- As coffee shops reopen, more remote workers are returning for the strong brew and free WiFi.
- Writer Melissa Petro spoke to coffee shop owners and baristas about the etiquette of spending hours at their eateries.
- Kat Möller of Kat’s Coffee says purchasing one item per hour is appreciated from remote workers.
Coffeehouses have always offered remote workers like me a comfortable and caffeinated alternative to our homes and cramped apartments, away from roommates or partners, needy pets, and boisterous kids. Although the pandemic disrupted how many establishments operated, mask mandates have eased, restrictions have lifted, and most states have gone back to business as usual. The coffee is flowing again — and not just to-go.
Before COVID, I was a regular at my local coffee shop, where — for less than $5 a day — I could sit down at the table I’d secretly designated as mine, slap on a pair of headphones, and dig into my work, oblivious to the flow around me.
One year and two vaccine shots later, I eagerly returned to my local coffee shop. But I suddenly felt self-conscious parking myself in one spot and working on my laptop all day. While local businesses are happy to see their customers returning, remote working has risen, and so semi-public space feels at a premium.
If there’s no explicit policy, what’s the etiquette? Am I spending enough money? No matter how much I spend, are they secretly irritated that I’m taking up valuable real estate and tithing their energy each time I plug in my laptop or charge my phone?
To answer these questions and more, I spoke with a handful of current and former baristas, as well as other regulars. If you’re similarly tempted to trade your home office for a table at the local cafe, here’s what you need to know.
At most establishments that primarily serve coffee, remote working is expected — and encouraged.
They’re relatively affordable, there’s WiFi, coffee, and a bathroom: all this — according to the free remote work hub, Remoters — makes coffeeshops a favored location for remote workers.
Amy L., 31, describes herself as “one of those people.” When the literary journal she was interning for lost its office space, the organization began setting up shop and working out of various local coffee shops, sometimes up to six hours at a time.
“Usually the staff at the places didn’t seem to mind but other patrons would get snippy,” said Amy.
“We have people who spend the entire day working on their computers,” said Luka Sanchez, 26, owner of Common Grounds Lounge Cafe in Jefferson Valley, New York.
Sanchez — who has been working in the industry for years — says most coffee shops will welcome anyone for as long as they wish to stay, so long as they buy something.
“Now, for my cafe, I don’t enforce that at all,” Sanchez said. “I love to see people enjoying the space.”
Know that not every establishment that sells coffee is well-suited for remote work.
A strong reliable WiFi connection and plenty of power outlets are a good sign that remote workers are welcome, says Sanchez. You’ll also want to choose a coffee shop with plenty of seating. Otherwise, Sanchez says, be courteous and limit how long you stay.
You can tell a business would prefer that customers not linger if there’s no Wifi or access to the internet is limited. They may post explicit rules restricting how long you are welcome to use the table, or else the business may be inhospitable in other ways. I’ve been in coffee shops that block power outlets. Another coffee shop I used to frequent would turn the lights down and the music up in the early evening, a not-so-subtle signal that it was time to head home.
Get comfortable … but not too comfortable
“Coffee is really important to people, and I enjoyed providing a service,” said former barista Clinton Owner.
Owner, 41, currently works as a science educator in Tuscan, Arizona, but for two years in the mid 2000s he worked behind the bar at Dino’s Cappuccinos, a relaxed, Sopranos-themed espresso bar in the college town of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Dino’s attracted a mix of students and townies, and Owner says lingering customers were part of the culture.
If you want to set up office at a cafe, Owner says, go ahead and make yourself comfortable, “just try to not make the space too much of your own.”
“Some people insist on certain music, or complain it’s too loud or too quiet,” Owner said. “I didn’t appreciate it when one person would complain about something that would impact other customers.”
You’re not the DJ, and this isn’t your living room. Leave your shoes on, keep your belongings close by your side, and choose the right-sized table, Owner says. If you’re by yourself, try sitting at the communal table, or consider sharing your table if it gets busy. Don’t move tables around, Owner says, but if you do — move them back when you’re done.
Be friendly, but respect your barista’s time
When you work at the same coffeehouse day after day it can begin to feel, well, as if you work there. It’s easy to become overly familiar.
“Sometimes regulars come in with an expectation of improved service,” Owner said. “They’re used to coming in and being served quickly.”
Don’t assume, just because you’re a regular, that you’re entitled to better service. You might be used to a little conversation, or “service with a smile.” But according to one study on the coffee industry, faking positive emotions is detrimental to a barista’s physical and mental health.
“Show a little compassion and empathy,” Owner said. “We tend to be working pretty hard — it’s a demanding job. A little bit of patience is helpful. And be respectful that if there’s a line I’m not in the mood to chat.”
Appreciate the products, not just the high speed internet
Meeting and talking to people from all over the world and helping make their vacation memorable is just part of what Katrin Möller loves about running Kat’s Coffee, in Thalpe, Southern Province, Sri Lanka.
“But my most favorite is that moment when a first time guest takes their first sip of coffee and realizes that it’s really good,” said Möller.
The least favorite part of her job? Dealing with digital nomads less interested in the quality espresso, homemade craft sodas, and sandwiches and pastries than the internet speed.
“We have people come in and without even looking at the menu ask us if our WiFi works and is it strong and stable,” Moller said. “It doesn’t feel good, when you put all your energy and love into your product and it is very clear that your product is more or less a nuisance, because they have to order something so they can stay, right?”
Spend a little money
Kat’s Coffee, like many establishments, has no formal or stated policy on how much to spend, but Möller says that purchasing one item per hour is generally appreciated.
“The place you want to work at has bills to pay to stay open and provide that space and atmosphere that helps you work,” said Möller. “And the way you can help them stay open is by ordering from their menu.”
Sanchez agrees. “While I don’t mind people enjoying the cafe atmosphere, I also need to run my business and livelihood,” he said.
If you can’t afford to order something, or just don’t want to, there are alternatives to a coffeehouse: public libraries, bookstores and parks, to name a few. If you don’t want to return to your home office, consider coffee shops a welcoming environment, as long as you’re a considerate customer.