The desire comes around at a certain time of year, when it's just starting to get nice, when the office workers of America and beyond have been cooped up for far too long in the too-cold (or too-hot, depending on who's controlling the thermostat) confines of their cubicles. Working outside! Can we work outside today? It is sunny and bright and fresh-aired and glorious—in the 70s in New York, even warmer elsewhere—and we just want to break free, our laptops slung in our totes, and head to a nearby park or beach or rooftop.
Later in the season it will be too hot; we'll need the air-conditioned cool of the indoors to concentrate, but for now, it's perfect. And it does sound ideal, a dream within a dream (minus, maybe, the "working" part, but a person's gotta eat, right?). Still, is working outside ever really possible, or is it but a pipe dream? What do you need to work—really work—outside? I investigated.
Don't Set Your Sights Too High. Later in the summer, or when you take a vacation, there will come the time that you travel to a far-away beach locale, and you have in the back of your mind the "idea" that you will get a little work done while you're there, sipping daiquiris and staring off into the blue waves. You should really quash this idea, don't even allow it to creep into your head, because it's ruining your vacation. If you really, really must do this, sit under an umbrella, and bring the laptop with the half-dead battery so you can only do about 25 minutes of work before, of necessity, falling asleep or reading that new novel you are so excited about.
As for now, while it's just April, you should probably avoid work scenarios at which you'd get entirely too sweaty, for the good of your work and your computer. Also avoid work scenarios that are too difficult to do well (don't go climb a tree and sit there for the day writing your novel, maybe). Start slow; pick an easy nearby locale: A park bench, your yard. A restaurant or bar with outdoor tables. Throw a blanket down under a tree, or maybe go upstairs to your rooftop, if that's convenient and allowable and not covered in blazing hot asphalt. Choose a place, or a stoop, or a balcony, something near enough to your home or other facilities that you can easily go inside to use the bathroom, get a drink, or take a break for lunch. If you journey further out, bring the items you think you may need with you (see below).
What to Work on. It should be acknowledged that there are plenty of people who can't work outside because they do things that cannot be brought into the open, say, selling products in bricks and mortar stores or watching stocks go up and down or tending to the needs of sick patients. And there are people who work outside nearly every day, surfacing roads, doing construction, delivering mail, tending to parks—a fun, unusual day for them might involve being inside. But for those of us who primarily do our work on paper or computers or something portable, where we may escape our office tethers and still do our jobs, there is this tempting dream of working outside. To live the dream, you should consider what might be best to work on. You don't have to bring a computer, say, if you can load a Kindle with pdfs that need reading, and do that outside. The Wire's Rebecca Greenfield says, "The Kindle screen works better in the sun than an iPad or laptop." If you are going to use a laptop, "a matte laptop screen is better," she adds. Glare may in fact be your biggest problem with computer work. There are such things as "anti-glare screen protectors" to make your laptop screen visible in the out-of-doors. But you might also consider what else you can do outside: Brainstorm? Scribble notes on a piece of paper? Do math problems? Read actual books, or study? Plan for a big presentation? Surely the list goes on. Write the list that goes on as you work outside.
Consider Cleanliness. Jolie Kerr, who writes the cleaning advice column "Squalor" for Deadspin and Jezebel, adds to the above, the "best tip I can give is to have a chamois and/or tech wipes in your laptop case—there's nothing like sunshine to reveal exactly how streaky, linty, cat-furry your monitor is! The natural light also makes it harder to see your screen, which a good cleaning will help vastly." Gizmodo's Sam Biddle says, "If you absolutely have to work outdoors (I can't imagine who that applies to besides nerdy park rangers), then I'd suggest getting these USB caps that you can stick in your empty ports to keep out dirt/debris/bugs/pollen/blood you might encounter in the wild." He adds, "Never, ever take something electronic to the beach."
Bring Sustenance. It's not work if you're always getting up and going to the store to buy things, so plan ahead. Bring a big bottle of water, some sort of your favorite caffeinated product (if you drink such things—New York Magazine's Stefan Becket suggests ice coffee, as "working outside is the only acceptable instance in which you can drink iced coffee.") Also worth toting along are some easy-to-eat snacks, or even a bagged lunch. You are going to feel festive and get thirsty, but take it slow, for various reasons. As Tyler Coates, senior editor at BlackBook, told me, "Sit next to a cooler of Corona, and also drink slowly." Pace yourself.
You might consider bringing a friend or two, not because such a person is "sustenance" per se, but because sometimes it's more relaxing (and fun) to have another person around, you know, to watch your bag if you want to get up and stretch your legs. And bring your computer sustenance as well. Charge your laptop, your phone, or whatever equipment you plan to work on before heading out, and bring your chargers with you.
What to Wear. Dress appropriately for the weather—bare legs are O.K. when the degrees hit the high 60s, but bring a jacket or layers in case tree shade gives you a chill. Also dress appropriately for where you're going to be. If grass makes you itch, wear pants, or bring a blanket. If you burn easily, by all means, apply SPF before going outside (probably, you should apply it either way). "Sunglasses are key," says Becket. A hat might be good, too. Don't wear a puffy coat, unless you plan to nap in it, like a sleeping bag. A bikini or swim trunks may not be the best choice if you plan to set your laptop on your legs. Toasted leg syndrome is not a joking matter. Who wants to battle with that so early in the season? Oh, and if you have to go into the office afterward, consider that sarongs and short-shorts or jorts and a tank might not be your best work-to-work ensemble. Depending of course on where you work.
Think About WiFi. If you need to use the Internet, where are you going to have a connection? Many of New York City's parks, for example, offer free WiFi now, which is quite a boon for people who want to, say, blog in the out-of-doors. Before you leave the safety of your Internet connection, do some searching to find out where you'll be able to be online, and go to one of those places.
Partly Outside May Be Just as Good, or Even Better. It can be challenging to work in the full noontime sun while lying down on a blanket. Also, as Kerr points out, indoors establishments have their own benefits: "I work from a bar rather than a park bench or the beach because a bar has wine," she says. "Also I like having music on when I work, and it's nice to have people around since, when I'm not in a bar, I work from home and I start getting a little weird if I go too long without seeing other humans." She chooses a bar where the light shines in, and where there are sun-flecked tables outside. Picking a place where people know you as opposed to some random outdoor park spot can be beneficial, too: "The bartenders, and a goodly number of other regular patrons, know me and will watch my laptop when I go to the ladies room," she says. And she can plug her laptop in, if need be. Electricity. It's a wonder.
Be Realistic. Work-outside hater Biddle says, "It's a terrible idea and you're kidding yourself if you think you're going to get (digital) work done outside. All screens look, at their best, washed out and dim in direct sunlight. On an inferior screen, you won't be able to see anything. But maybe that's the point—most of the time we say we're going to 'work outside' because we know we won't really be able to get any work done at all." This may be true, but if you need to bring your laptop along so you can have some fun, maybe that's not so high a price to pay? Biddle takes a more extreme tack: "My advice is just work as hard as you can during the day so you can leave work ASAP and spend time outdoors without the distraction of a gadget and the omnipresent workplace." But there is a bit of metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel: "FWIW once the sun starts going down it's fair game," he says. "Twilight can be a magical time for computing." Perhaps it's time to implement that flexible hours plan.
Dream Big, Make Change Happen! The sad truth is, no one I spoke to really gets to work outside all that often, if at all. Becket asked me wistfully, "Do you get to work outside?" Answer: Well, not exactly. Not yet! But with the right commitment and information shared with our bosses and organizations—we will work harder, we will, in the sun, in the outside, with our Corona kegs—they might let us, they just might! And the truth of the matter is, sometimes an open window and your feet up on the desk are just about almost kind of sort of the same-ish thing, but without the fire ants.
Photos by stuartpikbrow/Flickr; Flickr/Naoko McCracken; Flicrk/Citrix Online, Flickr/shaza sha.