Lifestyles of the Mobile Road Warrior - Surviving the Coffee Shop

Coffee shops have become synonymous for being sought-after work venues for the mobile road warrior. It's easy to understand their appeal - you can sit down with a laptop, log-on to free wifi and enjoy a good hot coffee as well. They also make convenient locations to meet with coworkers and clients.

But coffee shops also present a challenge for people seeking to get real work done, especially folks who must conduct business outside the office. Many entrepreneurs or start-ups that lack physical office space also turn to the corner caffeine house, as do tech enthusiasts and geeks escaping the home with their latest mobile gadgets. Combined with the crowd of bona-fide coffee lovers, is it possible to make the coffee shop work session an enjoyable and successful experience? Read on for some proven tips and advice!

1. Get to know your particular location

No two coffee shops are the same, and I've found that while one location may be ideal for getting work done, another may be completely unsuitable. If you visit a particular location frequently enough, you'll have a good idea of it's busy/slow times, which can help get you a free table. Avoid the peak hours since it can be crowded/loud and far from ideal for concentrating on work. Also, get to know the names of the employees - it doesn't hurt to make new friends, and being a repeat customer, you may also enjoy having your favorite drink ready for you when you arrive.

Finally, I would recommend speaking with the manager, not necessarily for making a complaint about the brew or seating, but to establish a rapport. Introduce yourself, hand him/her your business card and tell them what it is you will be doing. Having a good relationship with the boss will go a long way towards understanding your impact on the establishment, and help create a pleasant work environment.

2. Be considerate of your surroundings

Just because you use a coffee shop as your office, it doesn't mean that it is one! Put your phone on vibrate, avoid taking calls next to others, and if you must talk loud, step outside. Because outlets are such sparse commodities in retail locations I always make sure to head out with my gear fully charged, with a spare battery with me just in case. If you must plug in then bring a small outlet strip - you'll not only avoid hogging it from others sitting in the vicinity, but open up 2-3 outlets for plugging in extra gear or share with someone at the same table.

Needless to emphasize, but you should always use headphones for audio/video. I particularly enjoy taking my large XB700 cans along since they are great for use working with a notebook/netbook at a table rather than while walking/running. As a convenient side benefit, they will also help block out surrounding noise, and sporting a high-end set of cans may even make you look a little more hip and sophisticated.

For those working for extended periods, you will want to buy more than just one drink, and add some snacks to the tab as well - you are in a place that is running a business, so you should ideally contribute to it. Most importantly, you will want to clean up after yourself, especially if you have made a mess and ever want to return again. I hate having to pick up other people's rubbish, and employees will definitely appreciate customers they don't have to service tables after.

If you're meeting with friends or co-workers, be sure to keep the interaction low-key. Nothing is more annoying for other customers than a rowdy group that invades their personal space and disrupts concentration. Keep your meetings brief and quiet - no need to let the whole place know about your media campaign.

I have had friends tell me stories of being privy to conversations of all kinds, not because they were intentionally listening in, but simply because their table was a mere 3 feet from the next. I probably don't want to hear the woman within earshot going into intimate details of her sexual harassment claim. I also don't want to listen to some suit from a well-known laptop manufacturer talk on the phone to his engineer in China about how their latest model launch is delayed because of heat-extraction issues. It's information I simply don't need to know and it's distracting.

3. Don't be a freeloader

Considering all the tips given so far on what you should do, there's also a few things that you shouldn't. First and foremost, you should never sit down without purchasing something. Employees do watch people coming in and out, and they WILL notice the guy sitting near the back for the past 30 minutes with his laptop who hasn't walked up to the counter yet. You may get away with it once or twice, but do it 3-4 times and don't be surprised if the manager walks up to you and politely asks you to leave. Again, this is a retail location, so if you're not a paying customer, you've got very little excuse to be using their amenities.

In a similar fashion, you should also avoid sitting in the car right outside with your notebook open - it makes you look incredibly cheap if you cannot pony up the comfort of a table and pay for a drink.

As for the free wifi, bear in mind that whatever bandwidth is available is being shared with every user. That means download speeds may be painfully slow. It's best to avoid heavy data activity such as large file downloads/uploads, or doing software/system updates. It's also not the place you want to upload your hour-long videos to YouTube, sync a bunch of large files with your NAS, run a multi-player Steam game or watch that entire season of [insert lame NBC show here] in 1080p.

Being that the free wifi is open, I would also caution against online purchases or other activities that expose your personal and financial information. The relative ease of which wireless IP traffic can be intercepted with packet sniffing software has been well-documented. It's definitely not the place to be doing your tax return, online banking or accounting. Invest in a secure mobile hotspot (and privacy screen) for such activities, if you must do them in public.

My personal favorite way to work
Finally, it's important to acknowledge that those small, round coffee tables will never replace the office desk. So avoid laying out paperwork everywhere around you. Come with a small netbook or slate instead of that massive 18 inch desktop-replacement notebook. Trackballs take up far less desk real-estate than mice too. If you're sitting at a large table don't take it up all to yourself. And if you're using a mobile printer keep the page count low and the documents simple.

4. Keep close tabs on your budget

Americans on average spent over $1000 in 2012 on coffee alone, with that figure expected to match in 2013. Caffeine addicts aside, it does raise concerns among some that the popular drink is indeed pushing people's personal budgets too far. Even if you prefer something other than coffee, think to yourself if that $3-5 expense is worth the admission of working for a few hours. And for those who do so daily, will that $25-35 weekly ticket (or more) pay itself off for the work that you do?

Personally, I can brew a pot of coffee at home for under a buck, grab a 34oz stainless-steel bubba keg and be on my merry way. Even if I spend on disposable insulated paper cups with lids, I can still be under a Washington. The issue is not so much saving money, but what you end up paying for the simple privilege of being able to work. Do the math, and you may come to the conclusion that the coffee shop, as cozy and convenient as it is, becomes too expensive over the long-term.

5. There's always an alternative

Coffee shop too crowded? Need more quiet or just a change of scenery? There's plenty of alternatives out there for working at places other than your local coffee shop, especially if you have a mobile hotspot and don't need to rely on wifi. Restaurants, libraries and book stores all offer sit-down space for mobile road warriors, as do many shopping malls and convention centers.

For those seeking an al-fresco productivity experience, there's plenty of opportunities to work outdoors, especially in warmer climates or near the beach. You want to seek out a spot that doesn't distract you, however - it's important to keep your focus on what it is you are doing, and not have your surroundings take your attention away.


Coffee shops present a viable alternative to working at home or in a cubicle, provided you follow a few key rules and are aware of your environment. Don't expect to substitute for a bona-fide office or meeting room. Rather, look at it as a place to escape the isolation of home or office boredom while enjoying a delicious drink/snack. Bring a friend along with you and it can be a convenient location to meet with others outside of home/work and engage in some good conversation.

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