When the first coffee houses opened in London in the mid-17th century it signalled a great change in the cultural landscape. A place for intellectuals and ‘coffee house politicians’ to share news, express grievances and conduct business.

These hubs of social interaction became a popular alternative to the taverns and alehouses for knowledge workers who could now conduct business in a gentrified environment without the need for their own business premises. The coffee, then as now, provided a stimulus that spurred ideas and creative thinking and, some have argued, even the enlightenment.

Now in the 21st century coffee shops are experiencing a renaissance as a business hub for the knowledge workers of today, who, like their 17th century counterparts, attend for social interactions – albeit virtually as well as physically. So it seems the evolving workplace is coming full circle and this in turn is impacting office design.

The catalyst for the resurgence of coffee shops in recent times, is of course technology. Twenty or thirty years ago, people needed offices. Computers, fax machines, telephones all gave knowledge workers a massive boost but the space and money required to administer these assets meant business had to be conducted in an office by a company. Now any individual with an idea and a laptop can be the master of their own business destiny, and deliver that from any location with a Wi-Fi hotspot. The coffee shop once again has become a place where people can go to do work – not only because they have a Wi-Fi connection – but because it is comfortable and social, with refreshments on-tap. Coffee shops are now so important to British workers that it is estimated that 70% of people work remotely from a coffee shop once or twice a week.

As I see it, there are two groups of people using coffee shops in the modern world who impact is influencing office design: Firstly there are the entrepreneurs, the freelancers, the contractors; essentially the self-employed. In a world where the war for talent is intense, and a growing number of bright-young brains are opting for the autonomy and creative opportunity of being your own boss, businesses need to be able to provide their workers with the same sense of choice and freedom they might have if they were working independently. How many articles have we seen telling businesses how to ‘replicate a start-up business culture’? Start-ups are seen as cool, exciting, fewer rules, more freedom. If you want to work from a coffee shop or on a bean bag or prop at the end of a ping-pong table you should be allowed to do that. And so office design has had to evolve with this.

The second group are the mobile workers – the people who, thanks to technology, can work remotely from anywhere, and don’t need to come into the office to check emails, do their work or even have meetings. In 2013, the growing trend of remote working took a beating as the chief executive of global giant and progressive employer Yahoo, famously banned remote working.

Under intense scrutiny, Marissa Meyer defended her decision explaining that people needed to be present in the office to maximise collaboration and promote the serendipitous interactions that foster ideas and innovations. Here is the conundrum; how do we give people the choice, freedom and autonomy of remote working whilst encouraging the interactions of a shared workspace. Or put another way; how do we get remote workers to come back to the workplace, without scaring them off to our competitors?

The coffee shop revolution has therefore spurred a whole new revolution; in office design. In practical terms, we've seen the rise and rise of activity–based working workplaces that are designed with different areas to facilitate different kinds of work or to suit different working styles.

No longer are people pinned to an allocated desk – people have the choice and freedom to work in the setting of their choice – whether that be a quiet space for independent study or comfortable seating for informal meetings. And of course, a big design element in many activity-based workplaces is the work café or canteen – a place not only to refresh and relax but to meet, collaborate and ruminate. These spaces foster interactions in the same way the coffee houses of the 17th century did and that our modern-day coffee shops do - providing a comfortable meeting point to conduct business affairs.

Coffee shop style workspaces

You could argue that the pull to get people out of the coffee shops and into the office has promoted the need for collaborative spaces in the workplace. Standing tables for quick meetings, writable walls to capture those ideas, informal seating areas for ad-hoc meetings; it’s all part of the trend for maximising collaboration when people are together and demonstrating the importance of attending a shared physical workspace.

In aesthetic terms, we've seen a trend for office design that emulates the cosy coffee shops. Comfortable seating, sofas, coffee tables with magazines all help to create a coffee shop feel – and of course, the Wi-Fi has to be on par too.

I was interested to learn what happened to the coffee houses of the 17th century and it turns out that the nation’s tastes turned to tea and the popularity of the coffee house began to wane. What is interesting is that those that remained became reserved for a more elite clientele where membership was charged and the gentleman’s club was born. In a case of history repeating, a recent article cited the rise of member’s clubs in London as a venue for conducting business- think Soho House.

No longer content with meeting in coffee shops, a new class of business people are looking for a more sophisticated alternative to the local coffee shops. These clubs provide coffee, plush surroundings, Wi-Fi – and most importantly a space for like minded people to bump, meet and engage with each other. And the appeal for a more exclusive area within a workplace is replicated in office design, with a growth in popularity of boutique hotel-feel spaces with luxurious furnishings and a more elite feel.

And as working and workplaces continue to evolve, so will office design. But the legacy of the coffee shop is that the emphasis will be on the people using the space; finding ways to use a space that gives people the choice, freedom and comfort of their local coffee shop, but in a communal environment that encourages people to work together. And of course, one that provides great coffee.