Working in cafes might be one of the biggest advantages of freelancing but your choice of “coffice” will have a dramatic effect on your ability to get work done. Even Starbucks varies from site to site with different locations attracting different types of people, building a different atmosphere and influencing your mood and the speed with which you work. When companies like Google and Apple put so much thought into designing office space that enhances creativity and maximizes productivity, it pays not just to know your local coffee places but to understand which work you should be doing in which Java bar workspace.
The first thing you should be considering is the simplest: electrical outlets. Older cafes especially can have relatively few of these but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should give them a wide berth. It just means that you’re going to have to get your work done before the battery in your laptop calls it a day.
If you know that a café is short on electricity, you’re going to be sprinting. Depending on your machine and its age, you could have as little as two or three hours before your computer shuts itself down. That might be only as long as you wanted to stay anyway but knowing that lingering could shut your computer down in mid-flow will help to keep you focused on the job and your eyes on the screen.
Use powerless cafés for jobs that you can — and should — complete in short sprints of focused attention such as logo designs and short blog posts.
Don’t Bring Your Own Music
Music will play a role too. While you can bring headphones and plug yourself into your own tunes, listening to sounds that make you feel at home while sitting in a café surrounded by strangers can create an odd sense of dissonance. If you’re going to retreat that far into yourself, you may as well as well work from home.
Usually, the music you’ll be working to will be the choice of the café manager — and it will affect the pace at which you work. Fast rock is often more annoying than helpful when you’re trying to get things done but it can provide a useful rhythm for projects that don’t require too much creative thought such as data management or simple image editing. The kind of slower jazz more often found in cafes is really intended to enable conversation than produce a good work environment. As music to build databases to, it’s more likely to have you drifting back to the Internet than sticking to the task at hand but it can form a background strong enough to drown out the details of surrounding conversation without dominating thought. For longer blog posts, soft design work and careful debugging, you should be aiming for a café that has both plenty of space to plug in and the kind of soft music that won’t distract you.
Café-Working is a Networking Opportunity
But you’ll also want to be surrounded by the right people. This is an aspect of café-working that’s surprisingly overlooked. If you live in an area near a college, you can be confident that the café will be used to people sitting down, setting up their machines and staying for hours with a single cup of latte. But their books will also be spread across the tables, their earphones will be plugged into their computers (so you’re likely to get a chorus of second-hand tinny bass sounds) and you’ll struggle to find a table too, especially as the exams close in. You might not have to worry about being bothered by baristas who want you to order more or leave, but you also might feel too out of place to get much done — unless what you want to get done is studying a new programming language.
Alternatively, you can skip the student cafes and head to a Starbucks at the bottom of an office block. These are often the best places to work. Like student bars, the baristas will be used to people using their tables as workspaces. And because your co-drinkers are working too, when you look up from your keyboard, the sight of others being productive should make you feel guilty enough to dive back to your keyboard.
The meetings being held at neighboring tables will also help to remind you that you’re in the middle of a work day and doing the kinds of things that employees do between nine and five rather than taking a day off from a real office or biding your time until a proper job comes along.
And it’s just possible that the café can provide some valuable networking opportunities. Café-working is never the same as co-working but when the same space is being used by different people doing different types of work, the differences aren’t that big.
Pick an office-based café for long-term projects where you can build connections with other productive coffee-drinkers.
And the type of service on offer will also affect your ability to work. Cafes that have table service are more likely to have pushy waiters who want a flow of tip-leaving customers at tables. While tipping generously can help to keep them on your side (and is a good idea anyway) 20 percent of the price of a latte is still much less than 20 percent of the price of two lattes, a sandwich and a salad. In general, for all projects you want to avoid cafés with table service in favor of baristas who care less what you do with your order or how long you take to drink it.
Most freelancers can find more than one work-friendly café in a short walk, drive or bike ride from their home office. Your familiarity with those cafes and your ability to match the work you want to do with the place you want to do it will help to raise your productivity and ensure that you get things done while you’re sipping your beans.