When D’Espresso, a small New York espresso bar, approached design firm Nema Workshops to lay out the interior of its second outlet, the café asked for something unique, a look that would enable the small bar to stand out and be noticed by both tourists and locals alike. Inspired by the nearby Bryant Library, the design company covered one wall with wooden floorboards and lined the ceiling, floor and back wall with prints of filled bookshelves. They took the library and turned it sideways. The result was a design that’s certainly distinctive but it’s also a look that ignores digital nomads, the kind of people now filling cafes and topping up tip jars. The handful of seats are arranged in a row directly opposite the bar, in front of small, round tables and, crucially, far from any electricity outlets. It’s a place designed to bring in a steady flow of traffic rather than attract laptop owners and their regular business. So what does it take to design a café that suits today’s information workers, the people who pack up their computers and spend hours each day working in cafes?
1. The Right Location
Location is critical for any retail outlet, including cafes, but different places create different atmospheres. Starbucks branches look the same from Seattle to Shanghai but the atmosphere in two branches on the same street can feel completely different if the businesses around them differ. A café on a street surrounded by stores tends to fill up with shoppers resting their feet. They take up seats, stick around and talk loudly. A branch that sits at the bottom of an office tower, however, tends to have a flow of suited types buying take-outs to drink in their cubicles. Tables stay empty so there’s always a good choice of seats and the people who do sit tend to be other workers holding meetings or working their own keyboards. It’s a corporate atmosphere that keeps nomads focused on their own work.
2. Cozy Corners
For cafes, like D’Espresso, long benches ensure that every inch of wall space is used. The remaining floor space can then be stuffed with square tables, the most efficient way to fill a rectangular room. But that’s not the most comfortable way for digital nomads to work.
Open screens and wide viewing angles mean that it’s possible for anyone sitting behind you to see the project on the screen. There’s no getting around the fact that cafes are public spaces, and therefore inappropriate places to work on truly confidential information, but there’s still a reason that even big offices put walls around cubicles: workers like to have their own space.
In a café, that translates into a design that makes use of corners, interior walls and curved space rather than open areas. Bookshelves and pillars can break lines of vision, and even armchairs can create an impression of enclosure when the worker leans back from the screen.
3. Canteen Service
Digital nomads always work with one eye on the clock. Stay too long and they’ll feel a need to buy another coffee, increasing their expenses. It’s a sense of pressure that increases every time the waitress walks past, glances in their direction and unconsciously reminds them that they’ve been occupying a table on a single latte for almost three hours.
The best solution is canteen-style service. Line up once, collect your drink and the only staff you’ll have to worry about are the ones cleaning the tables. Instead of feeling that it’s time you should be moving, you can enjoy the self-satisfaction that comes from knowing that you haven’t made a mess for them to collect. Canteen-style cafes divide space so that the staff get the bar and the laptop warriors get the floor.
4. Low Music
Music is always a personal choice when it comes to work. For freelance writers, any genre with words can put them off their stride; for designers, a steady beat can keep them focused and their colors vibrant and alive. In a café, though, it’s the manager or the baristas who set the tunes, not the customers, which always leaves open the risk that you’ll get the wrong sounds for the wrong project. Packing headphones can be a solution, especially the expensive, noise-reducing type, but even for them, the music has to be low enough for the earphones to blot out the beats. And sometimes you want a noise level as close as possible to no music at all.
Café staff often like loud music because it takes their mind off the job, but a venue with sounds that drown out speech is one that doesn’t care about its customers. That’s bad for every customer, not just those with laptops. Music should be quiet enough to ignore and low enough to work.
5. Electricity Outlets
This should be a no-brainer: cafes should have at least one electricity outlet for every chair. At least one, because in addition to plugging in your laptop, you might also want to charge your phone. That’s harder for cafes with chairs far from walls, but not impossible. Trailing wires are always a scare but a café that supplements its meager wall sockets with expansion strips shows it cares. A café that forces its customers to stay only as long as their batteries can last says that it doesn’t welcome digital nomads at all.
6. Free Wifi
An Internet connection is, of course, a non-negotiable. It doesn’t have to be superfast but it should be easily accessible (ideally, without having to pass through a splash page or ask a staff member for a password that’s given out to everyone). Although there is something be said for productivity levels when working in cafes that are Internet-free, usually you’re going to want the Web — even if you don’t want it all the time, you’ll want to know it’s there.
The good news is that there’s no shortage of cafes that offer these essential elements. And all of them also sell coffee and food.