Is it counterproductive to ban laptops in Lisbon cafes?

A sense of shame is a new-found familiar feeling when I pop into cafes in Lisbon these days. Why? The growing popularity of banning laptops in coffee shops. As a remote worker, cafes stimulate creativity, or at least that is what I tell myself. Anyway, at the very least, they are a break away from the monotony of working at home. The trend makes me feel like somewhat of a leper the moment I lay bare my computer, even in places that don’t prohibit them.


Look, a partial ban of sorts I understand: take Mercearia da Mila, which kindly asks people to not use laptops during lunch hours. Or Evolution Hotel, that gives people a unique Wi-Fi access code for up to two hours.


Copenhagen Coffee Lab’s approach is also a good example, placing a ‘no laptops’ sign on certain tables. In its Rua de São Paulo branch, the cafe tackles the frequent crowd of returning laptop workers by more or less designating them space right at the back, albeit with a sometimes questionable Wifi connection. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.


What I don’t get, is effectively banning a nascent but growing freelance population in Lisbon that is actively encouraged in so many other ways. Notably, the tax incentive of non-habitual residency status aimed at freelancers worldwide. Has it not been the case then, that so many new cafes and restaurants have opened due to the budding freelance and startup community that the capital has worked so hard to attract?


Isolating freelancers and other types of remote workers is seemingly based on some quite insulting stereotypes about us. Namely, that we all purchase one solitary espresso and then camp out a coffee shop for hours, repeating this experience ad-infinitum. No doubt that some people do this, but I’d say the majority of us experience something akin to ‘coffee guilt’: self-conscious about being in a cafe too long and taking up space and overcompensating as a result.

It also seems redundant, given that we provide regular custom. Most remote workers or freelancers without a coworking space are creatures of habit, circulating 4-5 coffee spaces at a time. “It can become a bit of a hassle going to new cafes all the time, especially as they might not have reliable wifi or plugs available, so I tend to stick with the same ones” says one freelancer, Amy * I spoke to. Another, Mike, added that he found it “stressful picking new places to work frequently, so I keep to just three or four”. Routine was also highlighted by Petra, a remote worker based in Lisbon for the last two years, as an important reason to going to the same coffee shops “it is one less thing to think about, and provides structure to my day as a freelancer”.


We are almost territorial about the places we frequent, but not to the extent we don’t also provide a little free marketing for the cafes we love to work in too: “If I enjoy working in a cafe then I’ll definitely recommend to other freelancing friends. Our type of work can get lonely, and finding a place that feels comfortable to work in is not always easy to find, so I happily share the cafes I do like with others” said Alexa, a freelance marketing consultant.


Equally, word of mouth can also have the inverse effect. Ban laptops or make the experience so unpleasant you might as well have (allocating laptop working sections with seats that have no back support, whilst putting masking tape on the plug sockets…) then you can be sure we will also tell our freelance pals about that too.


On the subject of taking space: where does this put book lovers or pensioners having a chin wag in coffee shops for long periods of time? Do they not take up space in exactly the same way or is their presence just quite frankly…less irritating? It’s hard to say this without sounding like all freelancers have a completely overinflated sense of importance, but I do think us laptop users in cafes have come to be emblematic of the somewhat controversial cultural transformation the capital has undergone. After all, our proliferation in the city in recent years is one of the most quantifiable changes that some businesses can tangibly and I’d argue misguidedly, rebel against.