For many people, the stereotypical remote employee is someone who either works from home in her pajamas or hauls her laptop to the local coffee shop to complete her daily tasks.

That image isn’t entirely accurate, of course, but for virtual workers who do depend on free Wi-Fi at the corner cafe, change may be coming.

Coffee Shop Conundrum: Cut the Wi-Fi, or Cater to Remote Workers?

Some restaurant owners and managers have decided that they would rather not cater to remote workers. Instead of filling their seats with people who spend hours interacting only with their laptops while ordering a few cups of coffee, they are eliminating Wi-Fi and aiming for more human interaction — and larger purchases — in their cafes.

A recent New York Times article points out that the number of people who spend at least some of their time working remotely continues to grow, and many of them are seeking new places to set up shop for the day. As that happens, large companies, like Starbucks, seem to invite such Wi-Fi-seeking customers, but smaller businesses may face a different financial situation.

“Three hours for five dollars’ worth of coffee is not a model that works,” said David Wynn, co-owner of a small cafe named Triniti, when speaking of the challenge in the Times article.

“Owners face a choice: Get tough and encourage workers to relocate, or embrace them and hope that a combination of guilt and loyalty will inspire them to spend more or leave sooner,” the article says.

Even if owners do “get tough,” some determined customers may find ways to use their restaurants as workspaces. One owner interviewed for the article tried to limit remote workers to a dedicated laptop room in his cafe, but when those seats were all taken one afternoon, “a customer simply retired to another room, tore away the wallpaper to expose a purposely covered electrical outlet, and plugged in.”

Some cafes are changing their designs, creating spaces that are not laptop-friendly, in an attempt to encourage remote workers to move along. Others are trying to find ways to welcome virtual employees, but on a limited basis. 

One restaurant noted in the Times piece allows people to log in for two hours of free Wi-Fi, as long as they provide their email addresses, which go on the cafe’s mailing list. “Servers circulate to ask if they can get something else for a customer tied to his electronic devices,” the article says. “And Wi-Fi service ends at 5:30 p.m., to signal that the workday has ended and dinner service is about to begin.”

Beyond the financial considerations, some cafes are skeptical of remote workers because they’re trying to create a more social vibe. According to a different New York Times article, however, a virtual worker may still be a social person.

“A 2017 thesis by Rose K. Pozos about the ‘urban sociability’ of coffee shops posited that sitting alone with a laptop in a cafe was not necessarily antisocial,” the article says. 

“‘People still chose to go there instead of being alone at home or work,’ wrote Ms. Pozos, who was a student at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., at the time of her thesis. ‘This indicates that there is a social reason for people to go to coffee shops that does not involve direct interaction with others.'”

Regardless of their motivation for working in a restaurant, these remote workers could actually be a financial boon for some businesses. For example, a CNBC article mentions a work-sharing startup called Spacious that is trying to match remote workers with businesses that have empty dining rooms to fill during the day. 

“Spacious members can set up shop — and even give presentations or hold meetings — at participating restaurants, which all offer coffee and Wi-Fi, for a starting fee of $95 a month,” the article says. “The arrangement is mutually beneficial: Remote workers get a quiet working space, while restaurants get potential happy-hour customers — or at least a group of people to help attract early birds.”

It’s likely that, for the time being, some coffee shops and cafes will continue to embrace the laptop-wielding virtual worker, while others will decide not to welcome these forces of flexibility. But if you want to encourage your local eatery to allow remote work, following some simple rules of etiquette may help.

Along those lines, an article from Lifehacker offers these tips:

— Don’t be cheap. Remember that you are taking up space in the cafe. Order a drink every two or three hours, at least, or buy a meal for an even better show of good faith.

— Don’t be annoying. If you spend a long time in a cafe, it may feel like your office, but it’s not. Don’t hold long, loud meetings there, and try not to stay the whole day.

— Don’t be greedy. Try not to use too much of the Wi-Fi bandwidth, and don’t hog all of the electrical outlets, either. Sharing is caring.

— Don’t be loud. Even if the coffee shop is a bustling, noisy place, you shouldn’t add to that. Use headphones to listen to your computer, and take a walk outside when you need to get on a call.

By following these simple guidelines, you can set a good example for your fellow remote workers while you’re parked at a table in your neighborhood coffee shop. That might be the key to securing the blessing of management and ensuring long-term Wi-Fi access for everyone.

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