Coworking spaces in cafés have their origins more in coffeehouse culture than in conventional office structures. To this day, traditional coffeehouses such as those found in Vienna are rooted in cultural tradition—even without Wi-Fi. The St. Oberholz café that I founded together with Koulla Louca in Berlin in 2005 is just such a café. Despite its being a café rooted in tradition, it can claim the honour of having introduced to Germany the concept of working from a café—this time with Wi-Fi—as an acceptable social practice.
Today, there are three St. Oberholz cafés, two of which have adjoining coworking spaces. We see ourselves as akin to the Viennese coffeehouse culture and traditions of the 19th century in that we share the same values: practised openness, voluntary contribution, and informal access. There’s always been the unspoken and generally accepted rule that guests also honour these values, especially the idea of openness and fairness along with moderate consumption. However, It seems that this rule no longer applies.
Guests’ behaviours are changing
We asked other, similar coworking cafés about their experiences and found that sitting in a café for a longer period of time—using the Wi-Fi and electricity on site—is no longer synonymous with the fact that one is also therefore expected to consume products that the café is offering. It’s a phenomenon that’s incrementally eaten away at the fundamental idea of openness, and one that’s not exclusive to coworking environments alone; it’s a problem that almost any café owner today faces—even in spaces that don’t offer free Wi-Fi.
Café owners are tackling the issues in various ways. Some cap Wi-Fi usage or don’t offer it at all, while others ban the use of notebooks, or have even started to close their doors to the general public. Restricted access to members, however, may not be the right answer for cafés that purport to be open where the purpose itself lies in connecting coworking spaces to the outside world.
Remote work on the go, notebook tucked under one arm, may have something to do with the changing behaviour observed in guests. Why does it feel okay for some guests to ask for hot water for their instant soup or bring their own food and drink to a coworking café, but not the sushi bar next door?
Openness is a double-edged sword
A guest is sitting in the café eating a kebab.
Waiter: “You can’t bring your own food and eat it in here.”
Guest: “But you don’t offer kebabs here.”
Waiter: “Please pack up your kebab and order something from our menu.”
Guest: “But if I do that, my kebab will get cold and won’t taste as good anymore.”
Waiter: “Please pack up your kebab and order something from our menu or I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
The guest reluctantly starts to pack up his kebab: “I did buy a coffee here yesterday, you know.”
This kind of behaviour shows that guests feel there is nothing inherently wrong with their actions, which suggests that there is no or little guilt or shame involved. Otherwise guests would be apologetic after being “caught out” instead of arguing with the waiter about why it’s okay to bring one’s own food into a café. But instead, some guests seem to see absolutely no injustice in their behaviour. Psychologists are aware of various ways in which people reduce guilt and shame. One factor is making subconscious amends.
Use of the internet and digital services today is fraught with user insecurity and a lack of transparency about how, where and by whom user data is being used. Anyone with a deeper understanding of the mechanisms at play behind platform capitalism knows that the user, and not the platform itself, is the real product. They also know that their data is seen as a marketable commodity, but just don’t know the dimensions of these transactions. They simply accept this deal in return for the right to use the indispensable platform and its services. It’s a relationship based on mistrust in which users feel that they have no choice. A classic victim’s role.
The problem is that this is where things are misconstrued. Coworking cafés, normally associated with idealistic freedom, are eyed with the same mistrust and suspicion as digital platforms. If café guests are not required to consume anything and instead only consume when they feel like it, the suspicion arises that there must be some sinister hidden agenda. The subconscious assumption is that the openness on offer will surely be traded off against some kind of concealed commercial exploitation. Maybe user data will be sold to big conglomerates, or somebody will steal or copy intellectual property. Reports of an international multi-billion dollar “coworking” brand—which are impossible for outsiders to verify—only serve to confirm existing suspicions and conspiracy theories.
For some guests, then, it seem perfectly normal to buy a beverage in the morning, take three sips and then symbolically leave it on the table as a way of saying “Look, I’m hacking consumerism my way”. The gesture, in their minds, seems to level out the playing field of the game where they are merely pawns. It’s no problem for them to take the moral high ground and sit and work in the café for hours to come without ordering anything. Our subconscious mistrust reminds us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The difference today is that we’re the ones being eaten.
There’s an additional psychological phenomenon at play in people’s changing consumer behaviour. Kurt Lewin states in his writings on person-environment correspondence (demand characteristics) that behaviour is a function of a person and his or her environment, that is, the interaction between object and person and their interdependence. A ball rolling towards a person will cause some people, but not everyone, to interact with the ball.
Apple is the ideal example of how this is best exploited. The company employs psychologists in their design of products that say: “Use me!”
The guest sitting in front of a notebook in the café suggests that the café employs fewer psychologists than the notebook manufacturer. Indeed, the predominant demand of the café itself—that its guests should consume its products—is forced to take a backseat compared to the prized item perched on the table in front of the guest. The scene is symptomatic of the second most important component of reduced consumer willingness: the analogue café doesn’t have a chance in hell compared to the digital devices it allows guests to bring in. Quick, reliable connections make it easy for us to get busy so that we’re too busy to take a bite and enjoy a sip.
The answer is staring you in the face
How can café owners go about changing this omnipresent state of general mistrust and regain their reputation as service businesses that offer real products, but without imposing restrictions or bans which contradict the fundamental principles of coworking?
The answer’s staring you in the face: service. Serving food and drink at tables and understanding and acting upon co-workers’ needs in an unobtrusive way.
Waiters can still perform the role that many waiters before them have embodied for centuries. The relationship between regular customer and waiter is similar to the bond between co-worker and community manager. The community manager and his or her role in a coworking space flows into and is connected to the café as a space; both spaces have their own distinct, yet similar demand characteristics based on moderate consumption. Waiters should, ideally, just like the community manager, connect people and understand and act upon the needs of the guests they are waiting upon. The service they offer should remove obstacles and make the guest’s working day as pleasant as possible. As such, coworking cafés might offer their guests chargers, headphones or pens and paper to facilitate the work that needs to be done (on average, the St. Oberholz sells three Lightning to USB cables per day.)
Coworking can only really flourish with the gastronomy element attached. Guests might get a little shock when they ask for the bill, but this will soon be forgotten, given the smooth and productive day they’ve just had at the café. As long as guests are satisfied with the service and products offered, that’s what they’ll remember—and not how much the bill was.