The room is nearly full at Bordertown Coffee in Dinkytown, a Minneapolis neighborhood within walking distance of the University of Minnesota campus. Some tables are taken up by groups of two or three chatting over empty plates and lattes. But many have a single person, typing on a laptop amid clanging dishes, hushed conversations and indie rock music.
Madeline Friske, a senior at Minnesota, stopped in at 9:45 one recent morning to chip away at her thesis. She’s among a growing group of laptop workers who spend hours capitalizing on free Wi-Fi, taking up space and nursing single drink orders at neighborhood java joints.
Laptop squatters are an obstacle for some coffee shop proprietors who want to balance hospitality with profitability. Other retailers embrace a policy that encourages patrons to stay as long as they want – within reason. Their approaches include timed password access and limited access during peak hours.
A 2010 survey by WorldatWork, a global human resources association, found that 34 percent of U.S. respondents reported working out of a café or restaurant in the previous month, compared with 23 percent in 2008.
Coffeehouse conflicts are the inevitable result of many company’s moves toward more flexible work practices, according to Lisa Leslie, an assistant professor of work and organizations at the university’s Carlson School of Management.
The flexibility is good for workers’ attitude toward their job, so they report higher levels of satisfaction ... and there is some evidence to suggest it also helps them be more productive when they are able to have more control of how they structure their workday, Leslie said.
Students also appreciate the coffeehouse environment.
I can’t study at home, because I get really distracted at home or I find other things to do, said Friske, who studies out of coffee shops about four times a week. But at coffee shops, there’s enough going on that you’re focused on your work – but it’s not like a library that it’s silent.
Coffee shops vary in their responses. At Coffee BenÚ near the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, customers get a Wi-Fi password good for two hours when they buy a drink, said manager Kellie Langworthy. The password is renewed with each new purchase.
Common Roots Cafe in south Minneapolis turns off Internet access during peak hours, from 6 to 8 p.m. daily plus from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends. For owner Danny Schwartzman, it’s about balancing the café’s restaurant and coffee businesses.
We want to walk a fine line. We never want to scare customers away, but at the same time, people are generally pretty understanding of, well, we do serve coffee and some people treat it like a coffee shop, Schwartzman said. In the middle of dinner at a restaurant is probably not the best time for them to take over for a couple hours.
The Minneapolis-based Dunn Bros. chain considers laptop users when designing new locations, installing dedicated spaces where squatters can work and charge their computers without taking up tables meant for larger groups.
Friske often buys just one item and settles in for about four hours at a time. She said she sees the coffee shop owner’s side of things – sort of.
If it’s full, I can understand you should maybe give up your spot, if you’re not ordering anything, but I think if you’re here for a few hours and you order something, I think you have the right to use the Internet.