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Strange Workplaces and How to Work in Them

Laptop computers and the easy availability of free wireless Internet mean that it’s now almost impossible to get away from the office. As long as you can get online, and have something you can get online with, you can be at work. So what are some of the strangest places you can find yourself uploading a design, chatting with a client, updating a database or turning a lost half-hour into billable time — and what can you do to make the most of the location?

Working at the Laundromat

According to openwifispots.com, more than 200 Laundromats across the country offer free wifi access — and for good reason. When you’re stuck waiting for your socks to finish spinning, you might as well use the time constructively, even if it’s only to  update your Facebook page or bring up a Flash game.

For mobile workers though, while they have no obvious distractions, Laundromats do pose a number of challenges. Noise will be one factor. Space another. But time will be the biggest influence on what you can do while waiting for your washing.

A wash might take forty minutes, the drier another twenty or so, so there’s little point in getting stuck into a project that’s going to last all day or require plenty of focused attention. The work will need to be short, sweet and easy to accomplish despite the racket made by laundry machines and requests for change from other washers. A blog post could work, as could metatag tweaking or answering email. But if your goal is to write a marketing plan or build a new site from scratch, you might want to wait until you get home. The Laundromat is a chance to catch up with the overflow rather than push on with the main job.

Working on Road and Rail

While time will be one factor to consider when working at the Laundromat, a bigger problem is likely to be location: you have to find somewhere to sit. That won’t be an issue for travelers who want to work on the road. Bus companies Megabus and Bolt both provide wireless access, as does Amtrak on its Acela Express trains and in certain stations. Instead of driving, you could be sitting, working and charging for your travel time.

Space will be a big issue here. You won’t be able to spread papers across the table as you might be able to do in a café, so a netbook or iPad will probably be a better work tool than a giant-screen laptop. But privacy will be a bigger factor. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing nothing more interesting than tossing numbers into a database, you can be sure that the person you’re sitting next to will be watching you do it. You shouldn’t be working then on anything you don’t mind someone else looking at over your shoulder. (Unless, of course, you’re Pixar director Lee Unkrich). Stick to dull, technical tasks that are less interesting than the Times crossword if you don’t want to see your business plan spread all over Twitter while you’re making use of travel time.

Musing in a Museum

Museums aren’t the most obvious places to work. They’re places to visit during downtime, to catch up on a spot of culture and show a date that you’re really keen on self-improvement and education. They’re also quiet, inspiring, spacious and sometimes connected. MOMA, for example, provides free wireless Internet so that visitors can listen to audio guides on their iPhones without having to rent a specially-made unit. That makes museums an opportunity to work in an open-plan office decorated with the world’s most beautiful art.

The advantage of a museum will be the quiet (during the off-season) but mostly it will be the inspiration. You’ll be surrounded by the greatest art created by the greatest artists, a valuable nudge of encouragement for anyone working in a creative field. Designers stuck for new concepts while building a website for a client can find a corner of a pop-art exhibition and remember the appeal of simple ideas and bold colors. Entrepreneurs putting together reports and presentations can benefit from the quiet and calmness of a location far removed from the bustle of an office. And knowing that if everything goes well, you could be buying a work of art like the one on the wall that should act as a good incentive for anyone.

But that’s provided you can find somewhere comfortable to sit. Museums tend to have benches rather than tables and chairs so in addition to picking a gallery that’s quiet, you’ll also need to bring a computer you can rest comfortably on your knees.

Burn the Midnight Oil in a Bookstore

None of those problems should be true of a bookstore café. Both Barnes & Noble and Borders (if you can still find one) offer wireless connections in their cafes, allowing you to surf with all of the freedom of a Starbucks regular. The difference is the built-in library that lets you draw on the latest literature to support your opus.

In many ways, a bookstore offers the best of all worlds: the comfortable seating of a café, the bookishness of a library or museum, as much time as you can buy for the price of a coffee — and the Web, of course. But you’ll have to choose your store carefully.

Bookstores with large children’s sections will be filled with noisy young ones begging to be told about the Gruffalo. Outlets in popular malls will contain day-shoppers chatting loudly about their bargains. Stores near colleges will be packed with students who fill tables with their books and hog chairs for days on end. The best outlets are the ones in business areas. The best times are in the early morning or the middle of a work day before the shoppers start pouring in looking for a place to rest. And the best topics to work on are anything that requires consulting lots of books currently on the shelves.

Unless, of course, you wanted to work in an office. But that would be really strange.

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