A month or two ago, we trekked up to Pennsylvania to visit family. My wife took some time off from work, but I decided to save my vacation days, which had run short after a recent beach trip.
That meant I needed to find somewhere to get my work done. Hoping to avoid the dining room table or kitchen counter, I settled on the closest Starbucks. Here’s what I learned about remote work, the “third place” office, and myself:
Starbucks is loud.
Starbucks uses canned music, like most other restaurants. I don’t begrudge them that. If I were meeting a friend for lattes, I probably wouldn’t even notice. But when I’m trying to be productive, it’s not ideal.
It’s not that I hate Starbucks’ musical selections. Their catalog of singer-songwriters is fairly benign. No, the real problem is that any music with discernible lyrics distracts me. The performers’ sung words get jumbled up in my brain with my own. That’s why, at home, I prefer tracks without lyrics: movie soundtracks and classical pieces dominate my playlists.
It’s not just the piped-in music that makes Starbucks noisy. A dozen customer conversations strain to rise over the din. Behind the counter, there’s this constant cacophony of clanking dishes, steaming milk, order-taking, and whipped-cream-spraying. Even the best noise-cancelling headphones would struggle to filter out all that.
My solution? I blast white noise (or more technically, lower-frequency “brown” noise) through my headset. That manages to drown out most of Starbucks’ “atmosphere.” This approach has its drawbacks (e.g. I can’t play my own music), but the constant thrum of static creates an aural bubble that lets me concentrate.
Technically, Starbucks no longer requires you to buy something to claim a seat. Visitors can hang out (or work!) without even visiting the register. But I would feel guilty if I occupied a table without a Starbucks cup in hand—especially if others customers couldn’t find a seat. That meant I always ordered a drink.
In a “real” coffeehouse (i.e. a locally owned shop that takes its coffee more seriously), a latte or even a café mocha are reasonable treats—not “healthy,” per se, but not awful, either.
Starbucks is a different animal. I was hard-pressed to find anything on the Starbucks’ menu that qualified as “healthy.” The franchise’s path to ubiquity was paved with sugar. Your drink is pumped full of syrup. Whipped cream comes standard. Expect chocolate drizzled on top (even if you didn’t request it).
The non-liquid options aren’t much better. Starbucks’ checkout counter is surrounded by piles of processed calorie bombs: mass-produced pastries, prepackaged brownies and organic (but still unhealthy) candy.
So, yeah, visiting Starbucks may sabotage your diet. It will also significantly lighten your wallet. Even if you limited yourself to one drink, you’re looking at at least $6 or $7 to claim a workspace. Buying lunch there? That’s $10 more. And a few snacks? Another fiver. Long story short: if you spent a month remote-working from Starbucks, you could easily drop $500 on food and drinks alone.
To be fair, that compares favorably to renting an office or a coworking desk. But you’d save significant cash by working from home, brewing your own coffee, and nuking last night’s leftovers.
The pee dilemma
At a traditional workplace or a home office, you never have to think twice about a five-minute bathroom break. Just lock your workstation and leave.
But at Starbucks, every twinge of your bladder presents a problem. Do you you risk leaving your $2,000 laptop (plus any accessories) lying there on the table? Should you ask a nearby neighbor to serve as your (unpaid and disinterested) security guard? Or do you wind up your cables, stow away your gear, and haul everything to the potty, hoping you can find a seat when you return? Even if you do, all that packing and repacking eats up precious work time.
Designers, developers, and even productivity gurus often prefer multiple monitors and the real estate they offer. In my home office, I have four monitors (three external screens plus the native laptop display), and even that often feels inadequate.
At Starbucks, I’m constrained to my laptop’s relatively tiny work space. It feels like working with one arm tied behind my back, no matter how much I practice the multitasking shortcuts and swipe gestures. Yes, there’s something to be said for the increased focus of viewing a single app, but many tasks are far easier when you can set two or three app windows side-by-side. 1
Home, sweet home (office)
After a few days working at Starbucks, I gave up. I borrowed a folding table from neighbors and set up a makeshift workspace in our hosts’ laundry room. What it lacked in ambience, it made up for in quiet, convenience, and cost. When we returned home, I was eager to return to my dedicated home office.
I still do make work pilgrimages to my local coffeeshop. Every Friday afternoon, you’ll find me there, winding up my work week and sipping on a mocha. But those visits last just a few hours. I’m just not suited for days-long work sojourns at Starbucks. ■
- Some creative types, facing the same issue, have resorted to hauling their iMac back and forth to the coffeeshop each day. No, thanks. ↩