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From across the coffee shop, I noticed a gentleman walking in with a computer. Not a laptop, mind you. With both hands, he carried a full-on desktop, monitor and console included. Surely he's not ... I thought to myself -- but I was wrong. He plopped the machinery down on a table, plugged in, and ordered his coffee while the rest of us looked on in horror.
I understand there are no etched-in-stone rules for using coffee shops as your remote office, but there are some unwritten guidelines we should all follow if we don't want to be jerks.
More workers than ever are getting their stuff done remotely, and many coffee shops accommodate this work-from-wherever lifestyle, with fast and free Wi-Fi and large, communal tables complete with outlets. Other coffee shops buck the trend entirely by not offering Wi-Fi at all. Instead of clacking away at a keyboard, you're encouraged to relax with a book or (groan) socialise with other people.
Therefore, the first order of business is finding a coffee shop where it's appropriate to work in the first place. Sure, you can get your stuff done wherever you want; it's not like there's a law forbidding you to use your laptop at a quiet cafe that doesn't have Wi-Fi. However, if you care about politeness, you'll want to find a coffee shop that doesn't mind being your part-time office (we offer up some tips here). Once you do, follow a few simple rules of etiquette.
Don't Be a Cheapskate
It's not like businesses don't want you there, but if the place is packed and you're taking up space, theoretically, they're losing money from customers who could be sitting in your spot. If you need to stay, at least order something extra to make up for this. As a general rule, most insiders say you should order a drink every 2-3 hours.
"I actually like to think about it in terms of total dollars spent rather than buying frequency," said Claire Murdough, a writer and former barista. "For example, say you plan to be at a coffee shop for four hours. That doesn't mean you have to order $US2 ($3) coffees every hour. Just plan to spend $US10 ($13) (or whatever fee seems reasonable). This can be over a couple hours or all at once."
I like this option more because sometimes you just don't want to drink coffee every two hours. This way, the coffee shop still makes a profit and you still get to sit and work.
"Consider it as the price to admission. And if you think there shouldn't be a price to admission, keep in mind that coffee shops -- especially independently run cafés -- need to meet a bottom line in order to stay in business," said Murdough, whose mother owned a coffee shop for 20+ years. "Help them do that."
Remember: It's Not Actually Your Office
If you work at the same café day after day, it probably starts to feel like your office away from home. But it's not; it's a café. For most of us, it goes without saying that you probably shouldn't bring your desktop computer (I've also heard of someone bringing a printer to a café!), but there are a few other habits many baristas, patrons, and coffee shop owners would prefer you avoid:
- Holding long, loud meetings
- Staying the entire day
- Making loud phone calls
"While I wouldn't necessarily care [about meetings] as a barista -- it usually means more business, after all -- it sometimes frustrates me when I'm a patron," Murdough said. "Large meetings can easily add a lot of noise and distraction."
It's hard to find a place to meet clients, give presentations, host meetups, or conduct job interviews if you work from home. I've seen a few coffee shops with separate meeting areas reserved for activities like this, and you can book them in advance. This will take some searching, but you can look for meeting spaces in your city on Yelp, for instance.
A coworking space is another option. Some of them will allow you to rent meeting rooms for the day, even if you don't regularly rent an office from them. Similarly, most libraries have meeting rooms that patrons can book for free.
If all else fails, set a limit on how long the meeting will last and how many people will join.
Don't Hog the Wi-Fi, Electricity, or Tables
Remember, the Wi-Fi is for everyone, so don't hog the bandwidth. That means you should probably skip watching movies in the background or uploading or downloading a bunch of stuff. This is a good time to remind you to keep your data safe on public Wi-Fi networks, too. Make sure your sharing settings are turned off, your firewall is enabled, and you're only using Wi-Fi when you need it (you might even consider switching to a Virtual Private Network while you work).
It's not just Wi-Fi, though. You also don't want to hog the electricity. Plan to charge your laptop, phone, and any other device you bring with you before you leave the house. Once you get there, the only thing that should require fuel is you, and that's what the caffeine is for.
"For the most part I think it's generally fine to stay plugged in as long as you need to when the café is empty, or if you're the only one working," Murdough said. "It changes when others might need to charge or the café is crowded.
If you do find yourself in need of a battery boost, charge enough to get you through your time there and then unplug -- someone has to pay for that electricity, so don't be a jerk about it.
"My advice would be to gauge the environment and react accordingly," Murdough added. "Self-awareness goes a long way. That said, a pretty universal rule is don't bring your own power strip or stretch cords across aisles. It's dangerous!"
Keep it Quiet
It depends on the coffee shop -- some are really loud and bustling -- but as a general rule, you should respect your fellow customers and keep it quiet. That means using headphones to listen to music or watch videos. It also means taking your phone and Skype conversations outside, though some are ok with short conversations. Here's the general consensus of some baristas and owners that American Express interviewed:
If you're going to take calls indoors, though, the rest of our interviewees stress: don't shout. Dunning elaborates:
"You're looking for that sweet spot, of being in a café that's busy enough where most people won't notice, but not too busy that everyone around you can hear your conversation. My general rule as a manager was phone calls of any type were good to go until they were disturbing the other customers. But use headphones. Those conversations are twice as disturbing to other people with another voice coming through your tiny computer/phone speakers."
Speaking of using libraries as meeting spaces, don't forget: you can use them to work, too! Most of them come with free Wi-Fi, have plenty of places to sit, and are quiet so you can concentrate (sound helps you focus on certain tasks, but silence might be better for tasks that require a lot of cognitive demand). What's more, libraries are awesome and patronizing them is an easy way to offer your support.
Finally, as reasonable as these rules are to most of us, there's always someone who equates being polite with infringement. As one remote worker put it:
"If I spend $US10 ($13) or more on a sandwich and a coffee, I should be able to stay as long as I want to."
In most cases, you totally can. But you're kind of being a jerk.