Is the coffee shop the new office?
Until recently, I have been part of the 9-to-5 work force. It’s very likely that I have not noticed this coffee shop trend before
As I write this, I am sitting in a café, drinking a flat white — the latest local trend in trendy coffees: steam heated milk turned to micro-foam, assembled so that there is the shallowest layer of foam poured over a double shot of espresso. A cappuccino without its frothy hat, but not quite a Café Latte. The French call it Café au lait (coffee with hot milk) though it was invented in the 1970s in New Zealand, and really only fashionable there and Australia, until now
So, I’m sitting here in this bright and airy room that looks out onto a busy street in the heart of a suburban village, on my MacBook Air, drinking coffee.
At this time of day, mid morning, nannies are carry/walking their young charges to the nearby park – toddlers riding high on a wide hip, some wheeled along in push chairs, others waddling beside aproned chaperones; their chubby white fists encased in black hands.
A white van double parks on the narrow street and the man in blue overalls opens the double doors at the back to reveal shrink wrapped white linens… the freshly starched table coverings for tonight’s dinner service.
Two men in white coats, white wellington boots, and white hairnets get out of the butchers van to walk crates of fresh meat into the restaurant kitchen.
A yellow Time Freight panel van hurtles perilously round the traffic circle to meet a delivery deadline; a black RAM security vehicle — a bulky 4×4 — creeps along the street, its occupants in bullet proof vests. Meanwhile, geriatric passengers being transported to a nearby old age home stare out the windows of a Netcare Kombi.
Inside, the Lavazza coffee machine whirrs and splutters, the hiss of steam throwing up a white mist as the barista warms a wide brimmed cup. There’s the chink of china as the cup hits the saucer.
The acrid smell of last night’s wood fire hangs in the air. It’s detritus is being cleared now by a man in a red bandana who sweeps ash and charcoal into a battered pan, humming tunelessly as he fetches fresh logs and lays them down for tonight’s fire.
It’s cool out rather than cold, but the room is warmed by the morning sun streaming in now through the vast expanse of glass.
Frank Sinatra croons quietly in the background, over the murmur of voices, the clang of cutlery, the scraping of chairs. Ol Blue Eyes gives way to Katy Perry, and then Nina Simone — an eclectic mix from the owner’s playlist.
An old couple huddles over a pot of tea, his arthritic fingers wrapped round the cup, gnarled and misshapen like truffles. They do not talk to each other. She stares out the window, onto the changing tableau unfolding on the street. He keeps his head lowered, his eyes on the liquid in his cup.
An immaculately groomed woman with a perfect grey bouffant — whose style icon must surely be the queen — tugs at the Hermes scarf knotted at her throat and crosses her Green Cross clad feet at the ankles.
All these people belong exactly where they are… the delivery-men working to bring supplies essential to the oiling of suburban life; the pensioners escaping the tedium of their daily home bound routine; the security guards making it safe for the nannies to be walking their charges, the barista brewing his coffee…
What the (until very recently) corporate me finds unusual here are the five men and three women with their heads buried in laptops and the two women surrounded by mounds of paper who are seated next to each other, making notes, talking animatedly.
My brain is trying to find reasons why these young, vital people are not at work? I suppose, I mean, at work in an office. I ask. Of the 10 single people sitting at laptops, four have recently been laid off from their white collar jobs in the private sector. Four. In one restaurant. For the rest, one of the men is writing a proposal for University funding; another is finishing off his PhD thesis, the third is a fly fisherman, writing for an angling journal.
The fourth and fifth men and two women are fine-tuning their resumes having recently been retrenched (two from a bank, one a cellphone company and another a communications company).
Because, until very recently, I have been part of the 9-to-5 workforce, it is very likely that I have not noticed this coffee shop trend before.
Of course, I know it’s not unusual — JK Rowling famously wrote the Harry Potter books in the back room of an Edinburgh coffee shop called The Elephant House.
But I am astonished by the large numbers of people (aged between 20 and retirement) who appear to be able to sit in coffee shops in what is the working part of the day. And I’m talking middle class people who own homes and drive cars and take holidays, and who therefore need jobs to give them money to have and do all those things…
Last week, The Times ran a story about unemployment on its front page in which it said that 44 000 white collar jobs had been lost in South Africa since the beginning of the year.
That’s an astonishingly large number of people who work in an office or corporate setting who are without work. And those are just the figures for this year, for six months. Add to that the figures of white-collar workers laid off last year, and the year before. And then extrapolate how many lives are affected if these people support families.
According to reports from Europe — mostly the Scandinavian countries –— there has been a shift towards new and different ways of working. Some people share the same job and a single salary for more time off. Others work flexi hours so that they can free up personal time for themselves.
I’ve asked and found that this trend has not hit South Africa, though recruitment agents assure me that it probably will (out of necessity) in the near future.
Still, I’m flummoxed by the number of people out and about in the middle of the day and not behind a desk making the economy tick.
I would like to think that in these hard times, people are prepared to work less for less money to ensure that everyone has some income.
On the other hand, I am hopeful when I see how smart young people — just starting out — are. They already know that the days of “one job for life” are over. If anecdotal reports from my 22-year-old nephew are true, his generation starts out with the premise that they need to prepare for a host of possible careers over the course of their lifetime.
And so, it seems, the coffee shop will become the office of the future.