Coffee shop commuting

Professionals who’ve mastered the art of working remotely share their tips for maximum productivity in today’s ‘new office.’

Branislav Jovanović | Stocksy United

Walk into any coffee shop during the day, midweek, and you’re likely to see people on laptops, meeting with clients, or scribbling notes while reading a book. With more companies allowing employees to telecommute and work more flexible schedules, as well as increasing numbers of freelancers in the workforce, coffee shops have become the new office.

But unlike an office, a coffee shop isn’t designed for productivity. There’s usually music playing, people talking and laughing, and no ergonomic desk chairs. Even so, many people swear by the coffee house atmosphere for getting work done. In fact, one website and app, Coffitivity, now offers ambient noise recorded in coffee shops. You can choose from Morning Murmur, Lunchtime Lounge, and University Undertones for free, and upgrade to premium to experience Paris Paradise, Texas Teahouse, and Brazil Bistro.

Coffitivity devotes a page on their website to the research that associates moderate noise with creativity, citing a study published by Oxford University Press in 2012. One of the findings from the study shows: “A moderate level of ambient noise is conducive to creative cognition.” Essentially, the sounds of steaming milk, doors opening and closing, and people chatting, might just boost your creativity.

This is backed up by the Staples Advantage Workplace Index of 2015, which found that staff members increasingly feel most creative and innovative in non-traditional spaces like the outdoors or a coffee shop. If your job offers this kind of flexibility, this may be a good enough reason to give coffee shops a try.

I asked several people who work out of coffee shops regularly for their best tips on how they make it work:

Bring your headphones

Even though the moderate noise may help (and some people swear by the relaxing coffee house music blend), sometimes it’s nice to control what you’re listening to. Many of the people I spoke with listen to music (classical is a popular choice), and Adele, a freelance editor, told me that she puts her headphones on just for the noise-cancelling properties. Headphones can also signal to those around you that you’re working, making them less likely to interrupt your flow.

Charge it up

There’s nothing quite as frustrating as arriving at a coffee house, ready to work, and realizing that your laptop battery is about to die and all of the outlets are in use. Kimberly, a San Francisco based freelancer for various companies, told me she always makes sure her battery is fully charged before leaving the house. Jeremy, an entrepreneur and former Starbucks manager, said he carries a power strip with several outlets (which, he says, has also made him popular).

Pay your rent

Like an office, a coffee shop is a place of business. Unlike your office, they aren’t paying you to be there. The single most important thing from my research was the idea of “paying rent.” Buy something to drink. If you’re there over the lunch hour, buy lunch. If you’re planning to be at a coffee shop for several hours, plan to purchase something for every two-hour chunk of time.

Recently, I was working at a coffee shop and witnessed an awkward encounter between a young man on a laptop and one of the cafe owners. She pointed out that he had been there for hours and hadn’t purchased anything. “That’s how we keep our doors open,” she said.

If you find that working at a coffee shop boosts your productivity, show your appreciation by supporting the place making it possible, and don’t forget to tip.

Money matters

If working at a coffee shop feels like a financial luxury for you, consider asking for gift cards as gifts, or look into receiving them as credit card rewards. Sasha, a virtual assistant I spoke with, uses a cash back credit card to refill her gift card (which is also tied to coffee rewards) maximizing her coffee money.

If you need to, create a coffee shop budget and stick to it. Limit the number of times you go per week, or tie the outing to specific projects.

Be nice

We’ve all seen these people in coffee shops—the ones who spread out across several chairs with bags, books, and notebooks everywhere. Their power cord is plugged in so it blocks a pathway and they take constant, loud phone calls.

A little consideration goes a long way. Think of your fellow coffee shop patrons as co-workers. Be mindful of your noise level (take anything but short, quiet calls in your car, or outside). Take up as little space as you can and if the coffee shop is so busy that newcomers can’t find a seat, consider relocating.

As you use the internet, be mindful that you’re sharing it with everyone else in the building. Use your bandwidth for checking email and browsing the web, rather than large downloads and streaming videos.

Make it a meeting

One way to boost the coffee shop’s bottom line is to use it as a meeting place. Alison, an author and journalist, does this often “in order not to be a space hog.” You’ll have a relaxed environment for meeting clients or co-workers and you can work solo on either side of the meeting.

Keep it clean

Tables at coffee shops are often a hot commodity. Don’t make it harder for someone to claim your recently vacated spot by leaving your space scattered with dishes. If there’s a dish bin, place your plates and cups inside. If you’re drinking from a disposable cup, throw it away. You wouldn’t leave your office kitchen littered with trash and dishes, so don’t do it at your coffee shop office.

Find your fit

Every person’s ideal working coffee shop will be different. Daniel, a professor, prefers to be known as a regular at his local, independent cafe, having chats with the owners during slow moments. Others I spoke with prefer the anonymity of a Starbucks or Panera.

Nicole, a writer in Brooklyn, suggests using the app WHA (Work Hard Anywhere) to find local laptop-friendly cafes and workspaces. At the time of this publication, the app had data on over 3,559 workspaces, across 874 cities, from 69 countries, including information about parking, wi-fi, capacity, food, outlets, and pricing.

For some people, fast wi-fi is the most important element, while others choose wi-fi free establishments when their focus needs to be at a premium and the internet might be a distraction. Still others love the idea of working in a public place like a library (some of which now have coffee shops). Lara, who works part-time in a library, enjoyed being surrounded by research materials and reference librarians, and not having to worry that she’s outstaying her welcome.

You might choose a different coffee shop each day, or make it dependent on the type of work you need to complete. For some people, the aesthetics are very important; others are mindful of seating that’s far enough away from the cold air of entrances and exits. Find the coffee shop that fits best with your work style and needs, and don’t be afraid to keep looking until it’s just right.

Cara Strickland
Cara Strickland

Cara Strickland is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She writes about food, faith, singleness, and relationships for a variety of publications in print and online. You can find more of her work at

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