How to make a cafe your office

Working customers keep cafes full in quiet times, but take up valuable table space when it's busy.
Working customers keep cafes full in quiet times, but take up valuable table space when it's busy. Photo: Shutterstock

 

As a freelance writer with no ties to an office, I consider my ability to work from home a gift. I spend most days in my pyjamas, I have access to my fridge and pantry, I can play on the internet without a boss frowning over my shoulder, and I can do the laundry in my coffee breaks.

Ruby's Diner in Waverley has outstanding coffee and lots of natural light.
Ruby's Diner in Waverley has outstanding coffee and lots of natural light. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

But working from home does have its disadvantages. It is super easy to waste time, I can get distracted with cleaning when I'm supposed to be working, and it is way too tempting to have a little rest on the couch when I really should be working on an article.

Most challenging, however, is the isolation. Entire workdays can go by in which my only contact with another adult is my mother's daily phone call. I sit at the computer in my jamies, my hair matted with neglect, piles of laundry at my feet, a cold coffee in my hand.

And so, to alleviate the tedium and reacquaint myself with the human race, I regularly choose to work out of the house. I occasionally sit in my local library, but I find the quiet a little oppressive and counter-productive. I don't need to get dressed in order to sit in silence at a desk; I can do that more comfortably at home. And, of course, there's no coffee in the library, and I simply can't work without coffee.

Book-filled Gertrude & Alice cafe in Bondi.
Book-filled Gertrude & Alice cafe in Bondi. Photo: Kate Geraghty

And so I tend to take my laptop to cafes, and sit there to work, sometimes for hours at a time. I love the noise, the people, the busyness of a cafe. I love the sense of being out in the world. Inevitably, there are others working at the cafe. Coffee shops have become de facto office spaces for so many of us in this digital age, in which nearly a third of employees work remotely.

Usually I chat to the barista or the wait staff, and sometimes the patrons at the adjoining tables. But even if I don't socialise, I feel connected and alive after the isolation of working at home. I feel human again.

Working in cafes can be a joy. There is the good coffee on tap, a whole menu of food items, and wait staff to serve you. There is generally music playing, and nice pictures on the wall, and interesting people to eavesdrop on and observe.

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Even more significantly, there is frequently free Wi-Fi, which can be a huge drawcard for the less affluent worker.

But working in cafes can pose certain challenges. What to do with your laptop when you need to duck out to the loo? What about the noise? The space constraints? And how much food and drink must you order to keep the wait staff happy?

It's tricky finding an ideal environment in which to work, which is why so many of us become attached to our favourites. I adore my local, hole-in-the-wall cafe, but cannot work there as it is simply too small. I am highly visible sitting at one of the four small tables, and I require a certain anonymity to work comfortably. On the other hand, I cannot work at those long, communal benches favoured by so many large cafes; I hate the idea of passers-by reading my unedited ramblings over my shoulder.

Excelsior Jones in Ashfield is warm in winter and has outdoor seating in summer.
Excelsior Jones in Ashfield is warm in winter and has outdoor seating in summer.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

The ideal home-office cafe table should be small enough to discourage anyone else from sitting with me, but large enough to fit my laptop, my phone, a glass of water, a cup of coffee, and whatever food I have ordered from the menu. The staff should be welcoming, as I need to feel relaxed, but not hovering, as I don't want to feel guilty for sitting on my coffee for an hour. The atmosphere should be buzzy enough to make it worth leaving home, but not so loud or overbearing that it impedes concentration.

And, of course, the coffee should be good. I'm aware that many cafe patrons drink chai or tea or smoothies or cola, but I pity them, and cannot relate. If the coffee isn't quality, I'd rather stay home and nap.

I have an entire routine built around working in cafes. I start by getting seated at the table and arranging my laptop and phone. I avoid sitting too close to parents with small children (the noise factor) and groups of friends (I cannot help but eavesdrop and it distracts me from work). I order my first coffee and get to work. I savour the drink, leaving the last dregs in the cup for as long as possible.

If I'm in the cafe for longer than an hour, I will order some food – a sandwich, a salad, or perhaps soup. At home I inhale my food, but in a cafe I eat at a snail's pace, taking tiny mouthfuls and putting my cutlery down between bites. The aim, of course, is to draw out the meal for as long as possible and avoid working at an empty table. Even in half-empty cafes I am keenly aware that I must pay for the service, and I don't want other customers or the staff to think that I'm taking advantage.

Sadly, many other cafe patrons don't feel the same way. According to Gayle, the manager of the wonderful Three Williams cafe in Redfern, many take advantage of the free table space and Wi-Fi.

"One guy regularly comes in, drinks water, uses the Wi-Fi, then says the friend he's waiting for isn't coming and leaves," she tells me, as I tuck into my (quite spectacular) poached eggs. "Others will plug their computers into the wall and their cables will block the floor, or they'll have a long meeting for two at a table for six so they can spread out with their laptops."

Tucker cafe in Randwick also serves as a pseudo office space for many work-from-home professionals. Co-owner Sam Kern made the decision not to offer Wi-Fi to deter people from staying all day, though she concedes they still bring their dongles.

"Most people do the right thing," she tells me, "but some people sit for hours on one coffee. In quiet periods it's good, because it keeps us full. But if it's a Friday or Saturday morning and someone is taking up a table and I could turn it over and make $200, it bothers me."

I asked Kern how long people usually sit at a table.

"One guy comes in every single day and uses a table as an office for an hour or so. He sits outside, makes a lot of phone calls, and just buys a coffee. Another woman is here from 9am to 2pm at least once or twice a week. She orders coffee and breakfast, then stays for lunch.

Gayle also sees patrons staying for hours, but they don't always pay for their table.

"One man spent four-and-a-half hours here on a single latte. And he brought his own food! He was asked not to eat it."

Most customers behave well, says Kern, but every now and then one oversteps the mark. "Occasionally people come here for meetings and bring their own takeaway coffee or food to the table, and that looks really bad. We pour it into a cup of our own, but we have to be careful." With social media, she explains, people are quick to complain.

Kern and agree that workers can be a double-edged sword for a cafe owner. While they help to keep the cafe full in quiet times, they can take up valuable table space in busy periods.

"People are running a business," Kern tells me. "Overheads are huge. People who sit for hours may not have their favourite cafe to sit in for much longer."

Do's and don'ts of working in cafes

DON'T

BYO food (or, god forbid, takeaway coffee)

Sit at a table for four or six when you are only one or two

Plug your computer into the wall and cause a trip hazard

Sit for hours on a single coffee

DO

Order a meal if you're there for longer than an hour

Chat to your wait staff – that's the joy of being out in public!

Be aware of other patrons and vacate your table quickly in busy periods