Coffee shops are widely considered social hubs in many communities and neighbourhoods around the world. They exist as places for people to connect and interact over a cup of coffee, alongside the background hum of baristas working behind the bar.
But as connection has become increasingly digital in recent years, how have coffee shops embraced that?
According to technology research company CyberCrew, a staggering 70% of professionals in the UK worked remotely in April 2020. In recent years, remote workers have started to set up for the day in coffee shops.
These can be an affordable alternative to costly co-working spaces, or just a change of scenery to working from home. However, from a coffee shop owner’s perspective, this isn’t always beneficial – as people working from cafés can cut into daily revenue and increase monthly bills.
So, should cafés ban laptops, or can there be a middle ground for both owners and customers? I spoke to two people from Kofra Coffee Roasters to find out.
You may also like our article on the re-emergence of the neighbourhood coffee shop.
Why do people use laptops in coffee shops?
Coffee shops are often renowned for their welcoming and hospitable atmospheres, which help to attract customers and build a base of loyal regulars. However, alongside customers who simply visit to enjoy a cup of coffee, it’s now common to see people working on laptops at any given time in a café.
Matt Harris is the Head Barista at Kofra. He explains how coffee shops have long been acting as coworking spaces for remote workers.
“Coffee shops have always been considered a natural ‘third place’,” he says. “[They provide] a welcoming atmosphere with food, drink, internet access, and a break from the distractions of home.
“Working from home can sometimes be isolating, so being in a coffee shop can provide a welcome connection to society.”
Prior to the pandemic, the number of people working remotely was already steadily on the rise. In the US, the number of people working from home increased by 103% from 2005 to 2017 – most likely due to the increased flexibility.
However, during the pandemic, this went from a growing trend to an essential move to keep most businesses in operation.
According to research from Global Workplace Analytics, 69% of US employees worked from home at the height of lockdown. Since then, surveys have shown that some 82% of US workers want to be remote at least one day per week. It’s evident that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed global working behaviour indelibly.
Remote working can certainly provide more flexibility and other benefits to employees. But the rising number of people working from coffee shops can have an effect on these businesses, and these can go unnoticed by remote workers.
Why are coffee shops banning laptops?
José De León Guzmán is the owner of Kofra, which operates four locations in Norwich, UK. “For seven years, Kofra has not offered wifi,” he tells me.
Matt adds: “Soon after the opening of our Upper St. Giles location, we noticed people walking past the shop without coming in when they saw it was consistently full.
“However, at that time, it was mainly populated with people working on laptops.”
It’s a common belief that a coffee shop full of people typically attracts more customers. The vibrant, bustling energy can indicate that the coffee, food, and service are all high-quality, making it more likely that people will visit and spend money.
However, a café full of remote workers on laptops can create an entirely different atmosphere. Some believe that silence, the tapping of keyboards, and one-way video calls aren’t as inviting as the buzz of conversation – leading some coffee shops to ban laptops altogether.
“It didn’t feel right or fair to turn people away and allow laptop users to have a monopoly over the space,” José explains. “Smaller hospitality businesses rely on the coming and going of customers throughout the day to survive, and the use of coffee shops as workspaces essentially limits this flow of business.”
Although not all remote workers have similar working patterns, it is common for laptop users to sit in coffee shops for hours at a time. Not only are they potentially depriving other paying customers from having tables, but José says it can actually result in financial issues for coffee shop owners.
He adds: “Customers on laptops often spend a maximum of £10 per day, which can have a significant negative impact on small businesses.
“I have spoken to other coffee shop owners who say they are afraid of the potential backlash from customers if they were to implement a laptop ban.”
While laptop bans can result in awkward conversations between customers and baristas, José stresses that the financial benefits are too significant to ignore.
“They have asked me if I have lost customers, but Kofra’s revenue has actually increased annually by around 18% since starting the ban.”
The concept of the “third place”
For centuries, coffee shops have served as vital meeting spaces where people can socialise and connect.
However, José believes that the rise of people using laptops in cafés has altered the classically perceived purpose of coffee shops.
“I think there has been a misinterpretation of which services coffee shops should offer,” he says.
Matt says: “When coffeehouses first came to London in the 1600s, they were vibrant social meeting places where people could trade ideas and connect in an energetic, caffeine-fuelled environment.
“This sits at the heart of what I believe a coffee shop should provide for its community. The use of coffee shops as workspaces restricts this bustling atmosphere.”
In recent years, the term “third place” has often been used to describe coffee shops. The phrase was first defined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place as “the heart of a community’s social vitality”.
Coffee chain Starbucks famously leaned on the third place concept in its business structure and store design, creating coffee shops that invite customers to stay for hours. However, it should be noted that these larger commercial chains typically have more financial power than smaller specialty coffee shops.
This means they are generally more capable of absorbing financial losses than most independent coffee shops – which number around 6,500 in the UK alone.
“Customers on laptops naturally demand fast internet, access to electricity and water, and clean bathrooms, as well as quality coffee and good service,” José explains. “This is then added to the business’ costs.”
But it’s not only for financial reasons that coffee shops, such as Kofra, are implementing blanket bans on laptops.
For coffee businesses focusing on high-quality coffee, food, and customer service, laptops and electronic devices can detract from the desired atmosphere.
“You don’t see anyone sitting with a laptop in a Michelin star restaurant,” José adds.
Reclaiming the social culture
As the population of remote workers increases, some coffee shops are increasingly looking for ways to deter laptop users from working in cafés.
Matt tells me that more than anything else, this improves the atmosphere at Kofra’s locations.
“Introducing this policy has allowed us to better nurture the environment we want and ensure that all our customers enjoy their fair share of time at Kofra,” he says.
José adds: “The atmosphere is more vibrant. People are consuming more mindfully and there are a lot more people reading books at our coffee shops.”
However, making this decision as a business owner isn’t always straightforward. José says that it’s important to make sure your team is on board before making such a significant change.
He says: “Kofra’s staff completely support the laptop ban and are open to explaining to customers why we have it in place.
“Feedback from staff indicates that a lot of customers have never considered the perspective of the businesses when it comes to laptop bans.”
Matt, meanwhile, says: “Community is a core value at Kofra, and we love a noisy, bustling atmosphere where people are chatting, laughing, and enjoying their coffee free of the notion that they are distracting someone from their work.”
What about the backlash?
Laptop users and remote workers have comprised a significant proportion of coffee shop visitors in many parts of the world for some time. As such, you might expect a laptop ban to be met with fierce reprisal from some customers.
Matt explains: “There has been some resistance and upset, particularly from people who have come to rely on coffee shops as a place to work and break their routine.
“We try to be as candid as we can be in conveying our policies, with clear signage at the counter and around the shop, so that customers can make an informed decision before staying.”
José adds: “We have notes on every table at Kofra clearly informing customers that they cannot use laptops. People started to shift their opinions and suddenly, rather than receiving emails from people complaining, we were receiving messages saying people were happy with our decision.”
However, in the wake of more and more coffee shops adopting “anti-laptop” policies, some have started to ask if there is a middle ground. Is there a way for coffee shops to be successful while still catering to laptop users?
“Smaller specialty coffee shops must look to larger chains as an opportunity to consider how we can better cater to people with laptops,” José says. “There is an opportunity, but it’s currently not viable for Kofra.
“All we can do right now is clearly explain to the customer that these are the reasons why we can’t allow laptops in our cafés.”
José concludes by telling me about a potential option he saw when visiting Amsterdam.
“One of the first specialty coffee shops I ever visited gave you a wifi code on the receipt which lasted for 45 minutes [when you bought a drink],” he explains. “If you wanted longer access to wifi, you had to buy something else. Perhaps that’s a model we’ll see more of in the future.”
In recent years, the rise of remote working has meant more people setting up in coffee shops for their day. However, as Matt and José have pointed out, this can cause problems for businesses when these seats would otherwise be occupied by a continuous flow of paying customers.
Choosing to embrace or ban laptops from a coffee shop inevitably has an impact on its atmosphere, for better or for worse. Whether or not it becomes a mainstream trend in the years to come will remain to be seen. For now, all consumers can do is be mindful of coffee shop signage and make sure they regularly purchase beverages to support their favourite third place.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on the third place and how it relates to coffee shops.
Photo credits: Kofra Coffee Roasters
Perfect Daily Grind
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