Coffee shop work etiquette

Coffee shop work etiquette

Summary: More people seem to be working in coffee shops than ever, and a few rules go a long way to make it a productive environment for all.

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Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

Mobile technology has come a long way to make it possible for many workers to get things done almost anywhere. The neighborhood coffee shop is a popular spot for many, but just one person can ruin the productive environment for everyone. If every remote worker follows a few simple rules everyone can have a nice work session in any coffee shop.

I work in coffee shops part of the day at least four or five times a week and I see people committing one or two of the offenses listed below almost every day. A good work session can be derailed by those with little regard for fellow patrons in the coffee shop.

Related story: Exciting work venues for the mobile professional

Take phone calls outside

Work sessions sometimes mean handling important phone calls. The one rule that should never be broken is to take all phone calls outside. This applies equally to both incoming and outgoing calls. The people around you have no desire to hear your side of the conversation, and you shouldn't want them to hear it either.

If you have to step outside to take that call, tell someone close by what you're doing and ask if they will watch your stuff. They will usually agree to do it as they appreciate your taking the conversation outside. Keep the call as short as possible so you can quickly relieve your good samaritan.

Don't ever participate in a phone call using the speaker phone in the shop. Few things distract everybody than hearing both sides of a loud phone call. Those who do this should be banned from the coffee shop for life.

Always use headphones

Loud phone calls are not the only distraction involving sound in coffee shops. You've most likely been working in a place and been disturbed by someone listening to music or watching a video with the audio playing for everyone to hear. 

This is very poor etiquette as it disturbs everyone nearby. It's not the same for your neighbors to just hear that funny YouTube video. Pull your earphones out of your bag and plug them in; you'll be a hero to everyone if you do.

Don't be an outlet addict

If you work in coffee shops much at all you've seen your share of outlet addicts, the folks with a laptop who can't bring themselves to work without plugging it in. Many of them are just topping off the battery of the laptop "just in case". 

Unfortunately, few coffee shops have an abundance of outlets and what they have seem to be located in the worst places possible. This causes outlet addicts to string laptop power cords dangerously between their table and the outlet. It's one of the most discourteous things a worker can do in a public venue.

On the other hand, those using the laptop without a power cord can do their part to be a good workmate. If you don't need the outlet, sit away from them if you can. Leave the closest spots to the outlets for those who may really need to charge a laptop battery. 

Befriend the baristas

If you work in particular coffee shops regularly, make friends with the staff. Many workers in shops I frequent tell me they love repeat customers who chat them up in passing. They look forward to friendly customers and enjoy having them hang out for a while. This offsets the fact that customers who work a while are occupying tables.

Always buy drinks and food when possible to help the shop make money. This ensures they stay in business so your work place stays around for you. Don't forget to tip the workers, and tip them well. They probably don't make much money as it is so treat them as well as you can.

Do not conduct interviews in public places

Apparently lots of managers need to have training when it comes to interviewing prospective employees as I see them conducting such interviews in public far too often. Job interviews expose a lot of personal information and it is never appropriate to make those applying for jobs to share such information in public. This is a very demeaning thing to put people through.

Job interviews are not the only type of meeting that shouldn't happen in the coffee shop. I've heard a number of client/attorney meetings taking place at adjacent tablets while I was trying to work. I heard one attorney meeting with a client accusing another local attorney of sexual harrassment. Everyone at adjacent tables were extremely uncomfortable with this meeting taking place in a crowded coffee shop.

Keep meetings small and quiet

If you work in coffee shops regularly you've problably seen meetings held that disrupt the entire shop. To be a good remote worker if you must meet in a coffee shop try to keep the meeting to two or three people. Bigger groups take up too much space and no matter how hard everyone tries to keep quiet it's almost impossible when too many people are involved.

The rule for taking phone calls outside often comes into play with large meetings. I've heard speaker phone calls held by group meetings disrupt otherwise productive work sessions in the coffee shop.

Introduce yourself to other regulars

When you patronize coffee shops often, you end up seeing a fair number of other regulars. Don't overlook the opportunity to make new friends and introduce yourself to them. It's interesting to hear what they do and what leads them to the coffee shop to work frequently and they will likely feel the same.

Since I started working in coffee shops a lot I've met interesting people, some of whom have become close friends.

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Smartphones

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28 comments
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  • My pet peaves

    Personally I agree that the biggest problem in public places is people talking too loud with their cell phone. I am not sure if they think its better for the caller or if they think the background noise hurts the call quality? But I also find people disregard a lot of concern for respecting other peoples privacy and space. I have not seen it much but I like web cafe's that offer electrical connections right at the tables. But I find it a bit funny when I see a person with a 17" laptop trying to work at one of the little tables. I totally think people need to work on their people skills for technology.
    JohnnyES
    • Don't WORK at the coffee shop!

      buy your coffee, and take it into a library and do it in a place that is MEANT to be quiet if you need quiet. A coffee shop is a place where people chat and laugh and socialise, expecting peace in a coffee shop is rather anti-social.
      warboat
      • Socialize - But w/Folks Present

        Unless it is a true emergency, cell phone calls need to be done outside
        LindaClaudine
        • con. ...

          Socializing with friends is fine - talking on the phone for an hour, loudly, about trivial gossip is just plain rude.
          LindaClaudine
  • Additional outlet etiquette

    Keep a small power strip (4 or 6 ports) with you so you can share if you absolutely MUST be plugged in. If your laptop's power adapter blocks both power outlets when you use it, use the power strip instead.

    Never take up more than one outlet port for ALL of your electronics -laptop, smartphone, etc.

    If yo uare sitting at a table that is at an outlet, do not take up the entire table with your stuff. Share the space with other "road warriors."
    gevander
  • Working in Coffee Shops

    Some coffee shops get infested with people buying one (1) coffee and taking up a table 2 could sit at who just want to have a coffee and chat for a short time. Starbucks for one in some of their outlets are limiting such (mis)use of their establishment.

    University students are particularly bad at this habit.
    bruce.ott@...
  • Then, of course ........

    there's always the option of working out of an office or out of a home office.
    da philster
    • I'd rather work in open spaces

      like a picnic table at a park or the beach than at a coffee shop where you can expect noise and plenty of it.
      warboat
  • Silence, Please

    My first attempt was rejected due to subject line with a well known four-letter acronym for being quiet, so I'm re-submitting with a more politically correct subject.

    Rule #1 is the most egregiously violated. A few weeks ago I was in a student lounge above a Starbucks. A financial planner of some sort would not stop calling his clients, most of whom didn't answer, and leaving messages — in a loud voice — about the state of their investments. I felt like walking over, grabbing his cell phone, throwing it over the balcony, and telling him that I would never consider doing business with someone like him.

    In a public place, I don't want to know about your (or your clients') finances, your attempts to hire a cleaning lady before your wife gets back from a business trip, or the details of your latest surgery.
    S_Deemer
    • agree!!

      Nor details of you, your friends, family or neighbors sex lives and definitely skip the rehash of the latest tv show you watched or what the Kardashians are up to. Especially an hour of the above, in a loud voice.
      LindaClaudine
  • All good suggestions

    I find myself working on consulting projects several hours a week not at a coffee shop, but at McDonald's. The drinks are way cheaper, the WiFi is good, tables and booths are plentiful, and there is just enough background noise to help me relax and focus. Also, they don't play overly loud annoying music like the coffee shop nearest my work. I typically frequent two different McDonald's, usually in the morning. One is my "weekday" McDonald's. It's on my way to my regular job and is always nearly empty in the morning. The other is my "weekend" location. It's nearer my house and has a friendly bunch of seniors who always meet early morning. The only downside to Mickey D's is the utter absence of power outlets, but I guess that's why laptops have batteries.
    Sir Name
  • Rule 1: don't work in a coffee shop!

    If you need to work in a coffee shop so often, get yourself a good coffee machine and learn to make your own coffee at home.
    It's usually the try-hards that want to be seen that pretend to work in a coffee shop.
    I find coffee shops way too distracting to do any work and will not even try to get any work done there. If I'm actually trying to do something important in a public place on my laptop/tablet/phone, I couldn't give a flying fark if a bomb went off, I'm going to do it.
    If you can't talk on the phone, does that mean you can't have a two way conversation in a coffee shop with a friend next to you? I mean, that is the essense of a coffee shop right? a social place to have a live chat?
    warboat
    • conversations with individuals present = OK

      Most of us r bothered by those who feel the need to talk on their cells at all times, even when the subject matter is banal by any standards. And cell phone voices are just louder
      LindaClaudine
  • Sounds like rules for church, to me.

    If you want a coffee to go and work elsewhere, fine - but the prices they charge, more than entitles you to work there without such silly rules.

    Cell phones outside? Hello? Where have you been? Half the point of having the coffee in is so you can make calls in comfort. Sure, they shouldn't be loud, and normal rules of etiquette apply - but no calls? Sorry, mate, you lost this one.

    Headphones? Of course. If someone breaks this one, they don't deserve to in human company. Sort them out (I know a few tricks).

    Outlet addict? I don't even understand this one. A decent coffee shop has seating, power and free wifi - not because they're kind generous souls, but because they want to attract customers who want seating, power and free wifi. So long as they're buying, fine by me. If that service is too much for the outlet.maybe they're in the wrong trade, and should be selling airlline tickets.

    Befriend the Baristas? It might get you special favours - but if other customers see you getting favours, they might well go elsewhere; no-one likes to be treated like a second class citizen. So by bribing the service, you lose them business. Good for you. Be fair to the baristas; be polite, tip fairly, don't monopolise them or waste their time - that's a sure way to make the place fail.

    Conducting interviews? No way; not fair on the interviewee. A great way for them to learn that this company is happy to humiliate their staff.

    Large, noisy meetings? Another no-no; loyal customers have a duty to walk through such meetings, knocking coffee over as they go. And more than once. They deserve a good kicking, but apparently that's not allowed.

    Introduce yourself to other regulars, if you want a LEGAL good kicking. Else a nod and a smile are sufficient.
    Heenan73
    • could not (

      Exactly. Starbucks in particular caters to those of us who need that change of scenery to finish up our online business. And as much as their coffee costs - enough outlets is a no-brainier. In most that I frequent it seems that the workers
      LindaClaudine
      • con. ...

        congregate on one side
        LindaClaudine
        • comments dropped

          Type a comment - three-quarters ends up missing!
          LindaClaudine
  • Personal details discussed

    You get what you get when you choose to work there. However I have heard attorney / clients discuss their work. One was a person who evidently had a stroke/heart attack and after awhile was released from their job. The attorney was advising this person and the family. It was very uncomfortable to hear this. No other place for me to sit. Finally I left. The client was very uncomfortable being they had difficulty talking and walking. The other family member had to continually help with the speaking. Be considerate of people when deciding where to work.
    akeagle
  • Loud phones!

    First of all, let me support gevander's suggestion of a power strip. Useful in many cases (no pun intended) and it allows you to "break in" on someone who is hogging the power outlet.

    Second: Loud phones -- no excuse. In public confined spaces like buses, trains and coffee shops I like to ask questions about how the talk is going (the subject is usually obvious), or, better yet in my experience, is to offer coaching of what they should say back. The quiet after is deafening.
    ait10101
    • yes

      Have found that commenting on loud silly conversations, especially on buses, works like a charm!
      LindaClaudine