Photography: Scott Feldstein
Cubicle walls might not have been pretty but they’ve always been good for productivity. Not seeing your neighbor might have freed you up to take a snooze, fire up the solitaire or surf to the sports pages, but it also meant less gossip, fewer temptations to chat, and the fear that your boss might peer over the wall and catch you in the act. So what happens when you give the office a miss and swap the cubicle for a coffee shop? What can you do to ensure that working in a social environment won’t mean all sociability and no work?
It’s a question that’s become increasingly important as cafes recognize the power of wifi to pull in regular customers. A survey in 2006 found that about a fifth of the US workforce spent at least some time working outside a traditional office, and estimated that the rate was growing by about 10 percent a year. With hi-tech firms feeling the squeeze in the recession and even skilled geeks picking up pink slips and “consultancy” business cards, it’s no surprise that so many café tables are now packed with Macs.
Etiquette between café workers has now become clear but while those rules will keep the atmosphere pleasant, they won’t necessary keep your productivity high. That happens first when you choose the right café. Even chains serving identical drinks in identical décor can vary in atmosphere. A Starbucks on a main street will often be filled with shoppers resting their feet and swapping sales stories. A branch next to a law firm will contain suits discussing briefs and sharing strategies. Each of those cafes will feel very different to freelancers opening their laptops and hoping to hunker down to some focused effort. It’s always harder to work when others around you are having fun. Look up from your keyboard to see others typing away though, and you’ll feel guilty you’re not doing the same.
Work Where Others Are Working
Rule one for productive café workers then, is to work in a café where others are working, meet in a café where others hold meetings — and have fun in a café where others are chatting.
Rule two is to keep your distance. There might not be walls between tables in a café but there should be enough space for workers to get on with work without being tempted to sit and talk. Etiquette demands a nodded greeting between regulars but productivity requires nothing more to be said before it’s time to close up and head back to the home office.
That’s not as easy as it sounds. Asking a fellow coffeeholic to watch your Mac while you make space for another brew can easily spark an opening for a conversation. Sharing a power outlet gives enough in common for two workers to feel like old friends. And talking can make for useful networking. One of the benefits promoted by co-working spaces is that they allow freelancing geeks to talk, chat, problem-solve, and perhaps even build businesses together. The conversation and the company are as much a part of the package as the table space and the Internet connection. When you see the person at the next café table not as a potential disruption but as a possible partner, it’s tempting to spend time deepening those connections instead of building your product.
In practice though, those sorts of benefits rarely materialize. Fellow café workers might make for reasonable neighbors but there’s little reason to believe that they’ll also make good partners. Once you’ve assessed another freelancer’s ability to help your company — and found it wanting — it’s best to stick to nodding terms so that you don’t spend your time talking instead of working.
Add Stress to Your Coffee
Where you sit matters too. Café regulars tend to choose the same seats each day but it’s important to choose the right seat. Obviously access to a power outlet will be crucial — otherwise you’ll be spending half your time glancing at the battery icon — but choosing a seat that lets you sit with your back to the wall can help with productivity as well. You’ll be able to see everyone else (and see them working) but you won’t be stuck with the feeling that someone is reading over your shoulder. There are few things more disruptive than that. Cafes are public which means that to protect your productivity you’ll also have to do whatever you can to protect your privacy.
But perhaps the biggest threat to productivity when working in a café isn’t the atmosphere, the conversations or the peeping toms trying to spy on your screen. It’s the comfort. Cafes are designed to make people relax but studies show that a little stress can improve productivity, even if a lot of stress has the opposite effect. To be at your most productive then, you’ll want to introduce just a little bit of pressure even in a place as calming as a café. You can do that by setting yourself strict limits on the length of time you’ll sit and drink. Knowing that you’ll only be there for two hours — and that you have that long to complete a specific task — will get you working against the clock. You can also try breaking the routine by visiting the café at a different time of day or trying a different watering hole. The unfamiliar might not be as stressful as a tight deadline but it might just be enough to make you retreat into your laptop and get on with your work.
Cafes have turned out to be great places for digital nomads to use as replacement offices. They’re everywhere, they’re affordable, and they come complete with good refreshments. But using them in a way that lets you work rather than relax, get things done rather than watch waiters get things done, and produce results rather than just a large bill, does take a little care. Get it right though and you should find that your local coffee bar beats the cubicle any day.