Starbucks Is My Office: A Guide for Mobile Over-Caffeinated Workers

Image: Courtesy of CoffeeBuzzBlog
You're gripping a triple-shot Espresso Macchiato with your left hand and prepping a presentation on your laptop's screen with your right. You chat with your client from your smartphone, trusting that the whoosh of the milk steamer doesn't drown out the conversation. "I sure hope the Wi-Fi holds," you think.

In short, you work from Starbucks. And you're not alone.

Thom Singer, a professional speaker and entrepreneur from Austin, Texas, understands you. Though he doesn't pay for office space, he jokingly remarks: "I like to say I have 'South Austin, North Austin, and downtown offices.'" Those spots, however, are the locations of the Starbucks coffee shops he frequents.

"I am the type of person who would go crazy without being around other people. Working from home or a rented office would get lonely fast," Singer says.

Thanks to their offer of free Wi-Fi, the promise of companionship, and a never-ending supply of tasty, caffeinated treats, coffeehouses like Starbucks have become an office away from home for many entrepreneurs and self-employed folks.

Working out of your local coffee shop offers multiple conveniences and can save you plenty of cash, but it also poses various challenges. Staying productive and keeping your gear (and the data it contains) secure can be tough--as can obeying the often-unwritten rules that govern a communal workspace.

Does Starbucks Mind?

We asked Starbucks' corporate communications department if the company had an official policy on in-shop workplaces, but representatives declined to answer, saying instead that "Starbucks stores were designed to be community gathering places...We know that Wi-Fi and the Starbucks Digital Network continue to be big draws in our store and our customers tell us they appreciate having access to this offering for work or personal use."

How Starbucks enforces that nonpolicy seems to vary from store to store. An informal poll of baristas at Starbucks locations in suburban Boston revealed that most are happy to have you sit as long as you'd like as long as you're a paying customer, though some admitted that they may ask fixtures to vacate when a long line of folks are waiting for a seat.

Even if they don't directly ask you to leave, however, they may gently encourage your exit. "We are convinced the baristas try to freeze us out by jacking up the air conditioning at certain points of the day," says Tandaleya Wilder, a publicist and founder of She Got Game Media, who often works out of a Starbucks in Miami's South Beach. Also, she notes that the baristas sometimes "purposely play the worse rotation of songs imaginable to get us out of there."

Bad music and freezing temperatures are not the only potential drawbacks of working in a public environment. Like any office, your local coffee shop has its own rules, office politics, and etiquette. And like any office, a Starbucks has prime workspaces--and not so prime locations. The only difference when it comes to working in a Starbucks is that you aren't guaranteed the same desk every day.

Location, Location

All of the folks we talked to for this story agreed about certain rules of office etiquette. Chief among them: Never take up more space than you need. Select the smallest table that's available, and be prepared to share. That means you shouldn't plan on carting in your CRT monitor (hey, it's not completely unheard of); instead, you'll want as portable a setup as possible.

Mark Lassoff, who owns a small technical training business, regularly works out of a Starbucks in Manchester, Connecticut. He recommends using a small laptop, with a screen that measures about 13 inches. As he notes, your laptop may very well end up on your lap--and then "you don't need the extra heft of a larger machine."

Some Starbucks stores install larger tables with power outlets.
Some Starbucks install larger tables with power outlets. Image: Courtesy of notebookreview.com
The prime seats are those located next to power outlets, which can be scarce. Derek Jech, a freelance logo designer and marketing coordinator in the Los Angeles area, offers this advice: "Charge your computer fully and then unplug. This allows your neighbor time to get their battery power up, while yours is depleting." Or look for coffeehouses that put in long table or larger tables--some with extra outlets and reading lamps--for the officeless hordes.

You also should consider packing a back-up battery and an extension cord--but be warned that it's a serious breach of etiquette to snake it across the floor where folks can trip on it. You can win points with your coworkers by providing a surge protector that allows you to share an outlet. Keith Hinzman, an architect who regularly works out of a Starbucks in Melrose, Massachusetts, says that an outlet splitter (like this one) is "a good secret weapon" to pack.

The Gear That Works

If you're looking for a thin-and-light laptop to rule cafés with, check out PCWorld's top-ranked ultraportable notebooks. Other options include Dell's new Vostro 3000 Series laptops, which are designed to offer portability and long-lasting battery life, the sleek Samsung Series 9, and the ultra-thin MacBook Air.

Security is probably the biggest concern for folks who work in a public environment. But none of the work-from-café types that we talked to for this story reported feeling unsafe or terribly worried about their gear. Most folks rely on a friendly neighbor or barista to keep an eye on their laptop when they run to the restroom or step outside to make a phone call.

Kensington MicroSaver Keyed Alarm Notebook Lock
Less trusting workers may want to invest in a laptop lock, however. You can opt for a security cable with a combination lock or a keyed lock, or one that provides both types of locks. Kensington's $55 MicroSaver Keyed Alarm Notebook Lock has an alarm that can be heard 50 feet away and is triggered when the cable is cut. Targus, meanwhile, offers the $55 DEFCON 1 Ultra Laptop Computer Security System, which features a steel cable, motion sensor technology, and an audible alarm.

Keeping your gear safe is only half the battle, though. You also need to protect the data it contains. If you're looking at sensitive information--such as invoices, bills, or banking statements--on your PC, you can hide it from prying eyes with a tool such as Kensington's $78 Privacy Screen, which limits the viewing angle of your laptop's display.

Using a public hotspot can expose you to dangers that go beyond nosey neighbors, however. You can up the level of security with a service like WiFi Guardian, HotSpotVPN, or Hotspot Shield.

Next: Staying in Sync at the Coffeehouse

Staying in Sync

Though you're working solo in a Starbucks, you may still need to stay in touch with colleagues and clients. You should certainly keep your smartphone (with the Starbucks mobile payment app on board, of course) close by--but the Starbucks regulars we've talked to agree that conducting lengthy or loud phone calls from your seat is a breach of etiquette. Step outside if you need to. But for when you do need to make calls, a service like Google Voice will help ensure that colleagues who need to find you can easily do so.

If you're looking for a professional, yet inexpensive, phone option, Christopher Young has some recommendations. Young owns Async Recruiting in Philadelphia, a company that offers a virtual interview tool for employers. Like his product, his workspace is virtual: Young regularly works out of one of the five Starbucks located near his home. For staying in touch, he recommends eVoice or RingCentral, which deliver such business-friendly options as virtual voicemail, professional call routing, and automated message routing.

For collaboration, Young recommends Facebook Groups, Campfire (a relatively inexpensive tool for business users), and DropBox (the simple document-sharing service).

A cloud-based backup service like iDrive or SugarSync can help guarantee that you'll have access to the files you need--and it will free you from having to carry around a USB drive for backup.

What else do you need to keep yourself productive while working from a coffeeshop? Most people recommend a good pair of noise-canceling headphones--for instance, the mc3 Headset + Earphones from Etymotic Research or Bose's QuietComfort 15 Noise Cancelling Headphones. These devices block out any background noise, and they prevent others from being disturbed by your music or videos.

Why Bother?

Lugging all that gear to your local coffeehouse may seem like more trouble than it's worth. But Starbucks regulars disagree. Most consider the distractions posed by fellow patrons to be less challenging than the distractions they would face if they worked at home, where kids, spouse, chores, and other diversions lurk.

"It's almost like you're working in a fishbowl. You're on display, so you do more work," says Keith Hinzman. Add in the ability to meet new friends, network a little, and--of course--ingest caffeine, and it's clear why so many people call their local café their place of business.

There is one more factor to consider. Joe Calderone, who does freelance marketing, graphic design, and Web design work from a local coffee store in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, Illinois, offers this bit of advice: "Watch how much coffee you actually drink. When focusing on all of the work being done, you don't realize how many cups you've downed until 'the twitches' kick in. Not only is it an uncomfortable feeling, but it also can drain funds."

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