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In defence of ‘cafe squatters’

The other day, the Guardian ran an article about how freelancers who work in coffee shops are the worst people in the world. Well, it doesn’t say that in so many words, but the implication is clear: ‘cafe squatters’ are a blight on society; the ‘laptop brigade’ a thorn in our collective side.

Obviously, the article raised my hackles. I’m part of that ‘familiar army of MacBook-clutching freelancers’ and I do set up shop in a café most workdays. In my defence, I normally spend a good £10-£15 on coffee and lunch and more coffee, and would never dream of nursing a single mint tea all afternoon. But I’m undeniably one of the people who, with my headphones in and game face on, is contributing to the apparent ‘mausoleum vibe’.

Now, what annoyed me about this article was not so much that it laid into freelancers. If my more audacious counterparts really are ‘rustling WiFi’ without buying anything, then yes, that’s very poor form. What annoyed me was that it seemed to suggest freelancers should bail out – that we should be exiled back to our bedrooms or dispatched to a ‘creative hub’. Surely, rather than trying to discourage freelancers and students from working there, cafes should be seeking more and better ways to rinse us?

Here’s the thing about freelancing. It’s a great gig, but it can also be lonely, and motivation can lag when you’re stuck at home. I’m writing this, for instance, from my Berlin Airbnb – the same room I sleep in and eat in and pace around in and blankly scroll down comments boards for hours in. When I work here too, I feel rather as though I’m trapped in a submarine. I can concentrate for a little bit, for sure – answer the odd work email, bust out half a paragraph – but it doesn’t take long before I’m sidelined by that patch on the floor that needs sweeping or a pressing need for my 28th cup of tea.

As for creative hubs and hot desks, which the article recommends – well aside from their often exorbitant costs, they simply aren’t right for everyone. To be frank, I’m not fussed about exchanging synergies with the start-up scene or immersing myself in a hip young urban digital community. I just want to get my work done. And this, as far as I can tell, is the primary draw of freelancing – the liberty to come and go as you please, without being tethered to the same location.

Coffee shops, then, are popular for a reason. There’s just the right amount of activity going around you – not so much that you’re distracted, but enough that you feel socially policed. At home alone, I might well stop working for half an hour to, I dunno, learn about the latest Kardashian saga or practice handstands against the wall. In a coffee shop, with people walking past my screen, it’s just me, sitting upright, on Microsoft Word.

The atmosphere is conducive to concentration. Yes, the music is typically middle of the road and soporific, but it’s rarely loud enough that your headphones won’t cancel it out. And while the coffee is universally overpriced, it comes with the tacit acknowledgement that what you’re really paying for is the space.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who feels this way, and I suspect that, despite cafe owners’ best-laid plans, we might be something of an unstoppable force. Students, the self-employed, itinerant workers, even office lackeys who occasionally get to work from home – our numbers are growing, and with that in mind, a ‘digital blackout’ starts to look a bit like spite.

Assuming we freelancers aren’t distracting anyone, cafés need to consider how they can take advantage of this captive demographic. It might mean, for instance, introducing a per hour rate for space, or insisting on a certain spend before they’ll let us sit down. They could charge for WiFi, or be stricter about turfing out the scroungers. And if freelancers truly are killing the mood (which I’m not sure is ever particularly riotous at 3pm on a Tuesday), then they should just stick us in our own designated section, maybe with a ‘mausoleum’ sign.

Am I saying this just because I want to retain my ‘smug workdays fuelled by free internet, siphoned electricity and complimentary cucumber water’? Yep, that’s how I like to kick it, and I don’t why freelancers should be expected to pen themselves away in a hovel. (What is this weird strain of puritanism that insists our working days should be maximally punishing?) But I’m prepared to pay for being there, and rather than denying me entry, I reckon the more enterprising coffee shops ought to work out a way.


Categories: Millennial life anxiety

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Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands

1 reply

  1. It’s totally possible to work out of a cafe and contribute to the vibe. That being said, you have to be conscientious and considerate of others. I find these ground rules to be really helpful in being an asset and not a

    – Buy 1 drink per hour
    – Tip your barista
    – Don’t use chairs for your coat / bag
    – Share a table with another person who is working out of the cafe. if one person hogs a table meant to seat 2-3 it can harm the cafe’s business.

    If you aren’t willing to share space or shell out extra cash, maybe a cafe isn’t the right space for you to work out of!

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