Working Hard for the Money — Over Latte

Forget boardrooms and closed-door offices, overhead projectors, intrusive telephone rings and e-mail pings.

Instead, think frothy latte and crumbling muffins, cushy chairs and coffee-stained tables.

Some of today’s professionals are marching from conference rooms to cafés, takin’ care of business in a more pleasant, less-restrictive atmosphere.

"It’s a place where you can grab a cup of coffee and not be confined to a rigid corporate environment," said information technologist Marc Senatore, after wrapping up a recruiting session with a headhunter at a midtown-Manhattan Starbucks. "It’s more relaxing. You can let your guard down."

The offices-away-from-the-office are frequently the ubiquitous chain coffee shops like Starbucks, or the loungy café bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, where no one hovers over customers even if they buy nothing and stay for hours.

Starbucks has actually capitalized on and encouraged the trend by making some of its stores "wireless." Patrons who subscribe to a Voicestream plan can bring their wireless-enabled laptops or pocket PCs to some Starbucks locations, boot up and connect to the Internet. 

"We’ve known for quite some time that folks use our locations for work. People really tailor it to their needs," said Starbucks spokeswoman Megan Behrbaum. "We’ve heard of photo-desk folks in Starbucks uploading their images to the [news]papers."

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, a contributor who has written about the phenomenon, said people have for centuries had the need for a "third place" to gather, other than home or work. And there's something about cafes that gets the ideas percolating.


The makeshift café-offices are particularly useful for on-the-go professionals whom Reynolds calls "road warriors."

"If you’re a business traveler in a city where you don’t know anybody, it’s nice to be able to go into a local Starbucks and have the feeling of home," said Lara Wyss, another company spokeswoman. "You don’t feel so isolated."

For on-the-road headhunter Jonathan Toder, who was meeting with IT engineer Senatore, that comfort is part of the appeal. Toder said he holds about 12 recruiting sessions a week in cafes or restaurants.

"I network, confirm meetings, return calls, schedule the rest of the day," he said. "It’s a wonderful place for that because it’s just $1.79 for a cup of coffee."

Reynolds said the café-as-second-office fad has grown in large part thanks to technology like e-mail, laptops, pocket PCs and cell phones and is particularly popular among small business owners.

"People who have a small business can invest a lot of money in office space just for meetings or can find somewhere else to have them," he said. "Cafes have amenities that would be expensive to buy on your own."

Chains like Borders have a few added benefits: the stores are larger and have more hideaway spots. And if a break from the grind is in order, there are books and magazines just waiting to be perused.

"At home, I never get as much done," said radiologist Conway Yee, as he pored over notes on his laptop at a Borders in Manhattan. "There are too many distractions."

One New York lawyer said she uses a local Starbucks as a place to escape co-workers and plaintiffs who "walk in and out of my office six times an hour." The coffee shop's cozy setting allows her to get work done over lunch, in peace. Taking a meeting out of the workplace is also a good way to avoid whispering company gossips.

"When you go behind closed doors in an office, everybody is wondering what’s going on, who’s getting fired," said Senatore. "It’s a way to get away from that."

It could also be a more basic need that draws businesspeople across the country to the corner delis, the quaint cafes, the chain coffee shops and bookstores.

"People are on the move constantly," Senatore said. "They need a place to hang their hat."