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To Office or Not to Office? (at a Coffeeshop)

14 February 2014

It happened again today.

I leave home (where my “office” is located) and head out to a public place to work.  Sometimes it is a library.  Sometimes it is a café or restaurant.  Most often it is a coffeeshop.

It would seem that someone sitting working on their iPad with earbuds in, with papers spread out in front of them would be working and not want to be disturbed.

Oh, disruptions happen, you have to expect that…there are loud conversations or people in the coffeeshop. People you know come over to greet you (that’s part of the reason you are there!).

But I mean intentional disruptions.  It has happened twice now the past two times I have gone to the closest Starbucks (SB) near my home.  It is a smaller SB than most, I recognize it.  And sometimes I squirrel myself away at the back bar.  (But back there you have the constant hustle of the barristas fixing drinks, getting pastries, conversing with customers loudly as they have moved away from the register to fill the customers order & doing cleaning—all right in your face.  That’s OK…it’s there job…it’s just not conducive to productive work.)

But the past two times, I have been sitting working and strangers have intentionally had mostly one-way monologues with me.

The last time was there, an elderly lady who kept leaning into my face to whisper clandestine things to me about the baristas, about Howard Schulz and about Starbucks stock.  I smiled politely, but the only final solution (well…except the one below) was to bag up my stuff and leave.

Then today (the next time I was at this specific SB to work), a guy sitting next to me decided he wanted to tell me all about his jewelry business, and the business climate in New England (where most of his jewelry goes) and the wonderful places he has lived.  I had my earbuds in and plugged into my iPad, and was working on a marketing project for my coaching business. I confess to occasionally smiling or nodding in agreement with what he was saying, but I intentionally did not engage him in conversation, all to no avail.

Now, I know what I SHOULD have done.  I should have said: ”I’m sorry and don’t mean to be rude, but I’m on the clock and working on a project and really need to concentrate.” (which is true…when you work for yourself you are always on the clock).    But that is very hard for a people-pleaser like me to do.

Again, I finally bagged up my stuff and headed out.

coffee shopCoffee shops can be great places as second or third offices, or they can be horrible places for productivity. Because I try to network with people to build my coaching practice, being in public like that CAN be of benefit.  Just being in a different location can spur the creativity.  Serendipitous meetings happen semi-regularly (God-ordained meetings, I call them).

It sounds counter-intuitive, but you can have less distractions in a public place like a coffee shop.  The familiarity of an office environment make it easy for people to just stick their heads in “for a minute.”  Phone calls, questions, trips to the water cooler or break room to refill your coffee, all that lead to multiple interruptions.   In a coffee shop, even the buzz of people talking makes for a good white noise background for me to work.  The coffee shop is even better than working alone at home many times because there are the distractions of home jobs to be done, personal phone calls, the refrigerator or pantry, plus other distractions.

And except for the most extreme introverts, there is the joy of the surprise meetings and conversations.

But it can also be a pain. Partly it depends on the flavor of the coffeeshop. The one I have been referring to is between two large retirement (55+ only) communities. And so the nature of this coffeeshop is that it gets lots of retired people (and lots of lonely people), both who seem to see the SB as a place to go and engage people in conversation.  I don’t mind a brief social conversation, but one that is one-sided and goes on and on, gets old!

A few suggestions for privacy I have found (or, am finding):

  1. Know the culture of the coffeeshop.  This one is a place, as I have said, that is frequented by lots of people LOOKING for conversation.   Others are filled with people on their laptops or iPads working or in meetings with other business people.  Another one I know if you go upstairs you can almost guarantee you will find young mothers meeting for coffee & letting their children run free, to scream and try to engage the other customers with questions.    All fine and good, but not a productive place.
  2. Shift around coffeeshops.  I have what I call my “circuit” that I make—coffee shops in Tigard (where I live), King City, Sherwood, Tualatin, Lake Oswego and Beaverton. The reason for that is so that you don’t become a fixture in one certain shop so people feel familiar enough just to interrupt you.   Also if you are hoping to prospect, you have a different clientele in each cafe.
  3. Don’t sit near the door or the cash register.  Not only can the temperature fluctuations be bothersome, but as people come in and out, or as they wait in line to pay they are more liable to stop and chat.
  4. Business/contact cards: One of the things that amazes me is people who don’t always carry a business card or two with them, especially when in public places. There’s a good chance you might meet somebody who you can work with, work for, or otherwise might want to contact later on.   It is also a great conversation delayer: “I’d love to visit more about this, but can’t quite now.  Here is my card.  Could you drop me an email and let’s try to set a mutually agreeable time to really spend the time we need on this matter.”
  5. Ear buds or headphones.  The sound deafening headphones are nice, but awkward looking and really communicate: STAY AWAY!  Earbuds can have the same effect (although not cutting out as much noise) and are much more comfortable.  I would say beware of sound deafening ear buds.  I have a pair (bought for me by my wife at very pretty price) and they don’t keep out any more noise than a regular set of earbuds.

A few more suggestions that are not privacy related.

  1. I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will.  BUY SOMETHING!  It is really tacky to use a stores space, chairs, tables, electricity, wifi, etc. and not buy anything.  The baristas can be your best friend, but they need to know that you are supporting them (and tipping).  They can help you with hidden outlets, making introductions to other customers, even giving you that extra refill.
  2. Security hardware.  I have a cable lock for my laptop.  I can lock it to the table or chair at which I am working if I need to go to the bathroom.  If you don’t, take your phone, purse or laptop with you to the toilet. Better look awkward than lose your equipment.  Starbucks in the NE US reports an increased rise of thefts of electronic equipment from their customers.
  3. Know the condition of your computer safety software.  It is not at all difficult for people to get your info as you work on public wifi.  A surprising number of shops have really low-grade Wi-Fi encryption and security.
  4. A spare battery.  (This one I still need to do).  You cannot guarantee that you will get a plug (and some people don’t like to take their plug in cord anyway).  But there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a big project and have your battery warn you that it’s low and is about to close down your computer.
  5. Last I might suggest a packet of 2:3 prong converters and or surge protector and screen wipes.  It depends how much “stuff” you want to carry around.

Malcomb Gladwell is known and appreciated by many in the business world.  He is the author of several best selling business books such as Outliers, The Tipping Point, Blink, David & Goliath and others.  He loves to write in cafes and coffee shops.
(begin quote)

There’s one in the lower East Side.

“The waiters are all Australian and they play The Smiths all day long which I find so fabulous. I always go there on the weekends. Then there are restaurants in Little Italy that I go to. I often go to these places in the middle of the afternoon, when they’ll let me linger.”

In his acknowledgements in Blink, Malcolm thanks the staff of Savoy in SoHo. “I go there so often. I wrote a big chunk of my book there. They have these huge windows and they open them out so that people on the street are walking right by you. You feel the traffic; you feel in the middle of things and paradoxically I find it very calming.”

Malcolm started his working life as a newspaper writer. “I loved the newsroom. When I left it I wanted to recreate the newsroom and the closest thing to a newsroom is any kind of random active social space.”

A café where “different people are doing different things” is perfect.

But for all of its advantages, having a coffee shop as a second or third office takes discipline.  For ME, it means the discipline to look someone gently but firmly in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry and don’t mean to be rude, but I’m on the clock and working on a project and really need to concentrate.”


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