MEREDITH Strategy & Design

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Keyboards in cafes – early signals of the death of innovation?

I enjoyed, for a moment, Michael Idov's recent lament in the Wall Street Journal over the death of cafe culture. My enjoyment was not over the death of places for a great cup of coffee and some conversation, but with Idov's list of the world's great coffee houses. I've never been in any of them, but something in literature, movies and other arts has built an expectation in my mind, and Idov's article evokes a sweet nostalgia for imagined experiences, now apparently passing.

Idov credits the loss of cafe culture to politeness, which, I think is polite of him. Instead of rogue revolutionary foment, Idov now hears only the tap of keyboards. I hear the tap of keyboards as the evidence of a revolution in work, corporate investment, and the notion of "brand." None of it seems well resolved, yet.

Among the key concepts at the center of "workplace transformation" is the enabling and acceptance of mobility. I think much of this transformation has been very good. I feel liberated from the heaviness of the technology anchor that kept me chained to my desk and that, as a consequence, formalized and scheduled all of my interactions with clients and colleagues. I feel liberated by the new metrics of a more mobile workplace, with what I do now more valuable than my mere attendance. I am certainly more productive and more creative, since the lightness of technology and its untethering from the specifics of place and time have now allowed me to join others at will, to capture opportunity as it arises, to shape ideas on the run.

With this liberation has also come the definition and exploitation of the "third place." Most frequently illustrated by the term "Starbucks," the implication is a place between home and the office where the liberated among us meet, idealistically and romantically, in the manifestation and development of a sense of community. The Seattle model made us feel we were in the socially hip centers of life of "Friends" and "Fraser" even though we may have nowhere urban at all.

As the workplace began to evolve in a dawning recognition of its inherently social nature, the vending machines alcoves and utility kitchens began to learn from the coffee house. The office began to have a place where there was a recognition that "work" looked different now, and that whether in the beneficial development of a shared culture or in the productive generation and development of innovation, the conversations on the stools around the cafe counters were actually fulfilling the purposes and missions of organizations.

Now, however, there's been a general transformation of the work place – the place of work – without an understanding of the role of place in work.

As corporations became more comfortable with third places as places where work might actually get done, the concept moved from the break from work to the place for work. The cafe became not just the symbol of but the place for the company's productive collaboration. The commercial cafe was a manager's delight in erasing the boundaries of time and freeing the corporation from the carrying costs of its own real estate.

The third place, then, also began to morph from social to selfish. Growing competition in an over-saturated market caused an evolving brand self-centeredness of Starbucks and others whose strategies caused a shift in focus from the customer to the coffee. And, as more and more cafes sought more and more locations, their market segments became smaller. With fewer people to serve in each store, there was less need for places to sit, and the support for the social nature of the place disappeared. Both in its occupancy profile and directly through the strategies of its owners, the modern coffee house became a place of production, not of imagination.

The recession and the resulting compression of the place of work and the loss of its social space has meant to short of a life for a workstyle and workplace that was just beginning to have its impact on innovation, creativity, leadership and performance. Moving the social space outside of the workplace moved it to a place where shifting strategies took its social purpose away. Now, neither the office nor the third place provides the setting for essentially casual but importantly purposeful interaction.

I suspect that the tapping of the keyboards that signals the death of cafe culture for Idov may be the tapping of those who, spun out from the office, have lost among other things a connection with their colleagues, a sense of the comparative measures of innovation, opportunities for uncovering opportunities for leadership, speed and efficacy in communications, perceptions of diversity and diversity of perceptions, and the benefits and pleasures of working with and through others.

The short life and death of the cafe in the life of the organization may signal a shorter life for the organization.

But Idov offers optimism –

Perhaps the economic downturn will untie our tongues and restart the conversation. With rents going down, the next Café Abraco or Café Regular may be able to afford a larger space and have some money left for tables and chairs. And the new Lost Generation of creative strivers is already here to fill these chairs.

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