I’m someone who loves their coffee. This doesn’t in of itself make me unique or interesting, and barely registers as a personality quirk. It’s more a statement of fact. Another statement is that I have the ability to work remotely from my laptop. In this equation x + y = I spend a lot of time working from Chester’s coffee shops.
This all started a few years ago when my wife and I were living in Toronto. Having just moved from the UK on a two year visa, we were more than a little isolated to begin with. Combining the relocation with me working from home, the option of working out of a coffee shop felt like a bit of a lifeline. Suddenly I had a place I could go to enjoy the company of other people, a place I could chat with the baristas, have a regular order, a comfy seat and small semblance of community.
For all the benefits of mobile working, and there are plenty, loneliness can be a real downside. I found a beautiful coffee shop, part of a small Toronto chain, that served gorgeous coffee, didn’t serve food more complicated than a good cake, let you bring your own packed lunch and had a bounty of seating options. I made friends there, and business connections leading to some pretty substantial projects. The longer we were in Toronto the more friends we made, and when we left it was on a bittersweet note.
I never stopped using coffee shops as a workspace, either in Canada or on our return. The atmosphere was too good, the coffee too tasty and the change of scenery from my usual office was too valuable.
Fast forward a couple of years. My wife, Hannah, and I are running our own design agency, ODIStudios, and splitting our working life between our studio space and several Chester coffee shops. A few favourites of ours are Bean & Cole, Flower Cup, The Jaunty Goat, Pic Nic and probably our most frequented, Chalk Coffee. All have their own benefits, characters and cake selections, but the one I really want to talk about is Chalk.
A few notes on Chalk; it’s located in a long, cavernous cellar running under the ancient Chester Rows, giving it the feel of being carved out of the bedrock of the city itself. It’s interior balances the rustic architecture of a Tudor era cellar with the sleek, modernist aesthetic of a high-end studio. The two large windows at front let the light spill in across its smaller tables and elevated window seating. The rear of the space is altogether more subdued, with finely crafted picnic bench-style seating, and warm glowing lighting. Plus it, on occasion, serves some truly mind-bending donuts.
So reliable wifi, great coffee, good food, unique atmosphere. I think we have ourselves a regular workspace.
But not so fast. On a recent trip in we spied a small sign on the rows of picnic benches and other four seater tables. The jist was this. ‘Please no laptops on these tables between the hours of 11am and 3pm’.
It was nearly midday, and all the smaller tables that didn’t carry a ‘no laptop’ sign were occupied. We drank our coffee, had an impromptu meeting instead, and left within twenty minutes, our seats quickly occupied by a young family out for lunch.
So I missed out on my intended few hours of focussed coffee shop work and didn’t get one jot done on my latest design project. I bought a coffee and snack before finding a seat, so ended up, in fact, paying to not do the work I planned on.
As a serial coffee shop laptop warrior, I felt I should have been annoyed at this brutal and undeserved eviction of my kind…but I wasn’t.
This is why. Chalk, like 90% of my favourite haunts, is an independent business striving to do something different and interesting with the tools they have. Something I can relate to. Making a profit is the cornerstone of this ambition, and without a steady flow of transactions, the dream dies. When we, the mobile worker, occupy the table for six, spread out wide and order one small coffee every two hours, that hurts these wonderful places. I’ve spoken to many nine-to-fivers (people with a more healthy and clearly defined work/life balance), and have been told the same story again and again.
“I wanted to get lunch at ‘insert cafe name here’ but every table had a laptop on it, so I gave up and went somewhere else”.
That’s a lost experience for the customer and lost revenue for the shop.
So instead of annoyance and a sense of betrayal at Chalk’s new restriction, I fell down on their side with a thump. Chalk Coffee was completely within their rights to restrict workspace, again only to the big tables and only through the lunch rush. Like any business, their goal is to make money, and I wouldn’t have blamed them if they went further.
So is this the death of the coffee shop office?
In a word no, but it may mark a new stage of the relationship between coffee shop and remote worker. It might be time to start respecting the independent coffee houses, rather than taking them for granted. Here are a few simple rules that I think will help both parties find common ground before battle lines are drawn.
- Occupy the smallest space possible. You work remotely, so you can travel light. Find a single seater, or two person table where possible so larger groups can eat, drink and leave more freely.
- Don’t nurse your drink. It’s a coffee shop. If you’re not buying, you’re taking the place of someone who is. Got the caffeine shakes? Switch to decaf or herbal tea. That’s the price of admission.
- If the shop you’re in is full to bursting and you’ve bought enough coffee, go somewhere else. Go home if you’ve had the touch of human interaction you were craving. Find a chain like Starbucks or Costa. They’re not going to struggle because you take your sweet time with a tall americano. Or even seek out a co-working space. Chester has a couple of fantastic co-working options, including a brand new city-centre community lead space called Co-llective (opening later this year).
I believe the core rule though is to be considerate. Treat the coffee shop how you would like your business to be treated. I’ve always tried to work this way, but I have fallen foul of all of these rules multiple times, occupying valuable space and nursing drinks. But if we can be mindful of these guides, there’s still a productive symbiosis to be achieved between the digital nomads and their caffeine dealers.
Graphics courtesy of ODIStudios.