The Third Space: will WFH steal cafes from communities?

The Third Space: will WFH steal cafes from communities?

By Catherine Franks

I’ve been thinking a lot about cafe spaces recently. We have popped up at the Egg Community in Edinburgh this past week and it has been really interesting to see what a cafe space brings to what was previously a mainly retail one. The vibe changes in subtle yet very real ways. It has gotten me thinking again about our cafe space in North Berwick.

There have been some big changes in the world, in the UK and in our tiny corner of Scotland over the past two years due to the pandemic. It feels like we have all changed as individuals but also I worry about the changes wrought to communities. The ongoing march of technological 'connection' rather than physical has been speeded up with lockdowns and isolation, forcing us online more than ever before. For many in younger age groups a sizeable chunk of their lives have been forced online. 

As a result, it seems to me that physical spaces where humans can meet in person are all the more precious. Yet, despite coming out of lockdown determined to cherish in person connection, are we in danger of destroying our last few spaces that facilitate it? As we turn towards rebuilding 'the economy' will we turn away from the things that aren't essential to survival but make surviving worth while. Music venues, theatres, galleries, libraries have all suffered and continue to do so. But these spaces are the ones, along with the well discussed 'third space' cafes offer, that allow us to come together and be most fully human.

What is our community?

We talk about community a lot at Steampunk. In fact our current podcast series is entirely about that - chatting to different people within our community who we have met through running Steampunk. We ask them what makes a community? Have a listen to our podcast hear some different perspectives.

First, its always helpful to start with a definition:




1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

2. the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.

For me, in curating the space at Steampunk, the second has always been the most important. Yes a group of people could all find themselves in a cafe at the same time and yes they could all love coffee. But nobody would say they are a community. They are customers and the arrangement is transactional. They may well love the space, enjoy its decor, like its music but they are still just customers.

The place

I love that there are a multitude of different cafe spaces in North Berwick. Each one caters to different needs and has its band of local regulars as well as passing visitor trade. One type of space will never cater to everybody’s needs or preferences and nor should it (see my blog In Praise of Specialisation). Even an individual may have different needs on different days and have cafe preferences to match: a lunch and chat with a friend vs a post school hot chocolate trip with kids vs a quiet moment with a book and a coffee. You may find a cafe in which you can do all these things of course but they may not be the best experience for each of these things. So you pick and choose the best space for the best moment.

The attitude

However, a cafe space isn’t the ideal cafe space simply because it sells coffee and is a room that is convenient for your present needs. Likewise we are not a community simply by virtue of happening to live in the same place. There is a ‘condition of sharing’ involved and certainly as far as the ethos of Steampunk is concerned ‘attitudes and interests in common’ too. If I was to sum up what the underpinning attitudes for Steampunk are, they would be: welcoming, sharing and honest. We wish to be inclusive, to create a safe space and a welcoming one for everybody. In doing so there is a balance to be had and a very gentle curation of the space to encourage this balance. One of the things I have always really loved about Steampunk is the variety of customers we get - cyclists and dog walkers rub shoulders with mums with babies and elderly locals sit alongside hip young weekend day-trippers from the city. We have also over the years caused annoyance to people from many of these same groups who felt we did not cater enough to their specific needs (dogs upstairs, high chairs, comfortable chairs, uncomfortable chairs, shabby chairs, vegan and gluten free but not chocolate(!) - the list is endless).

Obviously one key interest we have in common is coffee. We are bound together by our love of really good coffee - one that some would say can verge on obsession. But we all know of coffee shops that make a great cup of coffee but that we nevertheless don’t enjoy visiting. Those ones so obsessed with the coffee or the coolness that they forget the part about being hospitable. From day one we have fought against that at Steampunk and I feel we have now grown a team that very much have this at heart. We care about our customers and each other and I very much hope this comes through and shapes the vibe of our place.

We are interested in offering a space to groups who are not always given space or allowed to feel comfortable in public places. Steampunk is a safe space for everyone and our team are always striving to be inclusive. We host events for young people in particular, knowing there is a real lack of spaces for them in town.

Business approach

We have worked hard at promoting collaboration over competition on the business front. We aim to be an example of how business can be conducted in a different way. We have opened up our space many times over the years for use by other businesses and other groups, sometimes paid but also often unpaid. Our space has been used for everything from casual pizza nights to full restaurant pop ups. We have hosted clothing exchanges and markets, workshops and potluck meals. We welcomed a consultation for the local skatepark and hosted an open house for local businesses to discuss environmental impacts of waste. We have had people come together to make apple crumble or to jump up and down to loud music. We even hosted a speakeasy in full costume! We currently have a record shop popped up in our upstairs space (while we pop up in someone else’s space in Edinburgh). We collaborated with other female Scottish roasters three Christmases running to offer a coffee set roasted and sold across our three businesses. All of these collaborations and rethinking of our space, constantly shifting the way it is used, affects the vibe of Steampunk in untold ways. It makes our building so much more than a commercial space. We have refused countless requests for private hire of the building or for more permanent or invasive commercial uses of the space. Our space is something precious quite apart from its value to us as the home for our roaster and the base of our coffee business. Anything that potentially interferes with either our coffee roasting and shipping or our community focus is a no go.

The New Normal

I’ve noticed recently quite a shift in the use of our cafe space. In the past, with our big area upstairs, we have traditionally had a fair few people in working on their laptops. Cafes do offer a great environment for those who are self employed or work for home as a respite from being alone. The odd patch of time in a cafe, surrounded by the noise and buzz, or to have a meeting, is a welcome change from working alone all day for sure. Recognising this, and wishing to offer space that meets a multitude of needs, in the past we offered a designated work space upstairs with plug points and wifi. During the first lockdown, with the dramatic increase in people WFH, we even set up distanced work pods upstairs.

When we finally reopened our indoor cafe seating last Autumn, after over a year of having no indoor seating, we were delighted to have the buzz of a busy cafe full of chat again. We were also happy to see that due to our reduced seating area, almost nobody came in with laptops. Everyone was so pleased to be able to meet with friends in person again and sit and enjoy a coffee together, being solitary and online was definitely no longer desirable.

Working from Home (in a Cafe)

As time has passed though, we have noticed that the number of people sitting alone on their laptops in the cafe has steadily increased. There are some mornings that every table is taken up by a single person working on a laptop alone. This, of course, is reflective of the huge numbers of people now WFH in our Covid times. But it is worth thinking about how this changes the function and landscape of the cafe space. I recently read a very good article in Perfect Daily Grind about this: Should Coffee Shops Ban Laptops? It is well worth a read.

The crux of the problem is this: one or two workers, surrounded by people chatting and drinking coffee together is still a cafe but a room full of people quietly working on their laptops is an office. Where do we draw the line between the two?

How WFH could be hurting your favourite cafe

We have actually received a bad review from a customer recently who left as they could not get a seat due to the number of folk at tables on their laptops, there are many more who leave without complaint but perhaps do not return? This is obviously a worry for hospitality businesses who have had a pretty rough couple of years already. On the other hand we don’t wish to upset regular customers either. At this point it is worth differentiating between the customer who comes in and has a coffee and for the 20-30 minutes they are drinking it, checks their emails from the customer who sets up their full office desk for 4-5 hours, plugged into the power and wifi, and orders one coffee. Reading this you may think this latter pattern is rare but sadly it is not. And it can have a dramatic effect on revenue.

It is not just the money

How else does working in a cafe affect the space? One of the big draws of any cafe is the vibe I mentioned earlier: the bustle and chat, the sound of the grinder and steam wand, the buzz of connections being made and fun being had. This is so intrinsic to the nature of a cafe, Cameron included these sounds in our podcast edits. By contrast a workspace is hushed, punctuated by the click of keyboards and overseen with frowns of concentration. It is a space of productivity rather than one of connection. In many senses it is the opposite of what a cafe space is about.

Coffee and commerce have been longtime bedfellows and caffeine can definitely be seen as the drug of choice for capitalism. But coffee houses, as well as being the foundation for the modern stock exchange and many a bank, are also spaces where community ties can be strengthened. At Steampunk we very much want to do this latter rather than the former.

Where to now?

Having read that article about laptops in cafes I find that we at Steampunk face a dilemma. Are we at the start of a slippery slope into becoming an office space filled with people WFH? Or can we achieve that balance we have always sought? How do we do it?

A blanket ban on laptops seems like a clumsy instrument to wield. Shutting off the WiFi seems sneaky. There are specialist wifi providers for cafe spaces that shut off after a certain time but users need to hand over their data to access them which is then used for marketing (yuck! Even sneakier and to me totally repellant). Maybe we need to ask people to avoid laptops at certain busy times of day and welcome them when it is quieter - there would be so many difficult conversations for the team daily with this approach. Like goldilocks, we are running through lots of different scenarios in our heads right now, trying to find the one which is just right. But maybe there is not one just right, maybe we will have to settle for good enough. Again, we will fail to please everybody.

One thing I do know though is that our friendly welcoming space is one worth protecting, I hope you agree? I would really welcome your comments and feedback about this! Because comments are switched off on our blog - please leave them on our instagram post signposting this blog post.

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