Half-caffs and hotspots: How to work productively from cafes and public spaces

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Caffeine and free Wi-Fi are a potent recipe for productivity. It’s what lures you and many other telecommuters to spend serious work time in convenient coffee shops. But whether you’re just getting out of the office or the sidewalk café is your office, working in a public space has some special challenges. These tips will help you stay safe and productive.

1. Stake out your turf

Before you put down your coffee, consider the location of your temporary office. Is it too close to the door? Too far from the restroom? Right under a vent that pumps out freezing-cold air? Discomfort and distractions will hamper your productivity. Don’t be shy about asking to share a table. Other telecommuters, in particular, understand that it’s part of the social contract of working in a public place. And be sure to bring a jacket or sweater that you can drape over your chair to hold your spot.

2. Power up

Whether your device is a laptop, a hybrid, or a tablet, its battery must be able to keep up with you. If you plan to work remotely a lot, consider investing in a laptop that carries one of Intel’s new Haswell processors—which offer significantly better battery life than their Ivy Bridge predecessors—or using a power-efficient tablet instead of a traditional laptop.

Image: Robert Cardin
New laptops based on Intel's Haswell processors offer the longer battery life you need at a cafe.

If you plan to settle in for more than a few hours, bring a power cord. Most retail establishments that provide free Wi-Fi allow customers to plug into the outlets, too. Of course, that means finding a seat near an outlet. If the outlets are all taken, and you have a power emergency, ask a better-situated patron if you can take a turn with the outlet.

3. Be wary of free Wi-Fi

One of the main attractions of Starbucks and similar retailers is their free Wi-Fi. Starbucks is in the midst of switching from AT&T to Google as its service provider. The new Google service is 10 times faster (or more, in areas served by Google Fiber gigabit broadband). If your neighborhood Starbucks has already made the switch, you’ll have even more incentive to work from that location.

In most cases, though, the adage “you get what you pay for” applies—so you shouldn’t rely on free Wi-Fi to support a business-critical videoconference. At the very least, make sure that you have a reliable Plan B—such as using a 4G/LTE smartphone, tablet, or hotspot—for network connectivity in a pinch. Most mobile devices can allow other devices to connect over Wi-Fi and share the cellular data connection, and the wireless providers offer dedicated mobile hotspots that do the same thing. Bear in mind, though, that using your smartphone or tablet as a Wi-Fi hotspot will consume data from your cellular data plan.

4. Bring a headset

Working in a café means contending with the din of multiple conversations, hissing espresso machines, and baristas announcing triple no-foam lattes. All that ambient noise will muddy your phone calls and video chats. To ensure clear communications, bring a noise-canceling headset like the Plantronics Rig.

Noise-canceling headphones can help you focus—and handle business calls—without background noise.

Even if you’re just planning to put your head down and power through some documents, you may benefit from using ear buds or headphones either to chill to some music while you work or to dampen surrounding sound.

Finally, be considerate of other patrons. They don’t want to hear you drone on about quarterly reports, so if you know you have a call on which you’ll be presenting or talking a lot, work from home instead.

5. Stay secure

It’s easy to lose touch with your environment when you’re focusing intently on a task, but remember to keep a close eye on your briefcase, purse, and other belongings. The retailer is not responsible for your stuff and has no liability if it gets stolen.

The Targus Defcon CL can secure your laptop or other mobile device to a handy chair or table.

If you have to use the restroom, either ask someone to keep an eye on your stuff for you, or pack it all up and set up shop again when you return. The pitfalls of those two options are obvious, so the best solution may be a laptop lock like the Targus Defcon CL to secure your hardware to the table.

Even if your laptop is secure, don’t forget to take things like your wallet and car keys with you when you leave your seat.

Another aspect of physical security involves making sure that others can’t see your display, especially if you’re typing sensitive information such as a password or a credit-card number. You can invest in privacy screen film that minimizes the display’s range of functional viewing angles, so people can’t peek at it from the next table. You should also be aware of people behind you who may be looking over your shoulder.

Network sniffers can use apps like DroidSheep to see what everyone's up to on a public Wi-Fi network.

As for digital security, when you’re connecting to the public Wi-Fi network, make sure that you’re connecting to the right one. Criminals sometimes set up rogue open wireless networks with familiar-looking SSID names to dupe users into connecting to them—making it that much easier for the attacker to monitor and intercept all traffic.

Even if you’re connected to the correct wireless network, be careful what you do online. Most public Wi-Fi networks are not secured, so anyone within range can capture the traffic. Even on a Wi-Fi network that requires a password, your activity may be exposed to other computers connected to that network. Think twice (or three or four times) before logging in to sensitive sites when you’re using a public Wi-Fi network. You should connect to business resources via VPN, and make sure that other sites you visit use secure, HTTPS connections.

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