There’s something about the typical coffee shop atmosphere that appeals to many of us remote workers. I’ve been working remotely for 13 years now, and whether it’s a consequence of my personality, my degree of hunched-over-laptop burnout, or the two toddlers who now scamper around our home all day, I’m no longer able to achieve much productivity working from my own home.
So I’ve spent, quite literally, thousands of hours in coffee shops (hunched over my laptop), over the last several years. In that time, between spurts of productivity (which I do still have from time to time), I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about footprints. About my own, as I consume coffee and the various other resources afforded by the modern coffee shop experience. And about those of my contemporaries, some of whom seem to rarely if ever contemplate the state of their own footprints.
We each leave all kinds of footprints as we navigate society. Environmental. Physical. Economic. Social.
What’s a social footprint? Consider an example: you’re in a small-ish, quiet-ish coffee shop, alongside a number of other people who are being relatively quiet, either head-down working, or having a quiet conversation. In stomps a trio of loud dudes, carrying on the conversation they’d obviously begun earlier, laughing loudly and un-self-consciously. After walking through the door, they look around the room, spying all the quiet patrons, assessing the room… then immediately continue their loud conversation and braying laughter.
You may or may not consider this behavior intrusive, or boorish, or self-absorbed. You may or may not find this inappropriate for a coffee shop setting. But my point is that these fellows failed to instinctively assess their social footprint upon entering the new environment, and failed to subsequently calibrate their own behavior in an effort to minimize their overall social footprint. Their presence, and their behavior, changed the nature and the ambience of the entire room, even if only slightly. And after seemingly observing the nature of this footprint, they chose not to make an effort to re-calibrate, based on the new environment.
Not that they necessarily should have. Just an observation.
This doesn’t mean you, dear coffee shop denizen, should disappear, or feel like you don’t have as much right as the next person to exist, to take up space, or to leave any sort of footprint whatsoever. But it’s my observation that every kind of behavior that you and I might see as boorish, crass, or obnoxious, or imposing, almost always stems from somebody’s failure to stay in touch with their own social footprint.
Like it or not, coffee shop space is generally designed as a gathering space, for people to connect with each other, and socialize within certain social boundaries. What/where are those boundaries? Hard to say, and the answer certainly varies from one venue to the next, but most would agree that it generally falls in between that of a library and of a bar. When we bring our laptop and spread out our work paraphernalia, we are the ones using the space in a way that deviates (if only slightly) from its original intention.
Therefore, we, as coffee shop remote workers, have an even greater responsibility to continually assess and calibrate our overall footprint. If you’re the type of person who’s impervious to the social pushback you might expect when you’re not monitoring your footprint, and/or you just don’t care, and/or you’re immovably convinced of your own virtuous contribution in this arena, then consider this: Many of us rely on coffee shops to get work done. If you’re being an asshat in a coffee shop, then your contribution is a net negative, and you’re validating the stereotypes that generate resentment toward all of us. There are good reasons many people resent us. Putting a bit of thought into your overall footprint is one of those good-karma things to do.
Coffee shops are places of business. They’re not public spaces that you have an inherent right to occupy. Consider that a 4-hr work session on a $2 cup of coffee is a loser for them. Don’t be a net taker. Be a net contributor. Buy a coffee. Buy food. Buy whatever, but to the degree where you’re making a net positive contribution.
Are you using electricity? Are you taking up a large, otherwise-profitable table for four? Tip well, commensurate with both your overall economic well-being and the resources you’re consuming while there.
And remember that your economic footprint can vary wildly over the course of the day, the week, the month. Are you occupying valuable space during lunch or dinner time, and/or on a holiday? Look around — are *all* the space’s tables occupied, while you’re coasting on a $2 cup of coffee?
Are you gulping electricity and bandwidth? You think that’s priced into the margin of that $2 cup of coffee?
While most of us probably recognize this, it’s easy to forget that the economic burden you impose is far greater for a mom-and-pop coffeeshop than it is on Starbucks, or some other publicly-owned chain. Does the space seem to be designed to encourage longer stays? Multiple power outlets in plain sight? Smaller tables? Wifi login credentials prominently displayed? Then have at it. Otherwise, calibrate your footprint, minimize your stay, and move on to find a more optimal workspace (Starbucks down the road).
You really only need about six square feet of space to be productive. If you need more than that, go rent an office, or find a coworking space. Don’t spread your gear out across ten square feet, forcing other patrons to navigate past your backpack, power cords, dual monitors, etc.
Always try to occupy the most inconvenient table space, with the smallest available table, and the fewest chairs. If you must occupy a large-ish table, orient your footprint to maximize the perception that other patrons are welcome to share your space.
Stop convincing yourself that your mere presence alone reflects a net gain for the coffeeshop. Yes, empty tables are bad, but if they lose a lunch group of four because you’re occupying the last available table-for-four, that’s a tangible, visible, irritating net loss for the proprietor. Stop convincing yourself of your own inherent virtue. Take stock. Assess. Don’t be a dick.
Don’t use a second chair for your backpack or other stuff, if you don’t need to. Consider the optics of your presence; sometimes your physical footprint as perceived by others is much larger than you may realize.
Try to always be as warm as possible to the people around you. This is hard for some of us (myself, included). But remember that one of a coffee shop’s most valuable assets is its atmosphere. A warm, welcoming, socially receptive atmosphere is the gold standard for these kinds of spaces. When your contribution is comprised of nothing more than the social barriers imposed by headphones, frowns, minimal eye contact, and negative body language, then this contribution is inarguably a net negative.
I understand the trade-offs, the tension between productivity and social connectivity. You don’t have to sacrifice all your productivity. I’m just suggesting that you develop an awareness of your social footprint, and you make an effort to continually calibrate it, as much as is practical.
Clean up your table when you leave — leave it tidier than when you arrived. Clean up your crumbs. Re-arrange the chairs. Ideally, do so when the baristas and staff might see you doing it. Leave a good impression on behalf of coffee shop remote workers everywhere.
And don’t even think about pushing negativity out at families with young kids, who may be noisy and intrusive, and who may impact your productivity. Kids are constantly learning how to calibrate their own social footprints as they navigate the world — it’s the big learning curve of toddler-hood. They have as much of a moral claim to use public space like coffee shops (and restaurants, etc.), if not more so, than you do.
Coffee shops are vibrant spaces, sometimes noisy, sometimes not. Assess your own contribution. An animated conversation between the three patrons at the table next to you, while perhaps contributing more overall noise than your own private cell phone conversation, can very well be a net positive contribution to the overall atmosphere of the space you’re sharing. Consider that as you navigate your work-day. Can you take your short cell phone calls outside? Will your upcoming videoconference require that you do most of the talking, to a distant, noisy conference room, where you might continually be using a louder and louder voice?
Don’t play music or video without headphones. Set your phone to vibrate. Don’t take calls from your hard-of-hearing uncle at the nursing home.
Don’t complain about the volume of the muzak. You’re not at the library (but if the muzak is too loud for your taste, maybe you should be).
Electricity is a shared resource. For the love of all things holy, don’t hog the power outlets. You don’t need to keep your laptop, your phone, your spare battery (and anything else you can think of) plugged in at all times. Nobody’s asked you to share the outlets? That doesn’t mean you’re welcome to occupy them for hours at a time. Use your laptop’s battery for an hour or two, here and there. Plug your phone into your laptop to charge it (instead of taking up two power outlets). Do not acquire the lazy mindset of first-come-first-served. Use as little of this resource as you (legitimately) need to, in order to have a productive work session. No more.
Bandwidth is also a shared resource. Be especially conscious of this when the pipe available to you is small. Do you have to watch Netflix on your iPad while working on your laptop? Do you have to use video on today’s Zoom conference call? Could you download those large files at another time? Could you throttle Dropbox, Google Drive syncing, or other background throughput-gulping services?
Don’t believe in the climate crisis? Whatever. But, surely you can see the virtue in minimizing waste of all kinds? Don’t waste napkins or throw-away packaging. Bring your own coffee mug and/or water bottle.
Outdoor seating? Please don’t smoke.
Assessing your overall footprint in the world at large is what any good, conscientious, self-aware human being tries to do on a regular basis. Nothing more, nothing less.