The short, two part answer is loneliness + context.
A cafe is great for getting out of the house, which many people find a necessary exercise to maintain sanity, comfort and routine.
Cafe culture – especially with the ubiquity of wifi – provides some consistency of a “third place” (not home & not workplace) to gather. In most cases cafes provide the basics: a place to sit, power, and internet. And of course, coffee.
Cafes also provide a sense of being around other people, which includes the low-level and mostly non-distracting sounds that can actually boost creativity and productivity.
Cafes aren’t always the best in terms of infrastructure, though. Tables and seating aren’t usually ergonomic or comfortable. Wifi can be unstable. Power plugs can be hard to come by. And there’s that guilty feeling that the barista is staring you down, so you buy ANOTHER cup of coffee even though you’re already over caffeinated.
Most unfortunately, cafes lack one important thing: context. When working from a cafe, you’re surrounded by bodies…but not really “people”. This is mostly due to social norms (or a lack of social norms, as it were).
For example, if you turned to the stranger sitting next to you in a cafe and asked for help with a project you’re working on…or to celebrate a small win…or to share in frustrations over a problem with a client or customer…you’d most likely be met with a raised eyebrow. So most people don’t do it.
In a coworking space, however, something new is established. The workspace is usually more ergonomic. The wifi is usually more stable. Power plugs are plentiful. And there’s no pressure to buy coffee since you’ve already paid for your membership (which almost always includes free coffee).
But more importantly, that context is established. People come to coworking spaces specifically for the people, so it’s no longer weird to turn to the person next to you seeking help, affirmation, or commiseration.
It’s important to know that these social norms AREN’T automatic – a community requires active Tummling but these norms are generative in that once they’re established, they’re a bit like a snowball rolling downhill growing in mass and speed.
This accounts for a lot of the variety in coworking spaces and the kind of success their members gain from being a member. Some spaces are simply paid access to infrastructure, but in the best coworking spaces, a large portion of the value of membership comes from the other people in the community.
In all cases – working in a cafe or in a coworking space – the key similarity (and difference from most traditional workplaces) is that people choose to be there and to participate. That choice accounts for a tremendously different work experience than we’re used to, and many people are still learning how to navigate adjust to.