Image courtesy: Friends Coffee House
I use a couple of cafés for freelance work. Both are within a ten-minute bike ride of where I live. Both have seats, tables, coffee and wifi access… and that’s about where the similarities end. One café is on a busy commercial street. It’s mostly empty when I arrive first thing in the morning so there’s always an electricity outlet available. But it doesn’t sell the filter coffee I like so I’m usually done drinking my double espresso ten minutes into my two-hour stay and have to put up with looks from waitresses wondering when I’m going to leave. The rock music the barista plays is irritatingly loud and the only reason it always falls to me to ask him to turn it down is that most of the other patrons are old enough to have trouble hearing. It’s a convenient place to go when I have chores to run but it’s a terrible place to work.
The other café sits opposite a park at the bottom of large office building that houses law firms, a health services company and a local outlet of RedHat. It sells good coffee but at nearly $4 a cup, it’s not cheap. It only has four electricity outlets against one wall and three more in one socket next to the bathrooms so there’s a good chance I’ll be working on battery power. The layout, with a long bar and glass dividers, feels more like an airport waiting room than a relaxing drinking hole but the music is soft enough not to notice and there’s always plenty of people writing Linux on laptops or holding meetings at tables to make me feel like I’m working not hiding in a coffee joint.
So one café is more work-friendly than the other but neither café is perfect and I’ll alternate between them and between enjoying complete days at home. It does make me wonder though what a perfect work-café would look like and where I can find it. It would need good facilities, the right sounds, an atmosphere conducive to getting things done and if it also had a view, that would be nice too.
Some cafes, in various parts of the world, seem to have mastered at least some of those characteristics.
When it comes to facilities, for example, I think you’d have trouble beating the Friends Coffee House in Prague. Not only does it roast its own coffee but it has three main spaces to work in: a library-style lounge good for research and reading; an open plan area with small armchairs and round tables perfect for creating; and a long glass-walled corridor with a fountain that makes for comfortable lunch meetings. Customers can even rent a conference room suitable for 20 people which includes a printer and presentation screen.
The B Cup Café inNew York’s East Village does well too but with a lot less effort. It also has comfortable couches and keeps a small area at the back that’s suitable for writers — or anyone else — who wants to focus on their screen with minimal distractions. It’s not as packed with meeting options as Friends Coffee House but when you’re just looking for a place to hack out a blog post or debug some code, sometimes you don’t need more than a table, a chair and a bit of quiet.
Unless what you’re looking for is music you can work to. In that case, Notes in London’s Covent Garden may be a good solution. The café in the heart of London’s tourist area places such an emphasis on the quality of its coffee that it even sells its beans in London’s markets but the baristas pay just as much attention to the café’s tunes. When the nearby Royal Opera House performed Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the café launched a series of Wagner evenings, accompanying lectures about the operas with German wines. More usually, laptop-carrying customers dropping by during the day will be treated to low-key jazz that’s more likely to keep them on their seats than tap their feet.
Sometimes, though, you don’t want any sounds at all. Forty Weight in New York City is famous for its “law-library” level of silence and the absence of mothers with pushchairs full of screaming babies and noisy chatting — at least until the lunch crowd start to arrive. Funnel Mill in Santa Monica might let customers choose from a wide range of different beans but freelancers hoping for some peace and quiet to go with the classical music and their keyboard clicking can enjoy the café’s no cell phone policy. That’s unusual to find (and you have to assume that it’s difficult to enforce) but considering the tendency of mobile conversation to take place at a volume louder than regular talks and ringtones to be particularly annoying, it’s an attractive policy for freelancers who don’t need to explain anything to clients.
But if part of your productivity depends on having things to see as well having nothing to hear, then Tree Coffeein Naha Harbour, Japan provides one — particularly odd — example. The café, which is accessible from a pair of spiral staircases, sits at the top of an enormous tree. Less unusual is A Cup of Tree in Bangkok, which has a living room style interior with hardwood floors, ceiling-high windows and an arboreal view.
The problem with finding the perfect café to work in, though, despite the examples of drinking holes around the world is that different projects require different atmospheres. Writing tends to demand a quiet ambience and inspiring views; data mining can work best with plenty of music and lots of activity; designers might find that they’re most creative surrounded by modern art and funky hipsters. That’s why it helps to try all of the cafés in your neighborhood, know what sort of work is suitable for each and match your project to the venue.
And for the days when nothing matches, there’s always your kettle, your headphones and the home office.