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Coffee Houses as Portable Offices Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

There's a new trend brewing at your local Star Bucks. At Timothy's and Second Cup too. Even at our venerable Tim Hortons. It's not about stronger, more exotic blends. What's taking place is a quiet revolution: We're conducting more and more business over steaming infusions in coffee shops across the city.

Walk into any well accoutered grindery mid day -- you're likely to see at least one customer typing into a laptop, as oblivious to the crowd as their napkin dispenser. There might be a well dressed business woman connecting by cell phone to her new client. At one set of stools there is a lively meeting in process. And invariably students are present, their tables strewn with papers, portable headphones blasting the latest White Stripes. What do all these people have in common?

They've come to an affordable, familiar oasis, a place where, for no more than a few dollars, they can warm their innards, do their deals, plan their next venture, or just hang out if they want to. It's kind of like being Norm and walking into Cheers, sans booze and adoring crowd.

In a downtown Timothy's I approach a couple of patrons who confer like true road warriors, briefcases open and cell phones flipped for action. I ask them why they're here, not in an office somewhere. Antoine, a forty-something department store buyer, says 'When someone's trying to sell me something I like to meet them away from my building. It takes away the feeling that someone's watching over me.' His eager late 20's pitchwoman, Estella, says she enjoys meeting her prospects over a demitasse. 'Whatever makes them feel comfortable,' she says. 'These kinds of places are great because they're everywhere, and you don't feel like a slob being seen in one.'

Tina Pressman understands this sentiment. She owns and operates a thriving Second Cup in Richmond Hill, and her clientele has been shifting these last few years. 'My afternoon crowd is now bigger than the mornings,' says Pressman. She attributes this to the influx of business people holding meetings in her store. 'We get all sorts of real estate and insurance agents with their clients. We even have a career coach who does her sessions here.'

I flinch a bit when she says this, having spent many animated hours advising clients in places just like Pressman's. So I ask her straight out: What does it do for revenues when people come in, stay for a long time, and buy maybe one or two coffees tops? Pressman, whose outgoingness and easy familiarity make her ideal for her chosen profession, views this pragmatically -- 'If I can attract regulars, if customers feel comfortable visiting and staying here for a while, then I'm doing something right.' She has even remodeled to add more 'comfy seating,' the lounge chairs and padded benches patrons scramble for. 'Eventually some of my new customers turn into regulars. It becomes contagious.'

One can easily see why. Where else can you step in off the street almost anywhere you go, plunk down your gear, grab a steaming joe and get busy? In surroundings where you feel comfortable, all for the price of a coffee?

The downsides are obvious if you've ever passed your day in a local café. There's that whole lack of privacy thing, for starters. Can you believe the juicy tidbits you hear while innocently reading your paper, or in my case, while burnishing my column using a palmtop and foldable keyboard? Names of bosses people hate. Details of assorted business deals. And 'confidential' calls where people raise voices like they fancy themselves in a cone of silence.

Something else that detracts from the experience: those pesky customers who hover like vultures waiting to pounce on your table. Flashing those inquiring glances your way, do they really think you're gonna budge? As if. Still, for self-conscious types, a carrel at your favourite public library might be a better bet.

Finally, if you worry about losing face time or falling off your boss's radar screen, lounging in a café may not be your cup of tea. Unless of course you've got prior approval to work or meet off-site.

Here are some tips on how to be a good patron when using a coffee place as your office. Consider purchasing an item every hour or so -- it makes the owner happy. Try to keep conversations you have to a reasonable decibel level. And take the smallest table you need for the size of your party so others will have room for seating.

Beyond the practical advantages of doing work in a coffee house, there are the more subtle social benefits. If you tend to operate from a home office, let's say. Being out among people from time to time can be good for the soul. Even if you sit alone, it's a way of staying connected to the hum of our city.

Coming next is another wave in business accommodation. Wireless internet is already available at selected Second Cups throughout Canada. Starbucks has had it in the U.S. for a few years. It means you can bring in any wireless-enabled notebook computer, PDA or pocket PC, and access the Internet without plugging anything in. Fees generally apply but the convenience factor's terrific.

And that's what this is all about, really; finding expedient space where you can churn those wheels of commerce in comfort. It beats sitting in a cubicle. You can't match it on a cost per hour basis. And you get to try things like Chai, 'A blissful blend of black tea, delicious warm spices, honey, Madagascar vanilla and milk.' Could conducting business go any smoother than this?

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