Pubs and cafes must capitalise on flexi-work boom

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Flexible workers increasingly value the ability to work from cafes, pubs and other ‘third space’ venues, and businesses should be encouraged to change and embrace their custom, new research suggests.

Image credit: designtic

Venues that strike a balance between a feeling of home and work are best received, but many are not yet meeting the requirements of customer-workers, a study from Goldsmiths, University of London and the Business School at City, University of London has found.

Practical problems such as an unreliable Wi-Fi connection, no plug sockets to power laptops and phones, and a lack of back-supporting chairs, means that customer-workers will not visit regularly, but ‘house rules’ which create a hostile atmosphere for working also play a part. 

More than a quarter of the UK workforce are now considered flexible workers, a trend accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Those who do not have access to an office space and are unable to work from home, or dislike doing so, have become customer-workers - customers who perform work-related tasks and activities in commercial places not primarily intended for work.

The Business School’s Dr Laetitia Mimoun and Dr Adèle Gruen from Goldsmiths visited 36 different sites, including coffee houses, pubs, hotel bars, churches, museums, libraries, and train stations and interviewed their managers and customers who regularly frequent third places. 

Writing in the Journal of Service Research, the authors recommend that, dependent on their locality and current clientele, venues should make changes to manage these customers and their potential value to the business. While they might have been traditional havens of communal socialising only, now is the time to adapt to new ways of living and working. 

One pub owner interviewed for the research explained that freelancers have become a core audience for his business. He now opens from 9 – 5pm exclusively for workspace subscriptions and has seen competitor venues trying to replicate the model.

Recommendations include:

  • avoiding rules and signs which can deter customers and stress out staff, such as "no laptops between 12 - 2 pm"
  • using environmental cues such as placing plugs and booths in usually empty or calm areas to attract customer-workers and place covers on tables at lunchtime to show that the atmosphere has changed
  • using long tables and booths to facilitate sociality between customer-workers
  • bringing a feeling of home to the workplace with the offer of food and coffee
  • set up special daily offers for customer-workers

Spaces that follow these guidelines were found to:

  • offer productivity and motivation benefits
  • ensure a better relationship between staff and clients
  • play a societal role by providing isolated or lonely workers with access to the health and wellbeing benefits of socialising, even possibly increasing the likelihood of romantic encounters
  • provide opportunities for flexible workers to accumulate symbolic and identity benefits.

Dr Laetitia Mimoun, Lecturer in Marketing at the Business School, believes now is the time for owners and proprietors to look at their business model if they want to capitalise on the number of customer-workers looking for alternative workspaces.

She said: "This study shows that people do have fatigue from working at home but enjoy the social aspects flexible working can offer. In the hustle and bustle of the cosmopolitan City, workers are able to find the identity that they have been unable to find in an emptier work office or uninspiring home workspace. Practitioners and customer-workers can both benefit from the creation of these spaces, but now is the time for owners to act if they want to catch these new customers."

Dr Adèle Gruen, Lecturer in Marketing in the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths said: “Customer-workers are often dismissed as a consumer segment and yet our study shows that they can be extremely valuable for the places who can adapt to their specific needs, motivations and practices."

'Customer Work Practices and the Productive Third Place' by Dr Laetitia Mimoun and Dr Adèle Gruen was published in the Journal of Service Research on 13 May 2021. DOI: 10.1177/10946705211014278

Download the infographic 'Working From the Cafe - The Future of Third Places' (PDF)

This story is based on an original press release from City, University of London