You're gripping a triple-shot Espresso Macchiato with your left hand and prepping a presentation on your laptop's screen with your right. You chat with your client from your smartphone, trusting that the whoosh of the milk steamer doesn't drown out the conversation. 'I sure hope the Wi-Fi holds', you think.

In short, you work from Starbucks. And you're not alone.

Thom Singer, a professional speaker and entrepreneur from Texas, understands you. Though he doesn't pay for office space, he jokingly remarks: "I like to say I have 'South Austin, North Austin, and downtown offices'." Those spots, however, are the locations of the coffee shops he frequents.

"I am the type of person who would go crazy without being around other people. Working from home or a rented office would get lonely fast," Singer says.

Thanks to their offer of free Wi-Fi, the promise of companionship, and a never-ending supply of tasty, caffeinated treats, coffee shops such as Starbucks have become an office away from home for many entrepreneurs and self-employed people.

Working out of your local coffee shop offers multiple conveniences and can save you plenty of cash, but it also poses various challenges. Staying productive and securing your gear (and the data it contains) can be tough - as can obeying the often-unwritten rules that govern a communal workspace.

Do coffee shops mind?

We asked Starbucks' corporate communications department if the company had an official policy on in-shop workplaces, but representatives declined to answer, saying instead that "Starbucks stores were designed to be community gathering places... We know that Wi-Fi continues to be a big draw in our store and our customers tell us they appreciate having access to this offering for work or personal use."

How Starbucks enforces that non-policy seems to vary from store to store. An informal poll of staff at various Starbucks revealed that most are happy for you to sit as long as you'd like as long as you're a paying customer, though some admitted that they may ask fixtures to vacate when a long queue of people are waiting for a seat.

Even if they don't directly ask you to leave, however, they may gently encourage your exit. "We are convinced the baristas try to freeze us out by jacking up the air conditioning at certain points of the day," says Tandaleya Wilder, a publicist and founder of She Got Game Media, who often works out of a Starbucks. Also, she notes that the baristas sometimes "purposely play the worse rotation of songs imaginable to get us out of there".

Bad music and freezing temperatures are not the only potential drawbacks of working in a public environment. Like any office, your local coffee shop has its own rules, office politics, and etiquette. And like any office, a Starbucks has prime workspaces - and not so prime locations. The only difference when it comes to working in a Starbucks is that you aren't guaranteed the same desk every day.

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  1. Everything virtual workers need to know
  2. Location, location
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Many entrepreneurs and self-employed people opt to work from coffee shops with free Wi-Fi. Here's our ultimate guide to working from Starbucks.

Location, location

All of the people we talked to for this story agreed about certain rules of office etiquette. Chief among them: never take up more space than you need. Select the smallest table that's available, and be prepared to share. That means you shouldn't plan on carting in your CRT monitor (hey, it's not completely unheard of); instead, you'll want as portable a setup as possible.

Mark Lassoff, who owns a small technical training business, regularly works out of a Starbucks. He recommends using a small laptop, with a screen that measures about 13 inches. As he notes, your laptop may very well end up on your lap - and then "you don't need the extra heft of a larger machine".

The prime seats are those located next to power outlets, which can be scarce. Derek Jech, a freelance logo designer and marketing co-ordinator in the Los Angeles area, offers this advice: "Charge your computer fully and then unplug. This allows your neighbour time to get their battery power up, while yours is depleting." Or look for coffee shops that put in longer tables - some with extra outlets and reading lamps - for the officeless hordes.

You also should consider packing a back-up battery and an extension lead - but be warned that it's a serious breach of etiquette to snake it across the floor where people can trip on it. You can win points with your co-workers by providing a surge protector that allows you to share an outlet. Keith Hinzman, an architect who regularly works out of a Starbucks, says that an outlet splitter is "a good secret weapon" to pack.

NEXT PAGE: The gear that works

  1. Everything virtual workers need to know
  2. Location, location
  3. The gear that works

Many entrepreneurs and self-employed people opt to work from coffee shops with free Wi-Fi. Here's our ultimate guide to working from Starbucks.

The gear that works

If you're looking for a thin-and-light laptop to rule cafés with, check out PC Advisor's best ultraportable laptops.

Security is probably the biggest concern for folks who work in a public environment. But none of the work-from-café types that we talked to for this story reported feeling unsafe or terribly worried about their gear. Most folks rely on a friendly neighbour or barista to keep an eye on their laptop when they run to the bathroom or step outside to make a phone call.

Less trusting workers may want to invest in a laptop lock, however. You can opt for a security cable with a combination lock or a keyed lock, or one that provides both types of locks.

Keeping your gear safe is only half the battle, though. You also need to protect the data it contains. If you're looking at sensitive information on your PC - such as invoices, bills or banking statements - you can hide it from prying eyes with a tool such as Kensington's Privacy Screen, which limits the viewing angle of your laptop's display.

Using a public hotspot can expose you to dangers that go beyond nosey neighbours, however. You can up the level of security with a service like WiFi Guardian, HotSpotVPN, or Hotspot Shield.

Though you're working solo in a Starbucks, you may still need to stay in touch with colleagues and clients. You should certainly keep your smartphone close by - but the Starbucks regulars we've talked to agree that conducting lengthy or loud phone calls from your seat is a breach of etiquette. Step outside if you need to.

Meanwhile, a cloud-based backup service can help guarantee that you'll have access to the files you need - and it will free you from having to carry around a USB drive for backup.

What else do you need to keep yourself productive while working from a coffee shop? Most people recommend a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones. These devices block out any background noise, and they prevent others from being disturbed by your music or videos.

Why bother?

Lugging all that gear to your local coffee house may seem like more trouble than it's worth. But Starbucks regulars disagree. Most consider the distractions posed by fellow patrons to be less challenging than the distractions they would face if they worked at home, where kids, spouse, chores and other diversions lurk.

"It's almost like you're working in a fishbowl. You're on display, so you do more work," says Keith Hinzman. Add in the ability to meet new friends, network a little, and of course ingest caffeine, and it's clear why so many people call their local café their place of business.

There is one more factor to consider. Joe Calderone, who does freelance marketing, graphic design, and web design work from a local coffee shop, offers this bit of advice: "Watch how much coffee you actually drink. When focusing on all of the work being done, you don't realise how many cups you've downed until 'the twitches' kick in. Not only is it an uncomfortable feeling, but it also can drain funds."

  1. Everything virtual workers need to know
  2. Location, location
  3. The gear that works