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Alternatives to Cafes and Co-Working


Photography: asmythie

Progress is a wonderful thing. There was a time when computers were the size of office buildings. Soon they were the size of offices. Things began to take off when they could fit comfortably inside an office. Now they contain Office.

Stick your laptop in your bag and your mobile in your pocket and you’ve got everything you need to do business and complete a day’s work.

Short of a chair, a table and an Internet connection.

It’s the need for those three things that has sent mobile workers out searching for places to park their Macs and write their emails. Starbucks might well be the world’s largest purveyor of over-priced coffee-based drinks, but among today’s digital nomads it’s probably best known as the world’s cheapest landlord of temporary office space.

Step into any bean parlor today, and you’ll find table after single-chaired table filled with tech types typing frantically on their keyboards.

But cafes have their disadvantages. You can’t sit in one for more than two hours on a single cup of coffee without looking like a cheapskate, and if you buy a cake as well, they soon become too expensive to use every day.

Worse, at some point after a couple of hours, you’ll need the bathroom which gives you the ultimate dilemma of choosing whether to leave your computer in a public place, asking a stranger to keep an eye on it, chaining it to the table or, even more suspiciously, taking it with you.

And of course, cafes don’t just come with coffee, they also come with people — people who talk, laugh, order drinks and ask you to look after their computers while they go to the bathroom. Cafes are nice for short work bursts and tasks that don’t demand too much concentration, but they’re not offices.

Co-working does provide an office and it provides company too. While that’s not what everyone needs every time they have a project to complete, working alongside other digital nomads can beat the loneliness that comes from being a one-person business. The connections too can often lead in all sorts of interesting directions.

“[A] lot of times because you were working alongside someone you would end up working with them on projects, especially because you are in a more social setting where if something is funky with your website, you’ll inevitably shout out ‘does anyone know why my page isn’t validating?’” Ryanne Hodson, co-founder of co-working site The Hat Factory, has told us. “You get to know people’s skills pretty quick and can recommend them for jobs and vice versa.”

But even co-working costs money and seeing the same people every day can generate the office gossip that being independent was supposed to save you from. Fortunately, there are still a few more options.

Turning the Library into an Office

One is to head for your local library. Unlike a café or a co-working space, you can be reasonably confident of finding silence here.  Most should also provide free wireless Internet and there’s no limit to the length of time you can sit before getting dark looks from a librarian.

You won’t find company here in the way that you can make friends in a café or co-working space and having spent much of your student days trying to avoid the library, it might feel a little strange to spend your working days hanging out in one every day. Worse, because library-working hasn’t really taken off, the people you’ll be working alongside are likely to be retired types and the unemployed. These days though, that second category is likely to include a bunch of familiar faces.

Libraries can be fine when you really want to focus and don’t want to be disturbed, but they’re studious not industrious. They make you feel like a college kid not a budding entrepreneur.

Hang out in Parks

Another alternative then is to make the most of your freedom and head for the wide open spaces. Roll up a blanket, pack some food and squeeze in some Red Bull to stop you falling asleep in the sun and work in the park. You’ll be able to find a spot with a beautiful view, and feel grateful that you have the kind of independent job that means that you’re not only boss-free but wall-free too.

It sounds ideal and it is if you’re planning to read a book, work without a deadline, have the kind of Yoga skills that can make working on the ground in Cobra comfortable or find a Web connection a distraction rather than a necessity.

And if the weather’s good too which, of course, it isn’t always.

For summer projects that don’t have to be produced under pressure, the park can be a pleasant addition to your office options. For other times, you’re going to need somewhere more indoors.

Become a Hotel Guest

A hotel is indoors and offers two kinds of work spaces. Rooms are available for paying guests and are usually the default options for laptop-packing travelers who need to get some work done on the move. They offer privacy and a desk. But they also provide the feeling of working in a bedroom and an Internet connection for an eye-watering fee. It’s clearly not worth paying the nightly rental just to give yourself a space to work for a few hours (even if authors are known to do it sometimes) but if you’re on the road and need somewhere more personal than Starbucks to get your work done,  the room is usually the default option.

The lobby though is open to everyone. As in a café, you’ll have to order something and even a cup of coffee in a swanky hotel is likely to burn a hole in your wallet. But you can stay there for hours, and if you pick the right hotel you should find that it’s full of business types rather than chatty tourists, and it should be quieter than most cafes too.

You’ll need to be in the sort of town that has big business hotels and the expense means that you won’t be able to do it every day, but when you really want to get out of the house while still getting some work done, a hotel lobby may be just the ticket.

Stay at Home

But then again, home does have its attractions. You might not actually want to work in your underwear or even your pajamas but there is something to be said for a commute that you can measure in steps rather than traffic lights.

In practice, digital nomads work in all sorts of different ways. It might be easy to say that social types use co-working spaces, lurkers prefer cafes, and sociopaths hide in the library but different projects and different times demand different kinds of work environments. Unlike salaried types though, freelancers always have a range of different offices to choose from.


  1. David Leonhardt - SEO consultant Says:

    Home is where the heart is. And the frisge. And the kids. Who would want to work anywhere else?

  2. Johnny Says:

    I was pretty lucky when I first started freelancing that I happened to co-work with others in an old dusty shared office. It also happened to net me a few friends for life and some contacts, even to this day (the office closed several years ago). Nothing, in my opionion, beats this environment.

    Now I'm working at home and am constantly searching for an "out" to go to. I've tried the library and hanging out in cafes, which are OK, but haven't thought of the hotel. Guess what I'll be doing tomorrow?

    Thanks for the tips!

  3. Amy Says:

    Hi - Great analysis of what it's like to work in coffee shops. The tiny tables, fighting for power outlets and the constant coffee grinding make it quite annoying, yet I still end up there so often. I wrote a brief post on netbooks for cafe surfing a few weeks ago at http://shopdebtfree.com.

    I love working at the library, especially now that having coffee and food has become the norm at the library, but the hours are terrible and the only time you can be there is when the kids are there. I think there must be a case to be made for economic development tied to productivity and work spaces, similar to the case for broadband and ubiquitous connectivity. Thanks for your thoughts.


  4. Telesaur Says:

    I love working from the library! There's free WiFi, desk space, books, and highly skilled researchers at your disposal. If you decide to work at a library frequently, make friends with the librarians! Thank them profusely for any help they give you, and don't stink up the place by taking off your shoes... I usually take earphones too; even though libraries are quiet, they aren't always quiet enough.

    Co-working and cafes are great places for teleworkers to get things done, but I love your other suggestions. Thanks for a good article! Find me on Twitter talking about telework: http://www.twitter.com/telesaur

  5. Giorgio Sironi Says:

    In general I am more productive working from home, if I am not disturbed.
    I will try the library option at the university, but I prefer to reserve that for studying and reading tech articles...

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