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In July 2010 Starbucks started to offer free WiFi to everyone in its U.S. stores. A year later, the coffee shop company changed a part of this strategy again, and stores in New York City purposefully began to prevent mobile workers from accessing electrical outlets. It seems that although laptop workers are a staple of almost every coffee shop in the U.S., non-working customers started to complain about having to leave because every table is occupied by an office-less worker.
By Beth Buczynski - Sunday, 28 August 2011

"Customers are asking (for it)…They just purchased a latte and a pastry and there is nowhere to sit down in some of these really high-volume stores," Starbucks spokesman Alan Hilowitz told CNBC. He said the decision is made on a case-by-case basis by individual stores, and to his knowledge is limited to some cafes in New York City.

But what if it spreads? I can almost hear the collective moan from freelancers that depend on these makeshift offices for client meetings and caffeine fixes.

It would be easy to hurl accusations of “profiling” and “offending paying customers” but at least for the coworking community, this passive aggressive tactic could be a blessing in disguise.

For just a moment, let’s imagine that Starbucks customers start to like the fact that seats and tables are freely available. Let’s imagine that employees get used to the idea that they’ll be able to maneuver through the store without annoying freelancers who spread all their papers out and stay for hours on end.

And eventually, every Starbucks in the U.S. starts to put its electrical outlets under lock and key. And it might even spread to coffee shops outside the Starbucks franchise.

This phenomenon could create a huge population of homeless freelancers who are desperate for both power and empowerment. Wifi and high-fives. Clean tables and community. And all the other things members of the coworking community enjoy every day.

The trend toward discouraging “laptop hobos” is an opportunity for coworking spaces to fill a very acute need in the mobile workforce. Instead of feeling at oddswith your local coffee shop, why not form a partnership before things get ugly?

Coworkers should consider introducing themselves and the concept of coworking to coffee shop managers and owners. Leave a few cards or hang a flier. Tell them that if they’re getting overrun with camping freelancers, you’ve got an easy solution. Instead of covering up their outlets, ask them to refer mobile workers to your nearby space.

That way, coffee shops can once again be places where we go for cupcakes and conversation, and freelancers and small business owners can finally work in peace.


Beth Buczynski has been blogging about coworking since 2010. Follow her on Twitter as @gonecoworking or learn more about her coworking adventures on Facebook.

To leave the café and find and book a coworking space near you, visit Deskwanted.

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