I am hard at work, fruitlessly shunting emails around like the office worker I am, yet somehow I still feel I am playing truant. If only she knew, I think as I fire off a message to a colleague; if only he knew, as I send another – if only they knew I’m sitting in the pub.
It’s the Windmill pub, on Clapham Common, where I’ve set myself up. Like many pubs across the country, they’re offering home-working professionals a “pub desk”, the deal in this case being that, in exchange for a pre-paid £10, you get unlimited tea and coffee, a quiet seat with a plug socket and WiFi, and a handsome sandwich at a time of your choosing.
Maybe it’s the months of lockdown-induced sensory deprivation talking, but being here feels thrilling and illicit. I’m sitting on a bar stool, the height of which seems to have a more energising effect on me than a desk chair, with a view of the common and with the bar just across the room. In an adjoining room, there are plush leather sofas, an open fire, and – to complete this unbeatable trifecta of extreme cosiness – an 11-stone Bernese mountain dog, Max, who is owned by the pub’s manager and who stolidly assents to petting so long as there are no sausage rolls within range of his huge wet nose.
The manager, Ben Evans, explains the genesis of the pub-desk arrangement. Home-working, he points out, begets cabin fever. “Just a change of location can be good enough, can’t it? And then you’ve got the buzz of a pub. Even with the restrictions” – which include ordering by app and having to wear a face mask while out of your seat – “it feels like a pub in here. There’s always a bit of a buzz, there’s always a bit of chatter going on. You can get a drink, different food – not something from the same fridge you’ve been eating from for the last seven days.”
Evans refers to the awkward experience of sitting in a coffee shop and feeling you need to keep buying stuff in order to justify your continued occupation of a table. In a large, relatively empty pub, you’re not taking up space that’s in high demand.
Nor are you and your work calls and your noise-cancelling headphones ruining the atmosphere, he says – weekday laptop-workers were already fairly common before the pandemic, taking their place among mothers with prams, dog-walkers and day-drinkers. “The pub has always been different things to different people.” And since the Windmill is a hotel, too, those who really want privacy can hire one of its bedrooms for the day.
I settle down for a few hours’ work. There are certainly drawbacks to being here: I feel impelled to take work calls outside, I’m not keen on leaving my laptop unattended whenever I go to the loo, and I am wary of the ticking time-bomb that is having pints almost within arm’s reach of my desk.
I don’t have the second monitor and other technological fripperies that I use at home, though I suppose if I were to really commit to this pub-desk thing I could bring in the whole lot and set up an obnoxious dual-screen arrangement at the bar.
More abstractly, I am wary of diluting the specialness of our pubs: as psychologists say, they are “third spaces”, venues that, being neither home nor work, are ideal for socialising and community-building. I don’t want to be a foot-soldier of corporate mission-creep, and I want to feel joy when I stroll into a pub at 6pm, not apathy when I walk in at 9am.
Anyway, I take another work call outside, this time to speak to Gail Kinman, a visiting professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Cumbria and a member of the British Psychological Society’s “Working Differently” group, which is considering the effects of the pandemic on working practices.
Prof Kinman thinks siloed former office drones like me, marooned in our homes all day, will benefit from spending time in social spaces. “Pubs are happy, jolly places,” she says. “Even if you’re in a pub that hasn’t got many people in it, it’s likely to be beneficial. They’re often fairly light and airy places, and you’ve got staff that are kind of semi-engaged with you.”
A pubbish hubbub, she says, is the sort of soundscape we can work in more easily than if it were replaced by intermittent noise such as building work and the nagging of children. And with the pub-desk package’s offer of hot drinks, you have in-built breaks, which we don’t get at home.
So long as you’re not next to a tableful of noisy drinkers, we can conclude, a pub desk is a good option for a home worker. Invigorated by the change of scene and dissuaded from distraction simply by being around other people, I managed a solid afternoon's work.
Elsewhere, it seems, office workers are having similar experiences. Gemma Chenery, who runs the Brantham Bull with her husband, Paul, says that publicans are having to think creatively in order to compensate for the revenue-busting 10pm closing time rule.
“We had 14 pub desks yesterday, so it's very popular.” Rather than detracting from the atmosphere by being quiet and asocial, the workers often chat from a safe distance, says Chenery. What appears to be a compromise on atmosphere has apparently resulted in a busier and more sociable daytime pub experience.
I’d wondered whether the scheme would attract duos or trios of people who, not living in the same household, shouldn't be indoors together. This was not the case. There were three or four other individuals at work in the Windmill, and although I felt reluctant to speak to them – after all, I wouldn’t march into their office and strike up conversation – I ended up chatting with one man, a twenty-something, about why he’d chosen to work here.
It was less busy than the nearby coffee shops, he said, and he had a nice, roomy table to work from. He didn’t give his name, which at first seemed shifty, but which made a lot of sense when I saw what he’d been drinking while taking part in a video-free conference call: a pint of dark chocolate stout. You wouldn’t get that in an office.
Five more pubs you can work in
Pretty much any pub these days will serve tea and coffee and give you access to wi-fi. But those offering official pub-desk deals include:
The Brantham Bull, Essex: £10 for lunch and unlimited tea and coffee
The Ship Inn, Owlesbury, Winchester: £12 for unlimited tea and coffee and a flatbread
The Anchor Inn, Thornbury, Bristol: £15 for a day of unlimited tea and coffee and a sandwich lunch
The Punchbowl & Ladle, Truro, Cornwall: £10 for three hours of coffee plus parking and a breakfast bap
The Queens Hotel, Dundee: £10 for a four-hour working slot including tea, coffee and a sandwich lunch
Would you swap working from home for working from the pub? Tell us in the comments section below