’m talking about, see Christopher’s post here or Niall’s here. Second, as someone who works from home, I’ve been devoting some thinking to the limitations of our increasingly remote and isolated working environments (from a non-technological perspective).

Taking the latter point first, I had the good fortune to be able to travel out to Mashup Camp and back with Alex, and it was an excellent reminder that IM and email are no substitute for face to face interactions. It’s the little things that are lost: something as simple as this is not likely to happen during the occasional lunch, for example. Or take the case of another friend of mine that I had lunch with last week; since beginning on a work from home program several months ago, she’d been out of the house for lunch precisely zero times prior to our meeting.

The purpose here isn’t to explore the psychological dimensions of those work habits for good or ill; I’m neither qualified nor interested. What am I curious about is whether or not coffee shops – or similarly wireless equipped bars or restaurants – can fill the void created by remote working scenarios (or just situations where your colleagues aren’t the most interesting people). I have no definitive answer to that question, but I can tell you that in my experience getting out on a semi-regular basis seems to make me more productive. As my colleague says, the Pub is the Place. I’d be interested in any thoughts or experiences that you guys have on the subject.

Assuming that it’s true, however, that one is more productive if they’re occasionally removed from the fixed confines of their cubicle or office, the next question is whether or not there’s a business model to be built around it. My feeling, unsurprisingly, is yes. One of the subjects I plan on floating at the next Denver Tech Meetup (bought a domain for it, incidentally), is whether or not there’s any interest in designating a particular venue as The Place to go for lunch or afternoon work breaks. Not on any set schedule, of course, but a place where you have a greater likelihood of running into other technologists that it might be fun to talk shop with. Who knows, maybe the next iteration of the Denver Tech Meetup website (PHPTiddlyWiki failed on install for me, hence the low tech current page) could play a role there in a, “in case anyone’s interested, I’ll be hitting venue x for lunch on Wed” sort of way (of course, shared calendars would be great here, but I’m trying not to get amped up on that topic any more).

When you think about it, it’s simple. If I have two venue options for lunch: one that I select at random, which might or might not have good food/power/drink/etc options, and one that has all of the above, and where I’d also have at least a chance at running into folks like Alex, Jeff, Bruce, Lara, Larkin, Matt, Matt, or Peter (and maybe in future, Anne πŸ˜‰ – well, which would you choose?

If said venue were to provide some basic, low cost prerequisites for my work: ample power, wireless (preferably free), at least room to sit and work, and a reasonable selection of sustenance options, I know they’d get a fair share of my business. Would that drive land office business, here in Denver? Probably not. But given the general economic precariousness of many of the smaller, non-chain coffee/bar/restaurant type establishments, I don’t think it could hurt either. Particularly if they got creative economically and offered packages and perks to actively court the business, while creating some customer incentive. Would you rather eat in your office, or at a place like Portland’s Gritty’s?

Besides, it’s not as if this wasn’t how business used to get done.

P.S. If you’re in Denver and looking to grab some food, maybe a beer, and get some work done here are a couple of venues I’ve found:

  • Falling Rocks Tap House (19th and Blake): Almost dive quality ale house, free wireless
  • Handlebar & Grill (Downing and Alameda): Good food, free wireless – more restaurant than bar
  • Illegal Pete’s: (16th, between Wazee and Blake): free wireless, music was a bit loud
  • Starbucks (16th and Blake): Wireless is for pay, usually pretty crowded

And in case anyone’s curious, yes I’m working on the Supper Club. Hopefully more on that front soon.


  1. When in New York:

    One of my favorite and most productive places (it is very dark in back) to get work done outside the homeoffice is the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam & 110th St. just opposite The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in the Columbia neighborhood.

    Heavy marsipan on everything and the guy upstairs named Sergey still doesn’t use WEP.

    Good place to read a Beckett, a Pinter or a Joe Orton or meet my old friend Steve Cramer, brilliant man, who works for the University. The Labyrinth book shop is around the corner on Broadway if you need to kill some time: it is the best bar only The Strand — the immortal Strand.

  2. I work from home mostly, but by mid-afternoon I’m going stir crazy so I’ll go to one of three free-wireless cafes and bars in the area. So – confirmed! They’ye less cluttered than my work space, often pretty serene, and the journey itself can stimulate the mind. Ever tried cafe-hopping – as in, “I’m not going to go home until I’ve finished this paper/report/prop,” then bouncing to place to place as the initiative comes and goes…

    … the only downside is, forgetting to ask for decaff in the afternoon!

  3. And let’s not forget – the stock exchange started as a coffee shop!

  4. What service did Mr Lloyd provide in his famous coffee shop? Presence! People formed business relationships because they were in the same place at the same time – they didn’t spend their whole time talking to people they already knew – let alone talking to people (via mobile phone or Skype) who weren’t even there.

    More on my blog at http://www.veryard.com/so/2006/02/coffee-shop.htm

  5. Sam: don’t know the pastry shop, but do know the Strand. great place.

    Jon: spot on. if exchanges can start in such places, what might we see within a technical profession?

    Richard: serendipity is indeed a major factor in the benefits, i’d agree. and presence lends that a kind of weight that, say, LinkedIn does not.

  6. I, for one, get more work done at home than at work, and yet more work done at a local coffee shop than at home.

    I’ve probably mentioned this before, but check out http://metrofreefi.com/ for whatever city you happen to be in. It’s quite complete, and if you find new places you can submit them yourself.

  7. Common Grounds at 17th and Wazee is usually hopping. If you sit there for a while (WiFi, free refills), you’ll see most of the Jabber staff, folks from Thought Equity, several VCs and the like cycle through.

  8. On Beers and Innovation in London, and Irish names

    What is it with the Web? I talk about why the UK isn’t fostering startups (too much whining and not enough action). Then Stephen posts about Denver tech meetups, and why its nice to see people face to face every now and…

  9. I find the concept of the ‘third place’ quite powerful.

    Of course in this context it’s more of a ‘second place’, or possibly a hybrid.

    A sidelight on this – at a university I worked for, attendance at teatime, morning and afternoon, was compulsory. This seemed odd at first, but it worked wonderfully well. Everyone got out of their offices, had actual conversations: we solved more system integration issues at teatime than we ever did in meetings.

  10. Donnie: same here, though i don’t really have an explanation for it.

    for those that haven’t tried Donnie’s link, BTW, metrofreefi.com is pretty sweet.

    Joe: will have to catch you over there at some point soon. can’t say i’ve been in Common Grounds – i wonder if the Virtuas folks are regulars there.

    Doug: ‘third place’ is pretty interesting. on the tea time front, that actually reminds me of an old colleague who used to take smoke breaks with the devs – despite not smoking herself – b/c she found it was the best place to get things done πŸ˜‰

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