Photographer: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

What You Need to Know to Get Work Done in Coffee Shops

If a cafe doubles as your office, make sure you’re finding the best locations, choosing the best seats, and keeping your information private.

The best part of working from home: a seconds-long commute. The worst: spending an entire day in an empty house, and the cabin fever that comes with it.

Thank goodness for cafes that offer Wi-Fi. If you feel like you do your best work only after plopping down around strangers, it’s not in your head. “Moderate levels of chatter or noise in environments such as coffee shops induce some distraction, which our research has shown causes people to think at a higher level or from a broader perspective,” said Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Business who has studied the space. “This effectively enhances their creativity.”

But coffee shops also provide plenty of obstacles to doing your job. Here are some tips for making the most of your adopted office.

Avoiding crowded cafes

At some shops, grabbing a peak-hour seat can feel like scoring tickets to Hamilton. Fortunately, Alphabet, parent company of Google, has a hack that can help you dodge the crowds. Google’s new Popular Times feature, which launched last year, shows you when everything from museums to local bars to coffee shops are expected to be the busiest. Type your destination into Google Search, and alongside the venue’s phone number and address will pop up an idiot-proof bar graph that depicts the place’s predicted busyness on any given day of the week, to the hour. This makes it easy to know that, for example, your local Starbucks will likely be packed on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. but relatively quiet by the time 5 p.m. rolls around.

This whole thing works because Google knows how many users are in a specific spot at a given time, and it can use that data to predict how many will be there in the future. “Much like we compute traffic data based on the anonymized aggregated movement of people on the road, we are able to determine relatively how busy a place may be throughout the day,” said Andrew Chen, a Google product manager.

The feature won’t work for every single coffee shop out there, but if the place gets busy enough for this to be a concern, chances are pretty good Popular Times will work for it.

Finding new places to work

If you’re trying out a new cafe, you’ll want to make sure it has the goods to double as your office, such as speedy Wi-Fi and plentiful power outlets. To the rescue: a new crop of Yelp-like sites and apps that rate businesses on just these metrics. The biggest is probably WorkFrom.com—with a database that spans more than 300 cities—though I find that the new iOS app WHA (Work Hard Anywhere) is the best option if you’re on the go, since it uses your GPS location to quickly give you a map of nearby laptop-friendly spots.

Staying secure

Hackers take advantage of our thirst for free Wi-Fi by creating shady networks that have legit-sounding names, and then hoping you’ll log on. “By setting up their own Wi-Fi hotspot and tricking you into using it, the bad guy gets to look at all your network traffic as it’s being routed through them,” said Kevin Haley, director of security response at Symantec. Such “rogue hotspots” are especially common at busy sites such as airports and often feature official-sounding names like “AT&T Hotspot” or “Free Airport Wi-Fi.” Haley suggests double-checking with a cafe’s management to make sure the hotspot you’re using is, in fact, theirs.

Of course, even an official cafe hotspot can be compromised by a determined hacker. “It’s probably best not to do any banking, bill paying, or shopping over public Wi-Fi,” Haley said. “When visiting a website, type the URL directly into the Web browser, rather than follow a link within an e-mail or instant message. Fraudsters often forge these links to make them look convincing.”

Other simple ways to beef up your security: Only input personal information into encrypted websites that have “https” in their URL (look for a small lock icon in your Web browser to confirm this connection, usually near the URL bar), and use a virtual private network (VPN) to add an encrypted layer that all your data passes through. While many companies supply VPNs for employees to use while working remotely, you can also try free ones such as CyberGhost VPN, or paid ones (which tend to be faster and ad-free) including HotSpot Shield Elite or proXPN.

Screening away prying eyes

With all the attention paid to hackers spying on you from shadowy rooms far away, it can be easy to forget that working in public likely puts your screen—and all its potentially sensitive contents—within eyeshot of maybe, possibly, nefarious strangers. Such spying is called “shoulder surfing” in security circles, and no amount of online encryption can ebb it.

One way to reduce the risk: Use a laptop privacy filter that slides over your screen and effectively limits the viewing angle to straight-on, ensuring that the errant eyes of a neighboring cappuccino-sipper will be treated to little more than a black screen. I’ve been using the 3M Privacy Filter for the past several weeks (the company makes models that fit most popular laptops) and find it effective and mostly unobtrusive. It reduces my screen’s maximum brightness a bit, but this is to be expected, as these things are basically giant polarized sunglasses. Pro tip: For the best performance, turn your screen’s brightness down. The lower the brightness setting, the more effective the filter will be at narrowing its viewing angle.

Of course, if you’re particularly worried about shoulder surfing, you’ll also want to pick your cafe seat wisely. “It’s not just gangsters that should sit with their back to the wall,” Haley said.

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