Working from coffee shops: The top three challenges

Laptop in a coffee shop

When you’re a freelancer you tend to spend a lot of your time hanging around in coffee shops, using the free wi-fi and gradually becoming addicted to flat whites. But it’s not all macchiatos and muffins when you’re a coffee shop worker (CSW) – when your local coffee outlet is also your office there are some challenges to overcome. So here’s my top three….well, four, if you’re really counting.

Why work from a coffee shop?

Why do so many of us end up working from a coffee shop in the first place? If you’re a freelancer, remote worker or travelling salesperson, you need a base to work from. Working from home suits some people, but for most us it’s just too distracting. There are the temptations of mindless daytime TV, easily reachable biscuit tins and the ability to be sidelined by domestic chores. And if you’re a parent, like me, there’s the added distraction of your kid demanding to watch more Sarah & Duck on CBeebies (it’s actually rather good, if you like surreal cartoons with talking umbrellas).

There’s also the need to ‘go to work’ and to have some kind of structure and pattern to your working day. By leaving the house in the morning and coming home at night, you reinforce that the time inbetween is for work, not for looking at amusing cat videos on YouTube…well, most of the time anyway.

So, in essence, a coffee shop becomes your office. The main draw is free wi-fi, clearly. You can get online, access your emails, open your cloud applications and get your head down to some serious nose-to-the-grindstone work.

But, in my experience, there are challenges of this coffee-shop approach.

1. Battery life and the need for power

Most CSWs work from a laptop or tablet. And laptops are power-hungry little devils. Battery life may be gradually improving over time, but your average laptop or tablet is unlikely to last for an entire working day. So you’re at the mercy of your battery.

Some coffee shops let you plug in to their power sockets, but many also don’t. So finding a shop where you can stick your charger into the wall is a must if you’re going to be a serious, long-term CSW. This can also lead to what I’m going to term ‘socket envy’, where you find all the power sockets in your favourite coffee shop are in use and you have to resign yourself to giving Paddington Bear hard stares to the people hogging those tables.

You could, of course, get yourself a spare battery, or a USB charging pack for your tablet. But where’s the fun in that, eh?

2. Noise and loud conversations

The longer you work as a CSW, the more you will notice just how much rubbish people talk in coffee shops. And how loudly they do it. Most shops can split their clientele into a few distinct categories, broken down by noise made and annoyance created.

  • CSWs like yourself: quietly working and tapping away at the their laptops.
  • Retired pensioners: sipping tea, discussing their back problems and carping on about ‘that Edna’ and the terrible things she said to Dotty at the weekend.
  • Middle-aged ladies: catching up with their friends so they knock back innumerable cappuccinos and character assassinate each other’s husbands in minute detail.
  • Parents with babies and children: valiantly trying to control their offspring while also drinking a well-earned hot chocolate before it gets spilt on the floor.
  • Groups of school kids and sixth formers: drinking soft drinks, eating an inhuman amount of crisps, but mainly talking as loudly and as excitedly as they can about how bad their teachers are, how much they fancy the local hottie or how totally awesome and totes hilarious the video clip on their phone is.

So, as a CSW, that’s what you’re up against. It can be tricky to cope with the noise, as it means things are usually too loud to make phone or Skype calls. And it can be hard to focus on your work if you’re earwigging on conversations that contain the sentence ‘We found this AMAZING lemon mayonnaise…but of course you can only get it in France…’.

3. Security and biological functions

For CSWs using a laptop, there’s the problem of security. You’re probably using a device which is fairly expensive, and if you’re a freelancer you definitely don’t want to end up getting your laptop nicked. So you don’t want to leave your machine unattended at any point.

This creates a problem. Eventually you’ll need to visit the bathroom, especially if you’ve been swigging coffee all morning. But if you’re working alone, there’s no-one to keep an eye on your laptop whilst you pop to the loo. Dilemma: how do you keep your laptop safe and not end up having an embarrassing accident all over Caffe Nero?

  • Work these unavoidable biological functions into your working day by breaking for lunch, packing everything up and visiting the bathroom before you leave to take a breather and get some food.
  • Take the laptop with you to the bathroom. Looks a *bit* weird, it has to be said and will probably raise a few eyebrows as to why you’re taking a computer into the toilet. But at least you know it’s safe and you are not going to wet yourself!
  • Ask a kindly looking fellow CSW to guard your laptop. This is a slightly strange tactic, as you’re asking a stranger to look after your property in case another stranger tries to steal it. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it? How do you know this CSW isn’t an infamous tea leaf who’s going to abscond with your laptop the second you lock the bathroom door? Answer: you don’t. But we seem quite happy to do this and trust our luck to human nature and a wobbly belief in people being generally nice.
  • You can also just buy a Kenton lock lead and attach your laptop to the table. But, again, where’s the fun in that?

The additional challenge: missing a team

So, those are the three main challenges of being a CSW: battery life, noise and not getting your laptop half-inched. But there’s an additional challenge as well…

As a fully fledged CSW, you’re working alone most of the time. This can be a distinct advantage, as you can focus on your work without the distractions of dozens of long, boring corporate meetings, or dull chats with so-and-so from Accounts whose name you can never remember.

But it does mean that you’re not part of a team anymore. And that can leave you feeling a tad out on a limb and unconnected to other people in your company – or if you’re a freelancer, other people in your network. And that’s where social media and online chat platforms can come into their own. If you really are missing the chat and ‘wicked bantz’ of being part of a wider team, you can just get onto Skype, Google Hangouts, Twitter etc. and connect with your co-workers, colleagues and clients. We all need a chinwag occasionally, and ten minutes spent talking about the totally amazeballs burger you had yesterday will help to get you through the day with more of a smile on your face.

So, fellow CSWs, charge your batteries, get your coffee loyalty cards ready and head for your local coffee establishment. Let’s go to work!



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