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Stroll into any busy coffee shop, and you’ll see a similar sight: people hard at work. Laptops open, phones in hand, tablets being furiously swiped. It’s a very modern way of working. Except…it’s actually one of the oldest working ideas around.

Coffee shops were a hub of business activity as long ago as the 17th century. As coffee spread across the world, so too did a working culture fuelled by it.

Back in business

But the coffee shop is back as a place to work. Working patterns are, like much else in business, cyclical. We discover over time that with each new wave of innovation we gain things, we lose things – and we lose track of valuable things that we could be using again. The return to the coffee shop as a great place to work has scientific grounding – there’s a certain level of background buzz that actually enhances people’s creative output.

The research indicates that many people’s instinct when presented with a problem that needs creative thinking to solve – finding a quiet place to sit and think – is just plain wrong. A low level of distraction actually seems to give the creative parts of our minds a chance to work.

In store for more


The earliest working spaces, like so many offices today, were defined as much by their role as being a place to store stuff, rather than a place for business to happen. Through the rise of the industrial revolution, and the clerks offices attached to both the mercantile houses and the great buildings of industry, the relationship between the performance of office work and the storage of the products of office work was a close one. Even the advent of the digital age did little to shift that.

The Old School network

We tend to assume that communication technology is what frees us from desk-bound working, but that’s not truly the case. A vast worldwide communication network that allowed people to access information at unprecedented speeds has been invented before -in the 19th century. It was, of course, the telegraph, and like the early days of the internet, it tied the office worker to a place just as surely as a fixed desktop PC and its cable connection did. We were rooted in the office by both our communication tools and our storage systems. Even as paper slowly gave way to digital storage, too much of that storage was dependent on actually being sat in front of a PC.

Free and easier

However, year-by-year, the pieces have been falling into place to finally break the office’s hold over us. The desktop has steadily been replaced by laptops – and for many workers, by a mobile phone and tablet duo. The smartphone gives us productivity power in our hands that was undreamed of a decade ago. Finally, those filing cabinets have become digital storage, and migrated to the cloud. We are truly freed from the desk.

As the kinds of workers that have truly grasped this start designing their days in a way that isn’t defined by sitting in a set place for most of the day every day, so too must the office start to reinvent itself. The core knowledge for this has been kicking around for a couple of decades. Interior designers have concepts of touchdown desks, team working pods that can be shifted around as projects change, and quiet rooms for those who need those periods of time.

For the first time, the coffee shop and the corporate office are absolutely as important as places to do business as the other. When you’re working in the flow, it’s about being in the right place, not the prescribed place.

Image credits: Anthony Albright, jeffwilcox.

This is part of Nokia’s Smarter Everyday programme, which aims to inspire you with the latest ideas on productivity, collaboration and technology adoption. To download our latest ebook on designing your day, visit