I am sitting with my laptop and a mug of coffee at a tiny table. An identical table is right behind mine and every time its occupant moves, I get jabbed in the back. The cash register opens and closes. The steam machine hisses. Welcome to my new office: Starbucks, Highbury Corner, north London.
Until now, I’ve never had the slightest desire to bring my work to a coffee shop. My children swear it’s where they do their best work. Luke Johnson recently wrote a column in the Financial Times saying they are perfect places to start a business. If the alternative is the kitchen table, then I suppose Starbucks has something going for it. But for those of us with free offices, I can’t see the big draw.
Last week, I read two articles that changed my mind. First, a blog post in Fast Company arguing that we should all periodically decamp to cafés as the break to routine makes us creative, and the absence of colleagues makes us productive. The second was a piece in The New York Times saying that the background sounds in coffee shops are so conducive to work that they are being piped into office buildings as white noise.
So this morning I set off for my new workplace. The commute was a dream – four minutes by bike. Some of the time saved was lost queueing for coffee, but when I got to the front and parted with £2.15 ($3.40) for a “tall” cup of beige milk, I felt pleased with the bargain: It comes with an unlimited side order of table, chair, WiFi and electricity.
“Do you mind people sitting here all day over one coffee?” I ask the woman at the till. “No!” she beams. “I like it. They keep me company.”
It’s a rum business model. The argument goes that people with laptops look cool and give the place a buzzy atmosphere; I can’t imagine that I look any cooler hunched over my computer than my bald and paunchy neighbour looks hunched over his.
In advance, I’ve been doing some homework on how best to work in a café. You might have thought it is easy: get coffee, sit down, open laptop, work. But no. There’s a whole page on WikiHow about the “coffee shop experience,” advising clothes that are “comfortable but elegant” and that you sit far from the door and the cash register.
I settle at the only free table and remove the previous occupant’s squalid litter. The background noise is quite nice – both upbeat and soothing. The foreground noise is less so. A mobile phone rings.
“So no, yeah, it was all good. So, like, basically, yeah, all good. No, I’m literally at Starbucks. I came to charge my phone.” I turn round. He’s plugged in his phone, but hasn’t even bought a drink.
I’ve finished mine, and need to use the washroom. WikiHow does not advise on how to deal with this eventuality, so I decide to take all my stuff in with me. When I return, my table has been taken by someone else.
I leave Starbucks and head down the road to Euphorium, a brighter and groovier independent coffee shop. I get a nice table, and even though it’s barely 11 a.m., order a salt beef bagel. I enter the WiFi password and get down to work. Within five minutes, I’m joined by two women, each with a stroller the size of a small car. In one a baby screams.
With some effort I block this out, but when I look up, someone is waving at me. It’s the mother of a boy my son knew at primary school, who comes over to say her boy has just got into Oxford University and that he’s spending his gap year acting in some Hollywood film. Great, I say, continuing to type. In the office, this trick always works: Colleagues take the hint. But in coffee shops it does not seem to work at all. When I finally get rid of her, I order a strawberry tart to lift my spirits. And then a cappuccino to lift them some more. While I drink it, I read something from the New Yorker online about how caffeine destroys your creativity.
I don’t believe this any more than I believe that working in a café can increase it. There is only one effect coffee shops have for sure: They are rough on your skeleton. The chairs are designed to be sat on for half an hour – not all day.
After three hours, my back hurts and carpal tunnel syndrome can’t be far off. They are rough on the stomach too: two coffees, a Diet Coke, a bagel and a tart, and it’s not quite lunchtime.
I’ve just Googled famous people who work in cafés, and at the top of every list is J.K. Rowling. I now forgive her everything. If she wrote Harry Potter sitting in a coffee shop, she could surely have managed Middlemarch in a quiet office with a comfortable chair.