What to do when laptops and silence take over your cafe? this article from the New York Times asks.
There’s no denying that working from a coffee shop or similar spot with wifi has become a huge trend in recent years, among remote workers, freelancers and pretty much anyone whose job allows them out of the office once in a while. Whilst many choose to work from the comfort of their own home, others choose to get out and about once in a while, and for many a cafe is a good choice – wifi, comfy chairs, coffee and snacks. What’s not to like?
However, lately it seems like some cafes are hitting back against the trend. Whilst some might see working at your laptop as a fairly innocuous pastime, some cafe owners are dismayed to find many of their customers ‘sitting at a laptop wearing headphones’.
As reported by the article, one cafe owner (Kyle Glanville) went as far as to throw out his wifi router in order to stem the tide of coffee-drinking laptop workers. Apparently he wanted ‘a courtyard where people talked to one another, not a silent office for remote workers’. Fair enough, right? But what are the implications for the overall trend?
Presumably many other cafe owners feel the same way as Mr. Glanville. Which is that the ‘coffice’ trend is getting out of hand, leading to the mood in many cafes shifting from a sociable hubbub to a room full of hipsters with their heads bent over their Macbooks, the only sound other than the hiss of the coffee machine, the click-clack of fingers on keyboards. And I can sort of see their point. Not so much for the reasons quoted above, but more from the perspective of a cafe as a business. It’s not profitable to fill your cafe with customers who buy one small americano, then proceed to hog a corner table for the next 7 hours making loud Skype calls and trailing cables all over the floor. Instead, they rely on turnover of customers, and bigger purchases than just the odd black coffee to make ends meet.
But lets look at this from the other side. I work from home most of the time, but usually try to take myself out of the house once a week and find a new location to work from. Sometimes it’s a dedicated co-working space, but other times I also go and check out a cafe. Coworking spaces are cool, but not all of them are as flexible as a freelancer might need them to be. Some require a full membership or subscription plan. In general, they’re also not cheap. Luckily for me, most coworking spaces in Kiev allow you to pay by the hour or day, and are really affordable. But in most other countries they can be quite pricy. A day spent at So-Busy coworking space in Warsaw actually cost over £15. Which obviously isn’t huge, but when you add to that probably buying lunch or coffee out as well during the day, it’s quite a chunk out of your earnings to do that on a regular basis. If you just want to pop in for a bit on an ad-hoc basis, maybe with a friend, then a cafe often seems like the easier option.
Personally, when I work in a cafe, I don’t tend to stay more than about 3 hours. Then I either head home or change venue. I also try to be respectful of other customers and the business itself. If I stay in a place for more than an hour, I also spend more. Generally I might get a coffee when I first enter the place, then lunch when the time rolls around, and maybe another drink or snack afterwards if I stay longer. If the cafe is crammed full, I’d keep my time there short and move on if someone needed my table.
Of course, different people have different working habits, and some may be using coffee shops as workspaces in different ways, some more or less respectful and more or less beneficial to the business itself. If you treat your local joint as a free office all day, hog power sockets, prevent other customers from getting a table, and only buy an espresso, obviously you’re making yourself a bit of a pain. I can see why cafe owners want to avoid this type of customer. However, overall I reckon most remote workers are probably quite good customers. I doubt many people stay in one coffee shop all day. It would become fairly uncomfortable and even a bit awkward after a while. Also, the longer you stay, the more likely you are to need more drinks and a second meal, thus spending more money in the cafe. Depending on the business of the venue, I don’t see why a certain number of laptop-wielding workers wouldn’t be quite an asset. They provide a consistent clientele, usually don’t make a lot of noise or mess and generally drink a whole load of expensive coffee.
The question is, what happens when said workers start ‘taking over’? Well, in all honesty I kind of doubt that is happening yet in many places. Usually when I work in a cafe I’m either the only person, or one of about 2-3 people in the place who has a laptop out. While a cafe may not want to see every chair occupied by a remote worker, I find this fairly unlikely. A ratio of about 10-20% of people using their phone or laptop in a cafe seems pretty reasonable to me, still leaving plenty of space for groups, families and other customers to hang out in whichever way they please.
However, if a cafe really wants to discourage remote workers, there are plenty of ways in which it could potentially do so, which don’t need to be as drastic as ‘throwing the router away’. Instead, why not put a login-based time limit on the use of the wifi, with a limit of say 2 hours for each user. Alternatively, simply limit the number of power sockets, meaning that workers will eventually have to move out once their power supply runs out.
Of course any cafe owner is free to run their business however they like, including removing wifi completely, putting up ‘no laptops’ signs, or even having staff members tell customers to switch off their laptops (A staff member will approach the uninitiated customer whose laptop is open for more than a couple of minutes with a gentle but firm request “to finish up what you’re doing and close the laptop, please.”) However, I doubt I’m alone in thinking some of these measures sound a little draconian. At the end of the day, if you’re a legitimate paying customer, surely you should be able to spend your time in the coffee shop however you like, within reason. Some say that cafes should be more ‘social’ and that customers should be encouraged to ‘talk to each other’. But doesn’t this sound a bit like a utopia? I don’t remember a time when I’d go into a cafe and just strike up a conversation with a new person. And to be quite honest, I don’t really want to. I either want to chat to the person I’m with or quietly read my book or do whatever other activity I feel like. If someone feels that a laptop is ‘antisocial’, where do they draw the line? Am I also being antisocial by reading my book, or simply wanting to people-watch on my own? If this is the case, I hope these ‘forced socialisation’ cafes will be clearly labelled as such so that I can avoid them at all costs, laptop or no laptop.
At the end of the day, I think the majority of cafes and customers are capable of using common sense and finding a reasonable balance. Most people have enough awareness of their environment to move on when they’ve overstayed their welcome or if there are others waiting for a table. Additionally, I’d wager that very few people actually deliberately take advantage by nursing one single cold coffee for a full five hours. If a cafe doesn’t think that remote workers are part of its ‘vibe’, then it should either put a sign on the door to warn them off, or simply create a different sort of atmosphere, rather than using passive-aggressive techniques such as switching off wifi or patronisingly tutting at customers. However I’d actually suggest that the majority of cafes should be just as welcoming to workers as any other type of customer, provided that they adhere to a reasonable time-to-expenditure ratio. If a particular customer has really overstayed their welcome, the waiter or waitress could simply go over and remind them that someone else is waiting for their table. In my experience, most places are absolutely fine with you doing a bit of work. However, if they want to discourage a large proportion of their potential clientele, then that’s their choice, and I suppose anyone who wants to work can take their business somewhere else.
What’s your view on this? Do you sometimes like to work in a cafe? How do you ensure that you’re not ‘table-hogging’? Do you think cafes should take measures to avoid freelancers? Let me know in the comments!