All Those People with Laptops in Coffee Shops Explained
For a growing number of workers, coffee shops serve as makeshift offices, boardrooms and meeting spaces
Illustration by Marie Mainguy
Walk into almost any caf in the city on a weekday from 9 to 5 and you’ll see a similar scene: a half-dozen or so people sitting by themselves with their laptops open and earbuds in place, with the rest of the tables occupied by small groups of people in business-casual attire, sitting up straight and speaking in slightly formal tones.
These people aren’t meeting with friends or taking a break from their day to reflect over a latte and an artisanal scone – they’re at work. And this, the coffee shop, is their makeshift office.
Cafs have long been popular (and pretty clichd) venues for writers to work from – tales of Ernest Hemingway frequenting Paris coffeehouses have prompted many an aspiring young novelist to set out to Europe in search of inspiration. But the modern coffee shop office is less about literary romanticism and more about practicality, and the phenomenon of working in a public space has extended beyond writers of fiction to other forms of freelance writing (copywriting, journalism, blogging), as well as other occupations that require endless hours at a computer.
Beyond that, you’ll also find contractors and sole proprietors in industries ranging from real estate to personal coaching using public cafs as a place to do private business.
Why aren’t these professionals taking the more traditional route of leasing a small office space or, in the case of the laptoppers, simply working from home? The answers vary from person to person.
As a writer, I can attest that working from my kitchen table offers the quiet often needed to bang out an article, but, as someone who works in the business of telling stories, the temptation to get out in the world and interact with actual people is strong. Having a reason to change out of pyjamas and get out of the house can buoy a freelancer’s spirits and help get the creative juices flowing.
“I like having people around; I like the noise, I like seeing people,” says AJ Demers, a local playwright/screenwriter/improviser who likes to hop between Phil & Sebastian in Marda Loop, Analog Caf on 17th Avenue and Gravity Caf in Inglewood. “It can be really lonely and isolating when you’re just sitting at home working all of the time.”
For a creative type, making a public appearance and mooching a coffeehouse’s free Wi-Fi isn’t just a way to stay sane – it can also provide fodder for novels, graphic design ideas or, in Demers’ case, screenplays. After all, you can’t write about people if you don’t spend time with them.
“As a writer, I sometimes like to eavesdrop,” Demers says. “I’ll sit with my book and eavesdrop and write notes, and those conversations will show up in my work. Professionally, I spend a lot of my time talking with the same people, so I don’t get that kind of variety unless I seek it out.”
On the flipside, there are those who use public spaces to meet with specific people: clients, interview subjects or other colleagues. Sometimes, the coffee shop is chosen as an alternate venue to a stuffy corporate office or boardroom; other times, it’s a default venue for two parties who both work out of home offices and don’t have an appropriate venue to meet. Either way, meeting in public can have its pros and cons, depending on the nature of the meeting.
“I always take into consideration whether or not the space allows for the freedom of conversation,” says Dianne Quinton, a professional coach with The Optimal You, who often meets with clients in coffee shops. “You need to be somewhere where you can actually hear and understand what the person is saying. And, from a coaching perspective, if we are going to meet in public, I don’t want our meeting place to interfere with the client’s ability to speak freely.”
This is where choosing the right coffeehouse is important. Most Starbucks locations or a place like the roomy Gravity Caf in Inglewood usually have enough free table space to accommodate meetings of several people and are quiet enough for everyone to hear each other, though that means the people at the table next to you can likely hear every word of your meeting, which can be tricky when discussing confidential business. Busier cafs like Analog are harder to snag a seat in, but the buzz of the music, espresso machine and packed-in customers make it harder for strangers to eavesdrop (though it can make listening back to any interview recordings a challenge).
Working out of a caf can clearly be beneficial to patrons, but what about the other people working out of these establishments, i.e., the staff and owners? Is there an unwritten rule as to how many cups of coffee you should be buying if you’re sitting there typing away for two or three hours? Is it okay to sit in a single location for an entire day, or should you move on to another caf if you have to meet with several different clients?
The answers depend on where you’re squatting and what kind of business you’re up to.
“In the two years that we’ve been open, I’ve never asked anyone to leave or gotten annoyed with anybody for being there too long,” says Gravity Caf owner Andy Fennell, who acknowledges that much of his weekday business is made up of people working in his caf, including people who have actual offices in the same building.
“There have been a couple of occasions where I’ve asked people to move around a little bit or share tables, but they’ve always been happy to.”
Don Cline, general manager of the Fratello Coffee Co., which owns Analog Caf, agrees that keeping his caf busy and buzzing is good for business, but he has also seen customers cross the line.
While Analog welcomes customers who arrive laptop in hand or who pop in for meetings, Cline has had to put the kibosh on what he calls the “boondockers” – business people who eschew traditional office spaces and basically work out of the caf full-time to meet clients and even solicit other caf customers. Working off of your laptop for an hour or two for a change of scenery is A-okay. Being too cheap to rent an office to run a full-fledged business is not.
“The boondocking guys come in here and they sit, whether they’re realtors or other salespeople, and, rather than leasing a place down the street, they think they can work here for free,” Cline says. “And those are the ones we stop. All of us have to pay more per square foot because landlords have a hard time renting out office spaces because people are camping
in these free zones.”
As long as you’re not being a jerk about it, you’re likely welcome to do some work from your favourite caf, but, social benefits aside, it’s debatable as to whether it’s a productive way to work. Setting up shop in a caf may give you networking opportunities (especially if you’re strategic about where and when you show up), but it also may distract you from accomplishing much actual work.
Laura Watson, a business coach with Venture Coaching, says the efficiency of working this way is completely dependent on an individual’s personality and each person needs to do some careful self-examination to determine if they’re doing themselves any favours by choosing to work in a public space.
“From a concentration perspective, being an extrovert versus an introvert makes a difference,” Watson says. “For example, I’m an introvert. If I were just sitting on my laptop doing work in a coffee shop, I would find that challenging because I need quiet. But, for extroverts who do have home-based businesses, I do suggest they get out because they feed off the energy of other people.”
Of course, coffee shops aren’t the only public space that freelancers and “solopreneurs,” as Watson calls them, like to work. They can be found working in and around just about any public place equipped with free Wi-Fi, including restaurants, parks and fitness facilities (bonus points if it’s a gym with cheap babysitting). The trick is to figure out exactly what you’re looking for and find a place that meets those needs. And, at the very least, order enough coffee to pay your keep.