One of the more popular things to do nowadays is to grab your laptop and work from a cafe. For those who have tried it, it can be a surprisingly effective way to get work done. For those who haven’t hopefully this article will give you some insight into how it can be done, and how it can actually make you more productive than working from home in isolation.
I recently went through a period where I was working out of local cafes – there was a problem with the telephone exchange in my suburb, and it took them close to 3 weeks to work it out (it’s Thailand). I am personally not a huge fan of working out of cafes or co-working spaces. I prefer a quiet, isolated environment where I can just get things done. That being said, working from cafes is something that can be made to work quite well with some effective preparation and ground rules.
Note: this article is really more for the work-from-home/small-team-entrepreneur/freelancer crowd. Not that there aren’t business people working from Starbucks too, it’s just not as common.
- Tools and setup.
- Picking the right cafe.
- Being productive.
- Common Issues.
Tools and Setup
To work productively from a cafe (or any other location that isn’t your regular work setup) you need the right tools. Here’s a checklist of what you may need:
- Power adaptor or spare battery if you are staying > 3 hours. Not taking one can actually be a good thing, if you wont to give yourself a real time constraint and force out work in a short burst.
- Earphones or headphones. Audiophiles may cringe, but I like Shure isolation earphones and Thanh likes Bose’s QC15 headphones.
- iPad or tablet, if you need a second screen to refer to.
- Usual stuff for leaving the house – wallet, keys, handbag etc.
- Anything relevant to the work you’l be doing – papers, files, documents, portable hard disk.
- A laptop bag or travel bag for all your stuff. I use one of these, especially if walking is involved.
Picking the Right Cafe
There are a lot of things that make a coffee shop suitable for work. They include:
- Location. Ideally you want somewhere close by – the closer the better. In San Francisco, I used to love that there were 4-5 cafes all within walking distance of my apartment. You want to think in terms of travel route and if that will effect your mood and state by the time you get to the cafe, as that will effect your ability to work. As an example, in Bangkok, walking distance really matters because of the heat – no point getting to a cafe and then needing 20 minutes to cool off before you can do anything. In driving cities like LA or Sydney, you want to limit the distance to about 15 minutes from point of origin.
- Power. Power plugs are essential unless you have a spare battery, especially if you want to be there for more than a few hours.
- Tables. Laptops generate a lot of heat, and a table offers a better viewing/typing position than your lap. They’re not essential, but and you can always wear slacks if you really have to sit back in a sofa to work.
- Wifi. For most of us, this is key. Either from the cafe itself, or from a service provider (the preferred option). In the US I believe that AT&T has a Starbucks-centric wifi subscription that you can get (edit: apparently it’s now free), and most countries will have at least one provider with a large network of wifi hotspots – most definitely worth the price if you’re going to be working out of cafes a lot.
Every cafe has its own set of rules and etiquette, defined by the nature of its clientele. Here are some basic tips:
- Buy something to drink, even if it’s just a juice or bottle of water.
- Drink slowly. When you’re done, it’s fine to continue working for another hour before buying another drink. Think of it as a business expenses for working in a nice environment.
- My personal rule: don’t be like the kids (or adults) who camp at tables and don’t buy anything – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
- In the US, get to know the baristas and cafe staff. And leave a tip.
- If it’s crowded, be OK with sharing table space, power plugs and so on. If in doubt, call ahead and ask how busy the cafe is before you go.
- It goes without saying, but be courteous to others. Don’t play loud music over your laptop speakers – use some headphones.
Working from a cafe can be surprisingly effective. There’s something about the combination of a public setting and bringing along your laptop – it makes it kind of silly if you go through all that effort and then sit around and waste time. Use this to your advantage and queue up some work before you leave the house.
Pomodoros are great in a cafe environment. Work for 25/50 minutes, then take a break by standing up, looking around or grabbing a drink or snack.
The background noise in a cafe can actually be quite stimulating – the small background conversations make it seem like people around you are busy (so you should be too), but if there’s loud music or loud conversations, don’t be afraid to plug in some earphones or headphones – people will generally leave you alone if you do that.
If you’re at the cafe with friends or other people, you want to be a bit careful about the kind of tasks that you do. A useful distinction is between discussion tasks and isolation tasks. Discussion tasks are those that don’t require continuously-uninterrupted concentration, and that can actually benefit from some conversation. Isolation tasks are those that are best done at home, in quiet and without other people around.
For example, brainstorming ideas is a great discussion tasks. You start a mind map, run some ideas by the people you’re with – and get even better ideas.
Isolation tasks like coding or writing require a higher level of continuous concentration are better done at home, in an office or with your earphones in.
There are also tasks where discussion isn’t required, nor is isolation. These are tasks like pulling data from websites into Excel for report generation or running through modules on Code Academy, and are perfectly suited for a cafe environment with headphones off, where you can still talk and socialize – but also get things done.
A small warning: with more and more people owning laptops, smartphones and tablets, there seems to be some increased acceptance of going to a cafe with one of these devices and then wasting time watching YouTube videos all day. If you catch yourself doing this, you want to stamp out the habit and eliminate it as soon as possible. Remember, you are there to do productive work, not watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
The two most common issues that arise from working at coffee shops are: 1) Going to the restroom, or 2) It being too loud. Let’s look at both.
Going to the Restroom
The simplest solution is if you have friends around, have them watch your stuff.
If you are alone, you can do one of two things:
- Pack up your things and take them with you. You may lose your place, but it is better than losing your laptop – it does happen unfortunately.
- Use a laptop chain like this one. You want to take everything with you except your laptop (locked to the table). AE Thanh also says that it is useful to leave some food/drinks on the table, so that people don’t think that you’ve left for the day.
Also – don’t drink too much too fast. That will save on trips to the restroom.
Cafes are usually quite relaxed and the noise is usually low-to-moderate. But every now and then there’s that couple or group of people who are talking a little bit too loudly, or inappropriately playing something on their laptop speakers. You can either go with headphones, move to another, or ask them to quieten down (or ask a staff member to ask them).
Working from cafes or coffee shops can be surprisingly effective – all you need is a little planning, some ground rules for what you are going to do there and then some guidelines for how to work while you’re there.
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