A laptop, Wi-Fi and a cup of coffee

This week, In Jerusalem has decided to explore the laptop café worker phenomenon.

Deena Levenstein (left) gets ready to tap away on her laptop in Tmol Shilshom’s new hub (photo credit: OSHER SHNEOR BLOCH)
Deena Levenstein (left) gets ready to tap away on her laptop in Tmol Shilshom’s new hub
(photo credit: OSHER SHNEOR BLOCH)
For many workers and students, the neighborhood café is a distraction-free oasis of quiet. You order coffee, open the laptop, and you’re set. Others, feeling isolated in their home offices, seek a change of scenery, or to be in the company of like-minded people.
This week, In Jerusalem has decided to explore the laptop café worker phenomenon.
Observing two young women who appear to be combining lunch with a lively work meeting, I wait until their attention turns from their monitors to their salads and coffee. They ask not to publish their names, as they are both psychologists at a local mental health clinic, but obligingly give their reasons for lunching over their keyboards at a local branch of a popular café chain.
“There’s simply no place to talk issues over with my colleague at the clinic,” explains one.
The other nods. “No private space, no room,” she says.
“I suppose we have a fantasy of getting more, or better work done here. But it’s good to get out of the clinic atmosphere and sit someplace more relaxed. And we both live in other towns, so it’s practical to lunch together someplace close to the clinic once a week.”
Eitan, a wild-haired young man with a laptop and textbooks on his table, is also willing to talk. A student of philosophy and history, he says that the apartment he shares with three other students is never quiet. “Too many distractions.”
Is he comfortable occupying a table for a couple of hours with only one coffee? “Sometimes I order another coffee,” he says with a shy smile. “They’re nice about letting me sit here for even three hours. I do move around to other cafés sometimes, so as not to overstay my welcome.”
I look over at the farthest corner, where a middle- aged man with a cross face and earphones on is talking irritably at his monitor. He seems to be Skyping and typing and not liking it much. He’s been there quite some time, says Eitan. A soiled plate shows that he lunched at some point during his session at Café Hillel. I decide not to attempt an interview, but wonder what has brought him there. He looks like a typical middle-range company manager with an office to go to. Is his office out of town, I wonder, or is he simply taking a day away from his cubicle? AT ANOTHER café, Hadass, a stylishly dressed young woman with a head covering, looks up from her notebook.
“I’m studying economy and accounting,” she tells me. “My kids are in kindergarten, and I have the house to myself in the mornings, but I need to get away from the laundry and the cooking or I won’t get anything done.” Her glance flickers back to the laptop monitor.
“I don’t have a choice but to sit in cafés,” says Advah, a social worker. “I work for an organization dealing with youth at risk that has branches all over the country.
I interview people in different towns every day.
Often I’ll spend my entire work day in one café. I only need that it be kosher. Nobody hassles me, probably because the management sees that every little while, someone else comes in, sits down with me, and orders something. I often buy lunch in the café of the day, too. And the funny thing is, I don’t especially like it.
It’s just something I have to do.”
Every person I interview says they feel morally obligated to buy at least a cup of coffee when they’re working at a café, to justify the place they’re holding down.
On that note, Deena Levenstein, a Jerusalem-based writer and founder of the Facebook group “Things to do in Jerusalem,” says, “I’ve been 100-percent freelance for the past eight months, and I love it. But I get depressed, less productive when I’m always at home.
I’m always thinking of where to work. But I’m also uncomfortable sitting for hours in a café without the management’s explicit okay.”
Levenstein approached David Ehrlich, owner of Jerusalem café Tmol Shilshom, and received permission not only to work there on a regular basis, but to announce to her Facebook group that laptop workers may consider one of the rooms there a hub.
“More and more people are working out of cafés and hubs these days,” explains Ehrlich. “We’re not a Viennese coffee house of 100 years ago. We’re in Jerusalem, 2015, and it feels right to accommodate these customers.
I think it’ll be good for business.”
There are a number of work hubs in Jerusalem, each with a distinct character. One is open only to women; one allows only professionals from the world of website development and design. Some are free, some charge. But the café atmosphere is seductive, friendlier, with coffee served at your table and the possibility of ordering a meal if you wish. And there are no house rules to observe, except those of common courtesy.
Encouraged by her success with Tmol Shilshom, Levenstein is now negotiating with two other Jerusalem cafés.
WHAT DO café managers say about the laptop workers? Although two have said they’re welcome, another has made it clear that unless each person spends a minimum of NIS 25, they will be asked to leave.
Freelance workers on Facebook debate the issue of expense; although many would like to work at a café regularly, once a week or every two weeks is as often as they can afford it. Some propose that friendly cafés provide a simplified, inexpensive menu especially for the laptop crowd, and others argue that they can’t presume on the host’s livelihood. One person has even suggested being allowed to bring her own food. All choose to work during slow business hours and leave when the place starts to fill up.
Ilana Gutman, a Jerusalem-based web developer and administrator of the Facebook group “Freelancer Networking in Israel,” has posted a list of ideal café conditions: “Square, not round tables; strong Wi-Fi; plenty of electrical outlets and good music and/or vibe.”
In a phone interview, she adds, “Sometimes it’s convenient to work outside the house, like when I have a few hours’ gap between errands and picking my kids up at school. Another reason I sometimes work in a hub or café is to keep in touch with other professionals. You make fruitful connections with people in those places.”
She has also introduced a cautionary note to the debate, linking to an article on how to stop hackers from stealing your information on public Wi-Fi.
Making a living through the borderless World Wide Web offers freedom from the nine-to-five routine, but it can also fix one to the home desk for many hours, day after day. The local café offers a change of scene, contact with other professionals or a little social contact, and for some, a convenient place to hold meetings. It can be quite pleasant, after all, to settle laptop, notebooks and cellphone on the table, fuel yourself with coffee and let your brain heat up while the world’s background noise fades