One of the great advantages of being location independent is that you can work from home, in your PJs, lounging in bed all day and you don’t even have to brush your hair. Sometimes, you need a bit of a change of scenery, though, you might feel a bit lonely or get cabin fever. But where to go if you don’t have an office you can work from? You have a few options, co-working spaces or working from coffee shops!
For those of you who haven’t been to a co-working space yet, it’s basically a giant open-plan office with sockets, desks and wifi and you can pay a daily/weekly/monthly fee to go there and work. Co-working spaces are great for many reasons: the wifi is usually good, there is often a sense of community so you can meet like-minded people and get shit done.
However, not all cities have co-working spaces (yet!) and sometimes it feels a bit counterproductive to escape the 9-5 of an office cubicle, just to go to a, well, office instead.
That’s when you might want to think about working from coffee shops or cafés (what’s the difference between them, anyway?). Many cities already have a lively working-from-coffee-shops culture, like San Francisco and Chiang Mai, and the trend is growing all over the world. So, why should you work from a café and how do you find a good one to work from?
Here’s the ultimate digital nomad guide to working from coffee shops:
Part One: 5 reasons why working from coffee shops rocks:
There’s coffee (duh!)
Well, that’s where they get their name from, so one would hope there’s halfway decent coffee, right? I’m personally not a coffee drinker, but working from cafés has made me try new interesting and delicious drinks that I otherwise wouldn’t have tried. At ‘Into The Woods’ in Chiang Mai, a fairytale themed café that serves up the most creative and absurd concoctions, I got to enjoy a bubblegum milk!
While it’s fun to work from home, the beach (yeah, right!) or a hotel room, it can get pretty boring and isolating. Finding new and interesting cafés is a great way to explore a new city and to try local food and drinks around the world. I was surprised at how many hipster cafés can be found in places like Malaysia and Vietnam, and they always make for great people watching if you need a break from work. And who doesn’t like homemade yoghurt from a jam jar, right?
In the end, no matter how good the coffee or how hipster-ish the décor, what it comes down to is good wifi. For reasons unknown, many hotels and hostels still have terrible wifi, even more so in so-called first-world countries, than in South East Asia, for example, (I’m looking at you Australia). That’s when you need to find a co-working space, which aren’t always available or affordable, or a café to get some work done. Most cafés now offer free wifi when you buy a drink and many don’t mind you hanging out there all day if you are friendly and order at least a couple of things.
In places like Chiang Mai working from coffee shops is easy as many cafés are springing up that cater directly to digital nomads, offering sockets on every table, 24-hour access and high-speed broadband connections. It’s usually a good idea to do a speed test before committing to staying there all day long.
Think about it, there’s a reason why Chandler and the rest of the Friends gang always hung out at the Central Perk: it’s super comfy. Try working from a sun drenched terrace in the heat of summer in Thailand however, and you might long for the days of a temperature controlled cubicle. Cafés have all the important amenities that we often forget about when dreaming up a digital nomad lifestyle, air-con (or heating), comfy chairs, and access to clean toilets.
The atmosphere in a nice cafe is definitely more fun than a sterile hotel lobby or room and you might even get to meet other digital nomads or locals who are working there. When taking a break you can chat to the staff or people watch, much better than staring at the ceiling in a hotel room.
Now that we know why working from coffee shops is awesome, lets talk about what to look out for in a great coffee shop:
Part Two: What makes a good coffee shop?
The number one thing to look out for is a fast and stable wifi connection, otherwise there’s no point and you’ll just get frustrated after a while, trust me, I have left cafés halfway through my expensive organic grapefruit lemonade because I realised I couldn’t actually get any work done. Remember it’s not café’s fault as their wifi connection is not necessarily aimed at working folks, unless they are a dedicated working café, in which case you could ask them politely to reset the connection if a problem persist, this often helps.
The second most important feature to look out for is access to a socket so you can keep your laptop and other gadgets charged. Try not to string your cables precariously between tables or across the floor so you don’t trip up the staff and other guests.
Affordable and good coffee
Buying drinks multiple times a day can quickly add up, even if each one of them is just a few dollars. So make sure you either switch between your grande-double-salted-caramel-mocca-choco-latte and maybe a cheaper cup of tea. Also make sure you don’t accidentally overdose on caffeine or sugar, as you won’t be able to focus properly for the rest of the day.
Finding a perfectly temperature-controlled café is crucial in hot and humid countries, not only for your comfort but also for your gadgets, as being exposed to high humidity can harm your laptop over the long-term. On the other hand, many cafés or overly air-conditioned, especially in Thailand, so try out a few until you find the perfect fit, like Goldilocks. You should also try different seating areas within the same space, some are closer to the air-con or door and are cooler than others.
Probably not the first thing you think about, but not to be overlooked. Having access to a clean bathroom makes all the difference, I remember working from coffee shops that had filthy bathrooms or you had to trek outside through the heat/rain to get to it, not ideal, especially as you will most likely be leaving most of your possessions in the staff’s or another customer’s care while you’re peeing (more on this below).
Not all café chairs are created equal, some are bog-standard, some have chintzy armchairs, others lounge areas with pillows on the floor, and yet others even have standing desks. Find a comfortable seat that gives you back support and a table that is at the right working height for you, otherwise you’ll soon be suffering from the digital-nomad-shoulder as my yoga teacher in Chiang Mai so charmingly calls it (while crunching my shoulder blades with his knee. Man I miss him).
If you only need to get a couple hours’ work done this is not too important, but if you plan on staying a good part of the day it’s not only polite but also economical to eat your lunch at the coffee shop. It might be a bit more expensive than you’d like but compare it to leaving, eating lunch elsewhere and then returning and buying another drink. Often it’s more affordable to eat a light lunch there. This way you also get to try tons of interesting new food, like this tasty spaghetti at one of my favourite cafés on Koh Phangan.
Not too loud music
Depending on how sensitive you are to outside noise, this can be a deal breaker for many. My boyfriend, Simon, for example can literally blend out any background noise or music; I am much more easily disturbed by it though. I always carry headphones with me to try to listen to my own relaxation and focus music on YouTube, sometimes it does get too much for me though and I have to resort to earplugs, not the most comfortable way to work. As soon as we’re back in Europe I will be investing in a good pair of noise cancelling headphones, which will be a game changer for me.
Actually, this should probably be at the top of the list as friendly staff can add so much to your day. If you’re a regular at a café you can exchange small talk, they know your favourite drinks and will look after your stuff. It’s important to find a café where you feel welcome and know that you can work without feeling like the staff wants to get rid of you. I totally get it, some cafés are just not made for working, but you don’t want to feel like you’re not welcome.
Part 3: Digital Nomad Coffee Shop etiquette:
Always order something
This should go without saying, but let’s start with the basics. You’re hanging out in a café to chill on comfy seats, guzzle up free wifi and to enjoy the atmosphere, so make sure you behave like an actual customer and order stuff. A coffee is fine if you’re only there for an hour or two, but if you’re planning on staying longer you should order something regularly, around every 2-3 hours is good. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive item on the menu; a pot of tea or a water will also do and will keep the cost down.
Don’t take up all the space
We get it, you’re carrying a mobile office around in your backpack, but try not to take up half the café. Only take up one seat and if you’re by yourself don’t sit at a huge table for 4-6 people, but stick to a nice little one so others can be seated and enjoy their drinks and meals too. It’s nice to spread out when there are comfy couches but try to do that only when it’s quiet, not during busy morning rush hour and lunch-time, the staff will thank you for it.
Can I leave my stuff to go to the loo?
Everybody travelling and working by themselves knows the dilemma: after the second coffee (or bubble tea) mother nature calls but you have your laptop and other home office equipment to look after, how do you go to pee? Three options, either ask the staff to keep an eye on your stuff, they are usually more than happy to. Or ask another guest to look after it while you’re away; I’d always pick someone who’s also on a laptop or has a baby (not sure why but I assume when they have a baby they’d have their hands too full to run off with my stuff). In case the staff are busy and there’s nobody trustworthy looking then best take your laptop with you. I always leave my cables etc. to secure my spot and to let the staff know I haven’t run off without paying the bill.
If you have to make a phone or Skype call you should either sit in quiet corner where you won’t disturb anyone or go outside and take the call there. If the wifi doesn’t reach outside at all and you simply must take a call, then at least try to keep your voice down and the call very short (under 5 minutes is polite). Remember you’re at a place of fun and leisure, not an office, so people don’t want to be bored with shop talk and you don’t want to be that douche bag talking stock markets on the phone, do you?
Mix it up
Many Digital Nomads actually work from coffee shops every day, so have I for the last month, in which case it’s always good to find a few you like and mix it up a bit. The staff will be happier not to have you there every single day, and it’ll be more fun to try drink and eat at a few different places and get a change of scenery. I think 3-4 favourite places are ideal.
Don’t hog the wifi
Coffee shops offer wifi to their guests as a convenience and an extra service so they can check emails, scroll through Facebook and message their friends. So be considerate and don’t take up huge bandwidth by streaming or downloading movies. Lunch time comes around and you want to watch an episode of The Mindy Project (I mean, who doesn’t, right?) then make sure you stream it when the café is quiet to watch it later. In general, just do it if you really have to and only during quiet times.
Yep, we get it, you’re a broke bootstrapping freelancer or start-up founder, but I don’t think the staff care too much. You sit around a café for half a day, then be nice and leave a tip (I guess this goes especially for the States where the tipping culture is even more important than anywhere else I’ve been). Leave a few bucks to say thank you and I’m sure they’ll be happy for you to come back again to work.
And that is it, I think. I hope this little guide will help you to go out and find a great little coffee shop to get some work done. There’s nothing weird about it as long as you do it right. Is there anything I forgot that you think I should add?
Please tell me in the comments!