By Beth Teitell
Robert Wickham, a software salesman, was working on his laptop at his favorite office - the airy Cafe Fixe, in Brookline - when he took a break to explain the art of scoring a desk, er, table, and how it all comes down to contacts. If people know you, he said, they'll share a table or finish their coffee quickly. "But when you're the new guy," he said, "no one's going to give up a seat for you."
Milk, cream, or office politics with your coffee?
As the WiFi workforce expands and growing numbers of the unemployed, self-employed, even fully employed punch the clock at cafes, competitive and petty behaviors once confined to the office have been outsourced - to the corner coffee shop.
"It's like being at work," Wickham, 39, observed. "You always have to have your antenna up."
If NBC remakes "The Office" (again), the show should be set at
"You do the hover," said Todd Orr, 29, a computer programmer, as he worked with his brother at Starbucks on Boylston Street in Back Bay, explaining a passive-aggressive method for landing a seat that involves assertive loiter ing. "You hope you don't get into a parking lot situation," in which some jerk jumps ahead and takes what's yours, he added. "It could start a fistfight."
Statistics on the number of people working in coffee shops (at the tables, not behind the counter) are hard to come by, but the number of coffee shops has grown from about 10,000 in 1998 to 23,000 or more today, according to Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. "You walk into a coffee shop [in any urban area], and there's no place to sit down or plug in a laptop," he said. "It's enough of a phenomenon that there are bloggers who've blogged about laptop etiquette."
Maggie Mason of San Francisco is one of them. "I spend a few days a week working at coffee shops," she wrote in a December post on mightygirl.com, "and I've seen some serious audacity in the last few years.
"There's always the guy communing with his computer at a table meant for four. He inevitably plugged in to the only outlet five hours ago; about the time he purchased his coffee, which has long since gone cold. Occasionally he rises to aim banter at the irritated barista, and then returns to his seat without making a purchase. . . . I once saw someone pull a screwdriver out of his bag to remove a cover plate the owner had secured over an outlet. I had to restrain myself from walking over to smack his hands away."
Speaking of power outlets, in at least one local "coffice,"
A human resource issue was born. The store tried to play nice by asking laptop users to limit their time, but when that didn't work, employees covered many outlets with plates, an outcome Linn Parrish, Panera's vice president of public relations, calls a "fair solution to the situation." The rank and file has griped, but picket lines have not formed in front of the store.
Even the sun can be an issue, says Amy Alkon, a syndicated advice columnist and author of a forthcoming book on the collapse of public manners. She spends a lot of time writing in coffee shops, and has witnessed countless workplace-like disputes, including one over whether the shades should be left up, to let in light for the employees, or pulled down, to enable laptop workers to see their screens.
"There's a war between the people who work at Starbucks for a living and the people who work at Starbucks for a living they're earning someplace else," she said.
Many nomadic laptop workers enjoy the break from officemates that coffee shops provide, but anonymity isn't always guaranteed. If you work in one coffee shop too frequently, other regulars can become just as problematic as chatty co-workers.
And then there are the strangers who inject themselves into work conversations.
"We've had people chip in and offer advice about what we're doing," said Dave Gordon, senior art director of B Direct, a marketing and communications firm whose principals all work from home. He was meeting with his two colleagues at the Boylston Street Starbucks, their "conference room."Most of the unsolicited counsel starts like this, Gordon said: "I'm sorry, but I couldn't help but overhear . . ." Then come the suggestions on how to improve whatever print ad or direct mail piece the firm's creating. People mean well, he said. So, has the firm ever used any of the ideas? "No, not really." Hey, sounds just like the real workplace.