Thirsty Work: The coffee shop as office

Coffee shops are the unofficial offices of an army of modern workers thanks to free wi-fi, good company and caffeine on tap. But, says David Crookes, cafes have been places of business for centuries

When Edward Lloyd opened a rather modest London coffee shop in 1688, it became known for more than just its delicious hot black liquid. Large numbers of merchants, shipowners and insurance brokers would stop by, not only to relax and socialise but to trade.

The coffee shop quickly developed into the perfect place to obtain marine insurance and its reputation grew to the point where its influence continues to this day. Only now we know it as Lloyd's of London.

The bond between coffee and work is strong. It has long been the staple drink for employees in offices, leading to rather wired workers but ones with alert brains ready to tackle the tasks of the day. Ever since American chair manufacturer Barcalounger became the first company to allow employees a coffee break in 1902, such a breather has grown to become an integral part of the working day on both sides of the pond.

So important is the drink that past workers have even threatened to strike when bosses looked to put a stop to their coffee breaks (as happened at Chrysler in 1964). But, as Edward Lloyd's venture proved, people don't only drink coffee at work; they work while drinking coffee.

Coffee was introduced to Britain in the 17th century, having previously caught the taste buds of many Europeans during visits to the Middle East. In 1637, a Greek student at Oxford University brewed coffee for the first time in England but it wasn't until the mid-1600s that England's first coffee shop was opened by a Jewish man called Jacob in Oxford in 1650. From that point on, there was an explosion of coffee shops which helped contribute to Britain's greatness. They were sociable, safe and sober and coffee was cheaper than alcohol but they were also a great place to conduct business, providing a perfect neutral venue.

Since then the popularity of coffee shops has risen and fallen as the drink has gone in and out of fashion. Today there are around 10,000 coffee shops in the UK in a market worth some £5 billion and the number of them is growing. People flock to do work in coffee shops today, attracted by the free wi-fi many now offer. With the recession still biting, they have proved to be a haven for the self-employed.

"Leaving your four walls and taking yourself to a coffee shop can give you an instant office vibe," says Manchester-based freelance writer Louisa Gregson. "Working from home has many advantages but it can be an alienating experience. Although it can be a relief to rid yourself of office politics, you also lose the daily interaction of working with others." Laptops and lattes have combined rather well, it seems. Although a noisy coffee shop may appear to be a distraction and suitable only for those wanting a change of scenery for a few hours, they can make people work harder. "There is some sense of feeling that you are on public show and that having made the trip out to the coffee shop in order to work you are duty bound to focus," says academic and writer Cathy Hume. "You can be unexpectedly more focused than you would be at home."

Far from discouraging people from hogging their tables for long stretches of the day, some coffee shops lay out the red carpet. Costa Coffee offers free wi-fi in branches where it feels people will want to work, believing the coffee shop environment to be more formal and professional than using a home office. "There are no strict rules to working in a Costa, although we appreciate it if customers buy products from our stores while using our facilities," says Kevin Hydes, head of UK marketing.

Starbucks responded to falling sales a few years ago by redesigning some of its shops to better cater for business users. At its Conduit Street branch in London, customers frequently hold meetings, interviews and business lunches. During the week, the downstairs area of the branch is usually a sea of laptops.

"We've seen a notable increase in the number of people using the internet in our stores, to research and write books and start their own businesses," says Brian Waring, Starbucks' vice-president of marketing and category. "It led to us introducing free wi-fi through the Starbucks Card rewards programme. The numbers using free wi-fi through it has increased by more than 60 per cent."

Waring says the company encourages people to linger and he points to the large tables at the branch on Brompton Road, in Knightsbridge, which have additional plug points for laptops and hand-held devices. Smaller tables with plug points for solo air travellers are provided at Heathrow's Terminal Five. There is certainly no suggestion of Starbucks staff forcing people to leave if they stay too long. Indeed, the idea of having creative and business types making things happen while they slurp a chai latte rubs off nicely on the chain as a whole.

"When you look at Starbucks as a brand, it has always had an entrepreneurial spirit and something of a can-do attitude that makes it no surprise that the company would encourage people to work at its branches," says Paul Hitchens, the creative director of brand consultancy Verve. "And when you consider the name is taken from Moby-Dick [Starbuck is the coffee-loving first mate on Captain Ahab's ship] there is a creative, literary link to the company."

"Some people come in at 9am and stay all day," says the supervising manager at the Quay Street branch of Starbucks in Manchester, who would only give his first name, James. "People can get free internet and a filter coffee for a pound which can be refilled for free. We want people to feel comfortable."

The same cannot be said of some American cafes where there has been something of a backlash against laptop owners of late. The trend of working and holding business meetings in coffee shops emerged in the late 1990s in the US and Americans have become used to turning up at a cafe, grabbing a coffee and opening up their laptops. Squeezed by the recession and noticing that some customers were buying a single coffee and then becoming space and power spongers, more and more independent cafes have begun to rethink their strategy.

"I've heard all the negatives: freeloaders, rent-free office space, free internet, customers sitting for hours with one cup of coffee and so on. These things are true, but are they necessarily negative?" asks Janice Pullicino, owner of Naidre's Cafe, in Brooklyn, New York, who became infamous after the Wall Street Journal reported in 2009 that she was restricting wi-fi use which she says painted her to be "some laptop-banning hard-ass, which I am not".

Pullicino merely asks customers to be considerate, especially when the six-table cafe is busy. "We ask them to be aware of others and to give a table to someone who has not yet eaten if it's busy," she says. "They should feel free to stay all day if it's not busy. It's pretty obvious that the place is small, and our position on table use is reasonable."

American cafes still appear more accessible on the whole to people working in them than their British equivalents. Hume has worked in coffee shops on both sides of the Atlantic and says she has felt uneasy working in British cafes. "In a British cafe I would expect staff to come and tut and clear your table aggressively if you had been hanging around for over an hour," she says. "It seems to be more unusual to work in coffee shops in Britain and I've felt people stare, wondering what I was up to. In the US, I don't feel embarrassed – just that slight edge of self-consciousness that seems to be enough to motivate me to actually do some work."

Yet the signs are that British cafes are looking to do all they can to make people feel welcome and more companies are getting in on the act including the JD Wetherspoon chain and McDonald's, which have been pushing cheaper coffees and free wi-fi (McDonald's sells more than 84 million cups of coffee a year in the UK, third behind Costa and Starbucks).

Even the bookshop Waterstones offers workers space to conduct business with events rooms at its branches in Manchester, Nottingham and London Piccadilly (where The Simpson Room holds more than 100 people). "If some people decide to use our space to do some work then, as long as it is not interfering with other shoppers, then we are quite relaxed about it," says events manager Jon Howells.

All of this activity doesn't appear to be drawing workers away from more traditional sites of industriousness. Isabel Oswell, head of business and research audiences at the British Library says the Business & IP Centre which opened in 2006 attracted 68,000 people last year. "We've seen an approximate 20 per cent increase year on year." And Patricia O'Connor, spokeswoman for The Southbank Centre in London says: "Since we re-opened in 2007, there has been a rise in laptop use in the hall."

Getting the right working environment appears tricky, however. "Coffee shops can be good places for meetings, but only if there's the right level of noise – too noisy and it's unprofessional, too quiet and you feel very conspicuous especially if the subject is sensitive," says Judy Heminsley, who runs the website

She says there are few rules to working in a coffee shop other than being polite to the staff and not hogging a seat for hours on the strength of a small drink. She even – horror – advises drinking other things aside from coffee ("or you'll end up hyper"). And with all of those cakes on the counter, willpower is essential.

Heminsley also runs casual working events called "Jellies". They originated in New York in 2006 and bring individual workers together so they can share ideas and feel less isolated. "I've attended a Jelly in a busy cafe where a large table was reserved for home workers and freelancers," Heminsley says. "They had a group of people buying food and drink all day so were perfectly happy with the arrangement."

Such a situation evokes the spirit of Edward Lloyd with people brainstorming together and doing deals. Some, such as Gawker blogger Nick Douglas, may disparagingly refer to such people as "laptoptards" but, as history has shown, coffee runs through the veins of our workforce.

Write coffee: the authors inspired by cafe culture

JK Rowling

JK Rowling wrote a good chunk of the first Harry Potter novel in Edinburgh's The Elephant House on George IV Bridge. If you visit the coffee shop a large sign announces to the casual passer-by their historic role as "The Birthplace of Harry Potter". An early interview with a nervous-looking Rowling shows her sat in the coffee shop scribbling onto an A4 pad. Another nearby coffee shop has fixed a sign to its wall that reads: "JK Rowling never wrote here."

Marina Fiorato

Bestselling author Marina Fiorato says she was inspired by JK Rowling to turn to the teashop when writing her first novel The Glassblower of Murano. She says the appeal of a coffee shop is an escape from the temptations of domestic procrastination. "At home I tend to be distracted from writing, pottering and prevaricating," she says. "I'll always be tempted to tidy the kids' horrible rooms, or make a cup of tea!"

Ernest Hemingway

After moving to its current position on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in 1884, Les Deux Magots café emerged as the number-one rendezvous spot in Paris for literary and arty types. Hemingway, Sartre and Camus were often to be found writing and philosophising there, and Picasso enjoyed regular Magots' cups of coffee. The Prix des Deux Magots has been awarded to a French novel annually since 1933.

Henrik Ibsen

In the late 19th century, Henrik Ibsen became a tourist attraction. Every day, between 1.20 and 2pm, and 6 and 7.30pm, he could be found at the Grand Café in the Grand Hotel in Oslo. Sightseers came for a glimpse of the famous sideburns, which for nine years would come to rest in an armchair on which was written: "Reserved Dr Ibsen."

Malcolm Gladwell

The American intellectual renounced desks in 2005. Since then he begins his writing day on the sofa, and goes on to "rotate" around the coffee shops of New York City. He is, he admits, "that jerk" who everyone in the coffee shop hates, tapping away on their laptop as their coffee goes cold.