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Rules for Working in Cafes

Photography: 2 Dogs

They’ve been called “new Nomadics,” “new Bedouin,” “mobile merchants,” and for the top earners, “the kinetic elite.” But to waitresses and baristas everywhere they — or we, because yes, at Geekpreneur we’re part of the zeitgeist — are simply customers. And not very good ones at that.

We sit in front of our laptops in cafes, chatting on our cell phones, surfing the Web and doing the sort of work that would once have required a fully equipped office. And we do it all for no more than the price of a cup of coffee every couple of hours.

It’s a whole new way of working and one that’s becoming increasingly popular. According to the London Times, Britain alone now has 2.4 million telecommuters, more than double the 0.9 million people who were working on the hoof in 1997.

The benefits of working in cafes are clear for people who need no more than a laptop and an Internet connection to get a job done: they don’t have to stare at the same four walls at home; they can find some of the sociability that’s lost when they wave goodbye to the watercooler; productivity can rise when they’re surrounded by other people focused on their work. And the coffee’s pretty good too.

But they have to do it right. These are the rules we’ve discovered for getting the most out of café-working.

1. Find the Right Café
Cafes work when they have the right atmosphere, and even though every Starbucks might look the same, each outlet has a unique feel. It’s important to find a branch that matches the style of your work.

There’s a difference, for example, between a café near a college filled with students leafing through books, and a coffee bar in an office building packed with lawyers writing briefs or executives holding informal meetings. The latter always makes your own work feel more serious.

And despite the convenience, Starbucks is best for the times when the Web is a distraction. Unless you can hop onto a neighbor’s line, you’ll have to pay for the connection.

2. No Chatting
One of the benefits of leaving the house to do some work is that you’ll see other regulars and maybe even exchange a few words with them. But one of the first things you discover when you work for yourself is just how much time employees waste when their hours aren’t their own.

That’s a trap that café nomads want to avoid. A nod “good morning” is fine. A quick exchange of pleasantries is polite and interesting. But a long conversation about last night’s telly is employee-talk. When you’re your own boss, it’s a no-no.

3. Keep your Privacy
When you sit in the same place every day, there’s a danger that it can feel like home. It isn’t. Even though peeking at other people’s screens is considered bad form, we all do it. A café then isn’t the place to check your bank account online, log in to Paypal or pull up confidential information. Some work is best done on your sofa.

4. Watch the Bandwidth
For the most part, the sort of Internet connection you can find in a café will let you do anything you want, even while dozens of other people are also checking the Web and downloading emails. But if you’re planning to upload your latest feature film to a video site or swap files that weight more than an elephant with a high body mass index then you might want to wait until you get home — especially if you’re using the connection in the office building next door.

If what you do makes it hard for others to do what they want to do, then that’s something best not done in public.

5. Order Regularly or Head Back to the Road
If modern nomadism has a downside, it’s the price. A daily brew might not be as expensive as office rental but it has to be paid and it has to be ordered regularly. On the whole, a cup every couple of hours is a fair rate, although you might be able to string it out longer if the place is empty and your presence makes the café look more inviting. For really crowded times though, hogging a seat for half a day and leaving a couple of bucks won’t win you friends among the workers. It’s why Starbucks don’t provide free Internet.

But watch the gold outflow (when you’re doing this daily, those coffees add up) and the caffeine intake too. The jitters aren’t great for productivity and leaving your laptop on the table while you run to the bathroom is just bad for your nerves.

6. Tip Well
The best way to be sure of a warm welcome is to tip generously. You want people to be happy to see you. In a café, that means paying them.

A good tip won’t just win you a nice smile though. It also means you won’t be bothered if you stick around just a little longer than a couple of hours. It means no one will mind when you ask them to turn down the music or lower the blinds. And best of all, you’ll always get your coffee exactly the way you want it.

[tags] work at cafes [/tags]


  1. Bob Younce at the Writing Journey Says:

    Excellent common-sense advice that too many of my brethren and sistern can't seem to get.

    Good form!

  2. paul Says:

    i would also say that if you are going to work in cafes that you better be very vigilant of security. if you're going to be doing lots of work that is sensitive, i would consider running all traffic thru a proxy of some sort. i've been in cafes just to test how well ppl do with that. let's just say that most folks don't have a clue. it's a big security issue.

  3. Dan Gtdagenda Says:

    Great tips thanks.

    I didn't know why Starbucks doesn't have wireless internet. 🙂

  4. JB Says:

    Tip well. Tip well. Tip well.

    Your renting that space for pennies on the dollar.

  5. Paul Long Says:

    Starbucks owns Seattles Best Coffee, and the latter has free wifi. Go figure. Also, Starbucks is rolling out free (sort of) wifi this year: http://www.starbucks.com/retail/wireless.asp

  6. Ivy Says:

    I always wondered if it was okay to ask someone to "watch my stuff" and then leave my laptop while I go to the washroom. On one hand, I feel like I've established some sort of trusting vibe with the people i've been sitting around for a couple hours in the cafe, I'd like to believe if anyone tries to snatch my mac they'd say something or try to defend it in some way. On the other hand, if this really happened, how confrontational are most people anyway? If I put myself in the other person's shoes how far would i really go to defend the property of someone i don't even know well. Th other issue is when i see someone taking their laptop to the washroom I think to my self WTF?? you've been sitting around me for hours and you don't trust me with your piece of crap laptop? You think you're better than me punk???!! So I don't know, its an interesting issue.

  7. Sheldon Says:

    I dont think any amount of tipping will assist you when you come in to someones work place and ask them to turn the music down or close the blinds, they are more than likely going to think of you as condescending, and rightly so.

  8. dave0995 Says:

    After 20 years in catering, much of which has been customer service related (even though i'm a chef), tipping does matter, if you're a regular will get you certain perks as people in this trade are generally there to be accommodating (more tips) and won't regard people as condescending unless they expect to be served immediately i.e. out of turn or ask for something which will affect the other patrons experience in the establishment. Also in most cultures i have experienced (most of europe, n. america, s. america some indian ocean, australia) tipping, while not expected is certainly used to supplement a minimum wage job. With regards to watching your stuff you should always ask a member of staff to watch your things as well as a person near you as this will give you 2 sets of eyes but never any comeback as all establishments display a disclaimer. The most important thing is to be polite but friendly and you can pretty much get anything you want (again more tips) as long as you see if anyone else minds, it's a respect thing.

  9. the waitress Says:

    I'm a waitress and have worked in a bar, a restaurant and a cafe. All with a system of tipping that means that you get whatever management decides you get, once a month. So really, unless you are putting the money into the pocket of the waitress that retrieved the baby high chair for you promptly, don't tip. If you really must tip however (such as a tip jar) just know your money is more than likley going to management (or being spread unevenly out between staff).

    Frankly I do not give a stuff who sits in the cafe or what they do. As long as they do not get in the way of me cleaning, or worse make even more mess for me to clean. (Pretty much asking for anything from the wait staff that requires them to do work will only lead to fake smiles and unvoiced anger in your direction).

    My suggestion to avoid this would be to leave them alone as much as possible.

    At the end of the day, it's not my cafe, I just work there and if someone came in, sat down & started typing away I wouldn't care, even if there were no seats left for paying customers. My boss might though.

  10. Max Says:

    I suggest that if you work at Starbucks, which now has free wifi, that you use all the bandwidth you want, and buy as little coffee as you want. They're a megacorporation. Take what ever you can get. Be nice to the staff, tip well, but don't feel like you have to buy anything, because the staff isn't paid on commission.

  11. Mich De L Orme Says:

    Ah the joy of a real place to work outside the home, a big dream when the closet thing is a McDonalds. Nothing like 30 screaming children and three of your own to watch while working. 🙂 But at least the coffee is cheap and the web is free.

  12. William Lehman Says:

    Great list. Especially that last one. I am at both ends of the spectrum here. I do a lot of my online work and blogging from the coffee shop and I also work at a coffee shop.

    I might add one more to your list here though. Don't take up a table for six if a table for one works.

  13. Danger Farmer Says:

    Please set your cellphone ringer to vibrate. Nobody in the cafe including me is in the least fascinated by your crappy ringtone. When the call is answered, take it the hell outside if it's going to last more than one (yes, folks, one) damn minute, because nobody wants to listen to your one-sided blather any more than they want to listen to the death rattle of their first born child. As far as "watch my stuff" goes, the patron next to you is as good as anyone. Even if he or she might be feloniously inclined, the preface of "could you help me by..." works wonders. Oh, and if you think you've tipped enough, leave another one spot. Thanks, cheers

  14. Corie Says:

    I have to disagree with "the waitress" on this one. I've been a waitress in quite a few different places. In AZ they only pay 3.13 an hour to waitresses and tips [are supposed to] supplement up to minimum wage, though they are expected to make a lot more. So is not a good idea to skip the tip, ever, that is how most wait staff pay the bills.
    I'm not big on coffee shops, after being a waitress constantly waiting for people to leave so I can clean the table and seat the next customers it feels weird just to sit and internet.

  15. Scot Says:

    I'm a waiter working in New Zealand.

    In NZ the tip is built into a staff member's pay, and patrons are encouraged not to tip in kiwi venues (it's even in the 'welcome' brochures on international flights).

    That said, as a waiter I certainly don't object to receiving a tip. This has only ever happened after weddings though.

    Just an aside.

  16. Kiwi Says:

    I'd like to know where Scott from NZ works because I have worked in NZ hospitality for 20 years and never had a tip built into my pay anywhere. Not to mention the award testes are pitifully low!

    Those shitty welcome brochures saying 'Don't tip' are printed by government officials on $250,000 a year. They are NOT printed by poor f***king waiters on $12ph!

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