6 rules of coffee shop etiquette

Coffee shops and cafes have long been the havens of sanity and space for those of us independent businesses who eschew the office environment, whatever we choose to call ourselves. When the corporate world closed its doors and hid behind its security gates, where else where else could we go?

Well there’s home as an office.  It seems like the perfect location to get real ‘work’ done, doesn’t it?  As a freelancer, you are truly your own boss in your home environment. You can wear what you like and be in control of your own hours.  But in reality, home is not where you get to hang with your team of associates or be at your creative and productive best. Well, for most of us, at any rate. 

The alternative for many is the coffee shop, whether that’s the chain or your local independent.  There’s something about the background buzz and conversations, the diversity of the clientele and yes, the free wifi, not to mention the coffee that have helped put coffee shops at the heart of the digital nomad’s working ecosystem.

But that might be about to change.  In the US, some coffee shops – both independent and the larger chains, are starting to ban access to their wifi for periods, or insist on a no laptop policy.  Some are even covering up their power outlets so that when the laptop battery dies you have to move on.

Hard pressed coffee shop owners complain that our new working patterns mean that they can barely cover their costs because of the ‘laptop hobos’ who hog entire tables with their mobile office paraphernalia and all for the price of one latte.  You can sort of see their point. 

But isn’t this just a case of agreeing the ground rules?  Of course we all know the type who arrives and arranges the entirety of their laptop contents around them across several tables and chairs and who has perfected ‘the look’ that says ‘this is my territory’.  These people ruin it for all of us. 

We are in a new world here where we are writing the update to the rules of engagement.  It’s got a lot to do with balance.  In this case, we need coffee shops and coffee shops need us.  Ying and Yang.

It’s not just coffee shops. We’ve seen two experiments in open working collaboration here in London kyboshed because a few people can’t seem to behave in that balanced way, without a rule book.  At one of these open spaces, the manager told me that a group of suit wearing business people would frequently just use the space (and the free refreshments) as additional free meeting room space, largely crowding out the ad hoc collaboration that it was designed for.  They soon closed their space to the general public and we all lost out.

Maybe we need to agree some basic guidelines that help everyone make the most of this new working ecosystem. Here’s our starter list, but perhaps you can add some of your own ideas in the comments section below. Feel free to disagree too because we’re all finding our way.

1.     Don’t overstay your welcome.

There should be a straightforward value exchange in a coffee shop or restaurant. You get free wifi and company for the price of a coffee.  If you want to sit there for hours on end, then buy stuff.  Otherwise you are stopping the owners from making a decent living and, if it’s an independent coffee shop it might go bust and then you’ll have nowhere to go. 

2.     Clean up after yourself

This is just plain courtesy. If you are hanging out all day in a space, you will almost certainly have empty cups and food packaging.  Take it with you. Put it in the dishwasher. Tidy up.  This is especially important when you are using open spaces like libraries.

3.     Support fellow independents

If at all possible try and support independent coffee shops and restaurants, and remember that like you, they are competing with big businesses.  So remember number one, and buy more coffee!

4.     Keep conference calls and skype for another environment

It’s one thing coming to a coffee shop for the buzz, but it’s another thing entirely to subject the whole shop to your personal and professional conversations.  Do it somewhere else. Not least because it can’t sound that professional to your client!

5.     Don’t stick your headphones in your ears.

The whole point of being in an open space with others around you is to enjoy the company of other people and the buzz of energy and activity.  So don’t then drown it out with your headphones.  If it bothers you, go home.

6.     Stick to one table

Don’t compound the length of your stay by spreading out across the double table. You don’t own the place; so don’t behave like you do.  People should feel welcome to take the seat next to you with their meal and/or coffee. 

People are different and as you work alongside others in open spaces, you observe the full diversity of life.  It’s one of the amazing things that come with being part of the independent workforce.  What sets us apart is that we are all individuals, but connected by our approach to life and work.  Cafes, coffee shops and eateries are where all this comes together. 










Who is Alex Butler

Hello, I'm Alex Butler and I founded the KindredHQ community and blog back in 2011 after I re-started a freelance career. I LOVE freelancing and I wouldn't swop the freedom, control and joy of working for myself for anything. But I realised how much I missed the company and energy of other people - of having a team around me. So, I got a few people together one day with our laptops, a jar of coffee and some jelly babies and we sat and worked together one afternoon. We've been doing that every week in London, UK since then! I am still 100% freelance and I like to share the everyday highs and lows of being a freelancer here on the blog.

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