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Coworking Spaces

Five big myths about coworking

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As a concept, coworking emerged in the late 1990s among the tech crowd. In the wake of dot-com bust, the idea sputtered and lost its footing. Then, around 2005, it was revived by software programmer Brad Neuberg, who popularized the basic model of coworking as we know it today where workers have the community of an office and the freedom and independence of a freelancer. But over the last couple of years, coworking has evolved and matured. Here we tackle and debunk five myths about coworking to show how much it has changed and is redefining how we work.

A guest article by Genevieve DeGuzman, co-author of ‘Working in the UnOffice'.

Myth 1: “Coworking is just a glorified term for ‘shared office’ space.”

On a flight to San Diego I found myself getting flustered as I tried to explain coworking to an older woman sitting next to me. I described the set-up in plain terms: an environment and space where people from different backgrounds, who all work for different small companies or for themselves, work alongside each other and share the office equipment, internet connection, and facilities. Before I could toss in a few lines on ‘accelerated serendipity’ and community, she interrupted. “Oh, it sounds like a glorified shared office,” she said with a hint of mockery. “Only without the privacy.”

A victim of its own semantics, coworking still evokes the cubicle-tinged word ‘co-worker’, a throwback to the corporate world with its trappings of the conventional office. But the only kinship that a coworking space and an office share is that they are both places where people go to work. As a functional space, they both boast office equipment, facilities to hold meetings, WiFi access and storage space. Beyond that, coworking spaces are remarkably different.

Coworking solves several problems. First, small organizations and independent workers often toil in isolation-- either at home or in the local coffee shop or executive suite, which can leave people feeling despondent, burnt out at the end of the day, especially when faced with the manic highs and lows of being an entrepreneur.

Second, for the independent professional, cultivating homegrown innovation can be a challenge. That’s because almost every independent worker will eventually encounter— whether working from home or at a public venue like a coffee shop-- lack of productivity and distractions. It can be tough to stay competitive when you’re working from a small base. It’s economies of scale; it can be challenging to implement a project when your resources are limited and you only have your own expertise to rely on.

Coworking solves both these problems by putting you with people (bye-bye, loneliness) that are from a diverse range of fields and all have different areas of expertise (hello, accelerated serendipity!). In a coworking space, a cohesive community starts to form from the disparate groups. Need help on a press release? Ask someone who’s in the writing business or get PR firm recommendations. Need a programming tweak on your website, check-in with the developers two tables down.

At the heart of coworking is having access to a larger community than even your existing colleagues and clients, but also being part of a group of people just starting up or with similar goals. While others might see competition, more people see potential connections. It’s good not only for your mental health (no more sitting in pajamas alone at home), but also for your business. Affinity Lab, a coworking space in Washington D.C., cites that members “often partner with one another, backstopping and expanding each other’s capabilities and skills or forming entirely new ventures.”

According to Jeff Shiau, director of The Hub Bay Area, “You’re not just saving on rent, but you’re also able to make connections, to build a community around your ideas quickly— at a creative level that's beyond what you would be able to do if you were just working by yourself in a single office space, if you were working out of a coffee shop, or working at home.”

Being around others with different perspectives, expertise, backgrounds sparks new thinking. Says Suzanne Akin a former member of Cohere, “Not only does coworking help with networking and client sourcing, but it also gets the creative juices flowing.”

Myth 2: “Coworking is only for tech startups, solopreneurs, and freelancers.”

A friend of mine who works for a think tank that conducts impact evaluation of educational programs around the country was looking for a new place to work. She’s a data wonk, crunching and analyzing survey data in STATA. Statistical programming can be rigorous and her company lets her work out of the office. Skype and Gmail voice lets her check-in with colleagues when needed. My friend loves the flexibility but she was starting to feel rootless. I asked her if she would consider coworking instead of moving from coffee shop to coffee shop, lugging around her laptop.

“I thought coworking was only for freelancers and techies.” She shrugged her shoulders and grimaced as she finished her second cup of overpriced coffee for the day. “I work for a company. Wouldn’t that be weird?”

Sure, coworking is dominated by the usual startup crowd or freelance programmer or web designer. Deskmag’s 1st Global Coworking Survey found that the majority of coworkers are in the new media fields, working as web developers or programmers. Fifty-four percent are freelancers and almost 20 percent are entrepreneurs who employ others. Coworking also seems naturally more suited to smaller companies. Of the 20 percent or so that are permanent employees, the majority work for companies with less than five workers.

But employees of larger companies are starting to get in on the game, particularly with the rise of flexible work arrangements to minimize commuting costs for employees and the desire to reduce the need for a centralized headquarters. A 2011 survey of 600 executives from around the world conducted by Regus and Unwired Research found that over 60 percent of large companies are looking into remote and virtual work options for its employees. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they no longer find it difficult to work outside the office confines. Seventy-nine percent feel that the technology is widely available to make working outside the office at any location productive and more than half think they are equipped with the tools and know-how to work un-tethered. Coworking spaces offer firms an opportunity to explore virtual working options and flexible schedules for its employees.

Spaces like Satellite Telework Centers in Northern California work with established companies looking to place their employees remotely in a professional business environment. In addition to the mix of startups, home-based business owners, and freelancers that most spaces boast, Satellite Telework Centers also house company consultants and telecommuters - the corporate crowd. In these spaces, coworkers work in an environment more “like the office”— without the deep overhead costs.

Parker Whitney, who works for a video game development company FlyClops, housed in Indy Hall also agrees that telecommuters from bigger companies can thrive in coworking spaces. “We had a member who worked for Comcast when he joined us, and had the standard 9-to-5 job. He wanted to go a different way with how and where he actually spent his time, so he worked remotely from here and was really happy doing that for quite a long while. The point is— he could do work for a big corporation and still be independent.”

Myth 3: “Coworking only works in the big cities.”

Coworking isn’t solely for urban residents anymore. It’s also a serious option for residents in smaller cities and suburbs. For a lot of small town and rural businesses, what’s missing is the access to a community of entrepreneurs and the density of resources that a bigger city usually offers. By bringing coworking to smaller areas, these gaps can be filled. Maybe less young people would leave for the cities if they felt they could be entepreneurial where they are and have a support network.

One friend who lives in small town north of San Diego put it this way, “It’s tough being a startup in the middle of nowhere. You start craving the creative density of urban areas.”

Ironically, some urban areas suffer from the same issues as rural communities. Member Chase Granberry discusses how Gangplank is able to cluster and rally the disparate pockets of technology communities where he lives. “There aren’t a lot of people in the technology community working together mainly because the greater Phoenix metro area suffers from urban sprawl,” he tells us. “Because of the lack of density, you have to make an effort to find people that are doing similar things. Gangplank provides a central location for everybody to go any time they want. It provides a community hub.”

In the same way, collaborative workspaces can energize smaller communities by distilling entrepreneurial activity and getting people together. In many ways coworking is a throwback to town halls and community centers. If you live in an area that is spread out and diffuse, coworking spaces act like lightning rods bringing people together.

In small towns where you would think coworking would be an odd fit, not only is Satellite Telework Centers thriving (they are located in the suburbs outside Santa Cruz, California— Felton and Scotts Valley), it is revitalizing the communities there. Founder Jim Graham commented on how bringing people into the centers can impact the small communities that surround them. “The industry-accepted formula is that one full-time equivalent (FTE) employee supports 14 sq. ft. of retail space,” he explains. “It might not sound like much, but each Satellite can support up to 40-50 FTEs (representing upward of 200 members, since most of our members use the Satellite part-time),” he tells us. Redevelopment agencies and city officials with an eye on sustainability often find coworking spaces attractive for these reasons.

Myth 4: “Coworking spaces are noisy and distracting.”

When we first started checking out coworking spaces, we noticed a common theme. The spaces were never completely quiet-- but the people were unfazed. When members needed absolute silence, they slipped into their noise-canceling earbuds or headphones or sought out a conference or meeting room to have a private discussion. Most of the time, people welcomed the buzz of conversation around them as a part the space’s social fabric.

Some even say that the whole point of coworking is the openness. Branding expert James Archer even boasts about the lack of privacy for his company Forty Agency as a fundamental way of life. “Gangplank can be noisy and chaotic at times, but that’s part of what makes it work: you overhear things. You find opportunities to jump in and help someone because you’ve dealt with their problems before.”

The buzz of activity is exactly the stimulus they’re looking for. Communications consultant Greg Roth tells us, “Some folks have felt that the noise level, which is not loud, but is above the hush of past cubicle farms I’ve worked in, can be distracting. I am oddly comforted by the other conversations going on in the space, in a way that it creates not only a sense of place, but also a sense of progress and activity.”

Still, that isn’t to say there aren’t conflicts. Paul Evers, who runs Bend, OR coworking space TBD Loft, tells us how activities related to fostering community can sometimes conflict with members’ business activities. “I think when you take the value of community and introduce it into a business environment, there's always going to be conflict because those two things have been engineered and designed to be different and isolated from each other.” To address these issues, TBD Loft holds regular community meetings.

For those who like a bit of privacy, check with your space and see about private offices. Many spaces offer a compromise, giving you the best of both worlds-- the openness of a coworking space with the privacy of an executive office. ThinkSpace founder Peter Chee, tells us, “We do have open coworking spaces here, but we also have private office space within our entire building, as well.”

It’s this flexibility that the established businesses there enjoy. “What we keep hearing from people is that they like the community, but they also like being able to keep some privacy. Something that we've tailored our model to do is create a sense of community, but also give people their privacy to run their businesses. [Members] love having the option to have a private conversation with their attorney or their CPA, or their investors, where being in an open room is not distracting them.”

Myth 5: “I can’t work at a coworking space. There’s no place to plug in my blowtorch.”

Some spaces aren’t even for the office set. Many workshops, do-it-yourself spaces, and hacker enclaves cater to inventors, steampunk enthusiasts, tinkerers, mechanics, and scientists looking for heavy machinery, equipment, and tools for their projects. They come here to satisfy their Tesla coil fixations, run their lab experiments, use 3-D printers, launch a robotics assembly line, and test prototypes. Artists also come here, looking for floor space not desk space, to solder and fuse sculptures or giant installations.

Many of these spaces like TechShop in Menlo Park, CA (they also have locations in Raleigh, NC, San Francisco, CA, San Jose, CA and soon Dearborn, MI) and Common Spaces in Brooklyn, NY pitch themselves as “pre-incubators” for small projects to be prototyped and played with, which may or may not later blossom into full-scale businesses or projects. Whether or not projects expand into something profitable, the spaces provide a low-risk way to learn new skills and experiment. From a cost perspective it makes sense to seek out shared spaces. Large machines and tools are expensive, too specialized, and cumbersome to keep and maintain for solo or pet projects. By bringing together different people, the infrastructure and equipment are maximized.

Phil Hughes, who developed data center cooling system Clustered Systems in TechShop, says that having access to the tools and facilities offered by their coworking space helped them cut costs and accelerate growth. “We started with an idea that neither of us had much experience with nor the experience to implement, so we had to first try to understand the dynamics of putting things together. That's really where TechShop helped because they had all the tools. We could build quick prototypes and try something out with immediate feedback. We also had all the tools we needed to update our prototypes and improve them.”

The social aspect of these spaces can be invaluable. Rather than a couple people in a garage tinkering away, you have a community of like-minded individuals in the same space. “Our tag line is ‘Build Your Dreams’, not ‘Build Your Stuff’”, TechShop CEO Mark Hatch points out. “Because typically, when somebody arrives, they’ve never had access to the tools, resources, or community that TechShop provides and as a result, their dream actually gets larger by working here.

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Genevieve DeGuzman is the co-author of ‘Working in the UnOffice: A Guide to Coworking for Indie Workers, Small Businesses, and Nonprofits’ (Night Owls Press, August 2011). Read a free preview of the ‘UnOffice’ at www.CoworkingGuide.com. An international edition looking at coworking spaces in other regions is their next project. Get in touch with Genevieve at Twitter @nightowlspress or drop her a line.

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