A guest article by Genevieve DeGuzman, co-author of ‘Working in the UnOffice'.
There are more than 375 million independent and mobile workers around the world according to Forrester Research. Where are they working? Many of them are startups and freelancers working from a home office or garage, or consultants or telecommuters heading to the local library or café, and other public places where they can plug in and get online to work.
If you’re part of this expanding nomadic tribe of workers, you may find yourself looking for makeshift workplaces, wandering from coffee shop to library, searching for Wi-Fi and desk space, often paying for the privilege with cups of coffee and plates of pastries, or suffering bouts of cabin fever.
Maybe you’re considering joining a coworking space. But is it the best option for you? COOP founder Sam Rosen explained the ambivalence that many businesses have when it comes to choosing coworking over their other options. “To get me to come to your space, you're competing with my couch. You're competing with the nice café next to my house. I have plenty of options on where to work, so what's going to make me work at your place?”
Like a lot of small businesses, we flirted with coworking and grappled with the same question: how is coworking any better than working from home or setting up our laptops in the handful of cafes and coffee shops where we live? For Working in the UnOffice, a coworking guidebook that chronicles coworking trends in the U.S., we decided to do a comparison test and see.
Option 1: Working from Home
Flexibility. Night owl or early bird, you can set your work schedule around your most productive times. Setting when, where, and how you’ll work is one of the most prized goals of independent working.
Minimal commute. You get to save time and energy, not to mention fuel, when you don’t have to travel to your workplace. This also reduces your carbon footprint, helping conserve the earth’s resources.
Lower overhead. For bootstrapped businesses and startups, any penny saved is important. Working at home drastically cuts down on what you’d spend on renting your own office.
Reduced expenses. Aside from saving money from the commute, you also cut down spending on eating out, clothing, parking, and (possibly) after-work get-togethers.
Slacking off. All alone, it’s easy to slack off. Most home workers, whether working for themselves or as telecommuters for other companies, have also discovered that it takes extreme discipline and self-control to ignore distractions at home— be it the laundry that needs to be done or a couch that begs to be napped on.
Overworking. On the other hand, it’s also easier to work longer hours and take fewer breaks because you don’t have the visual cues of officemates heading off to the cooler or packing up to leave. It’s harder to draw the line between work and home when you work at home. Jason Beatty, a member of NextSpace explains how he weighed the option of working at home against working at a coworking space. “I was running [9BitLabs] from my home office, but working six days a week, often with long hours,” he tells us. “I didn't like how working from home was impacting my family time or my ability to disconnect from work.”
Working in a vacuum/isolation. Working at home can be lonely and you can often find yourself with a bad case of cabin fever. The difficulty with non-traditional work set-ups is that workers feel disconnected. Feelings of alienation and loneliness are common.
Lack of a professional front. You may have to see clients face-to-face and meeting them in your living room may not create a favorable business impression.
Option 2: Being a Latte Entrepreneur
The non-caffeinated perks:
Creativity boosts. CEO and co-founder of Flash game network Mochi Media, Jameson Hsu got more than a caffeine buzz at Ritual Coffee Roasters, where the hustle and bustle gave him the daily jolt of energy to work. Writer Malcom Gladwell says that the conversations he overhears or engages in while in a café or restaurant help stimulate his brain.
Background activity enhances concentration. Being surrounded by the din of a busy coffee shop paradoxically forces you to focus on one thing— ideally, your work— to tune out conversations floating in from the next table, the barista steaming the milk, and the whirring of coffee grinders.
Unreliable Internet connection. The speed and constant connectivity of public Wi-Fi can’t always be guaranteed, especially if you’re not paying for it. And even if you are, if you’re sharing the space and resources with others, the connection may be slow and spotty.
Security. A public place, with a large volume of strangers milling around, is not the safest place for your gadgets. All it takes is a few seconds of inattention and the mobile phone you placed by your elbow can disappear. You also need to be wary of using public Wi-Fi and the inherent dangers of digital theft.
Logistical problems. Will you be able to get a spot near the socket? Do you pack up everything when you need to step out to take a phone call or go to the bathroom? How much coffee and sandwiches will you have to buy to avoid feeling guilty for using the space? These are things you need to consider every time you work in a café. Mobile workers may also find that they’re getting forced out by their local java haunt. Earlier this summer, the coffee chain giant, Starbucks, recently started cracking down on laptop loiterers. Some cafés have reputedly blocked or removed sockets as a deterrent to those who stay long hours nursing a single cup of coffee.
Just like the jolt from a proper cup of coffee can wear off, so can the joys of working in the “coffice”. Grant Cupps, who runs his freelance web design and development company out of COOP in Chicago, used to be a regular coffee shop denizen. He satisfied his need for social interaction, but eventually found it too limiting and inconvenient. “There’s definitely a community at the coffee shop. I was having social interaction, but it was frustrating that I didn’t always want to order coffee. And I was uncomfortable leaving my stuff there. I’d have to pack up whenever I would go get lunch.”
Social disruptions. Sometimes the urge to people-watch instead of actually getting down to business can get the better of you. So can being drawn into conversations with other patrons. Other times, groups or cliques can monopolize the entire café.
Minimal quality interactions. While the socialization you get at a coffee shop may be much better than the total isolation at home, you still most likely won’t get the kind of focused feedback or stimulation you need to work out the kinks in that idea you’ve been mulling over.
Option 3: Joining a Coworking Space
Coworking spaces attempt to capture the best of different workspaces where freelancers and indie workers get things done— the flexibility of a home office and vibe of a café— and bring them together with an emphasis on collaboration and building community.
Greater motivation. Productivity spikes when you’re working alongside other entrepreneurs. Coworkers join their coworking spaces because they find that the environment, in one form or another, satiates their own psychological craving for a community of like-minded entrepreneurs.
For many, it’s about the energy boost of being around other people. Alan Pinstein, who runs his real estate software service Neybor out of Ignition Alley, tells us, “We can all learn from each other and meet new people. It’s great, especially for people coming from a work-at-home situation where they need the social interaction and need to see people around to feel some energy in the room.” Alan compares the experience to the energy of being in a large metropolis. “I used to live in New York City and [coworking] brings that energy you find in the streets of New York to your office environment. To me, being here you get to feel everybody’s energy everyday.”
Graphic designer Judi Oyama’s experience at NextSpace told us that one of the core attractions of coworking for small businesses is that it enables you to get things done by filling in any gaps in skills and needs. When you aren’t stymied and stonewalled by things you can’t do, you feel motivated to launch new projects and try new business ventures.
Quality social encounters. Coworking gives you more social interaction. Join a space and get out of your pajamas and out of the house. Industrial and graphic design expert Anthony Grieder exchanged his home office where he had run Alloy Design, Inc. for over a decade for coworking space Boulder Digital Arts after coming to a realization that he wanted more people around him. “I had been in a home office for the past 12 years, and needed to get back into a more social situation.”
For others, being around people is a necessity for their business, especially for those in the creative field. Graphic designer Johnny Bilotta says that he turned to coworking at Indy Hall to test ideas and get immediate feedback. “One of the things I lost by working at home was the social aspect of going to an office. I couldn’t bounce an idea off of somebody, and being a designer, I need people’s opinions on things. I like to get people’s opinions on colors, for example. Even if it’s just waxing philosophical over a cup of coffee about a different design philosophy or something— I missed that from working at home.”
A professional venue— and outlook. Going to a coworking space disciplines your approach to your independent work or business. Franchise business consultant Kyle de Haas, a member of Cospace, likes how coworking puts him in a professional, ready-to-work frame of mind. “There are too many distractions at home that deter me from being as efficient as I’d like when I work,” he tells us. “I’ve learned over time that I respond well to getting dressed and going someplace to get work done. It promotes a healthy work-life balance.”
Instructional designer Lisa Van Damme marvels at how coworking at Boulder Digital Arts provides the right incentives to do her work in a more professional and balanced way. “There’s something to be said about getting dressed in the morning and leaving the house versus working in pajamas ten steps away from the bed.”
‘Accelerated serendipity’ galore. With coworking, communities can be very diverse, and you never know whom you’ll bump into in an encounter that could change your business forever. Freelance writer Kevin Purdy tells us, “I gained at least ten successful Lifehacker post ideas from working at Coworking Rochester, if not more. Personally, I’ve picked up post ideas and topics galore from Coworking Rochester for my freelance writing projects.” He also says that “problems I’ve had with my personal website, or even my out-loud ‘I wish I could…’ queries, have been tackled with enthusiasm whenever I’ve coworked.”
Action Alliance for Children’s Lisa Shulman Malul, a member of The Hub Bay Area, explains how crucial this exchange of ideas is in keeping their organization relevant, their ideas fresh, and their energy levels charged. “I think in any field you can get used to talking about your issues or the things that you cover within a narrow spectrum. The idea of interacting with [different audiences] on an ongoing basis gave us opportunities to hear more about how other people understand our work.”
Shared resources (from equipment to expertise). If you need to get things done on the cheap, coworking spaces are the place to do it. Instead of shouldering the cost of office space, Wi-Fi, the coffee machine, copier and printer, you split the cost with the other members of your space. You can also leverage better prices for other equipment or subscriptions with group deals.
And then there are the human resources— the people that can be sourced for team projects and group ideas. Members benefit from classes and lectures given by fellow members at many coworking spaces. Alongside being able to seek out your neighbor by dropping by for a chat at his or her desk, you can also seek out formal channels of skills exchange at hosted events where members take turns giving classes.
Companies hiring from the available pool of freelancers is commonplace at Gangplank. “In Silicon Valley, the joke is that you can change your job without changing your parking space. We say at Gangplank that you can change your job without changing your desk,” says co-founder Jade Meskill. “We've had people who wanted to get out of the consulting business and work for a product company, and be hired directly by one of the other companies inside of Gangplank.”
The price is right. Jason Richelson, a former member of Hive at 55 says that coworking makes it easy to save money, especially for the entrepreneur just starting out his or her business and trying to reach a sustainable operational level. “You just don’t want to commit to a lease in the initial stages of a new company, so going month-to-month is the only way for startups. And with coworking you don’t need to think about furniture, Internet, printer, etc. because it is all there.”
Expansion opportunities and an impressive ROI. The expenses incurred (monthly dues and commuting expenses) are generally outweighed by the gains. In the first Global Coworking Survey held by Deskmag, 42 percent of coworkers said that their incomes increased since joining a coworking space— probably from having access to wider social and professional networks and securing better job opportunities.
Greg Tindale has found equally impressive returns for his real estate company from being embedded in the coworking community. Greg tells us, “Since joining the Affinity Lab in December 2008, 33 percent of our settled real estate sales have been members of the Affinity Lab, or referrals from members of the Affinity Lab. That equals a gross sales commission of $115,780.”
PJ Christie tells us that coworking at Cospace has expanded his customer base for his Internet marketing business, Grow Your Base. “Probably one-third of my customers have come about directly or indirectly from the people who are here day-in and day-out. Having a dedicated conference space has helped me bring together other business owners to share opportunities, too.”
The meteoric expansion of Greg Wilder’s Orpheus Media Research, a music search and discovery platform, owes much to its coworking community. From its start in an apartment, to its development and incubation at Indy Hall, and finally to its own studios in New York City today, Orpheus has achieved every startup’s dream. “We are fully funded,” Greg tells us. “We’ve closed a Series A round. We have about 15 people who are working with us now.” According to Greg, he owes much of his success to coworking. “My experience with Indy Hall haped and allowed me to expand my area of expertise. It has technically empowered me to turn my ideas into a business, to take it from something that was just a fantastic tool into a real company.”
Little privacy and too many distractions. Sometimes the nature of your work is not compatible with the openness needed to make coworking work. Lawyers or accountants with secretive clients, for example, may need their own private offices that can be secured at all times. Even coworking advocates are not immune to the distraction that comes with the free flow of people in a coworking space. Software developer and cloud computing expert Adam Lindsay, a member of Coworking Rochester, tells us that prospective members should be warned about potential distractions when considering a space, which can affect productivity or be stressful when you have too much on your plate on a certain day. “If a person is easily distracted, coworking might not always be good. Make sure the coworking environment has quiet spaces you can escape to.”
Not the right crowd. Sometimes the chemistry really doesn’t work out, between you and the rest of the coworkers in the space. You may have different expectations, and the coworking space just didn’t meet them.
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