Coworking: How to work solo, but not alone
Telecommuters and the self-employed avoid isolation by renting shared workspaces.
When Mike Jones signed on to be marketing director at an e-book publisher, one of the advertised perks was the chance to work at home full time. Two years later, he loves the job, but hated the location.Skip to next paragraph
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"I was totally cut off from the world," Mr. Jones says. "I was only working four or five hours a day because I'd keep looking for things to do just so I could get out of the apartment."
After months of searching for alternatives, Jones found Office Nomad, a shared workplace in Seattle that sells itself as "individuality without isolation." The studio plugs into a new and flourishing philosophy called "coworking."
The concept tries to combine the structure and socializing of a company office space with the flexibility of working from home. There are desks to rent, conference rooms to reserve, and still plenty of room to recline.
Coworking spots cater to the telecommuters, freelancers, and entrepreneurs of the e-mail era. These laptop bedouins represent a growing segment of the US workforce, and many coworkers say others are bound to find similar arrangements.
"I couldn't figure out why I had to choose between freedom and community," says Brad Neuberg, the computer programmer who coined the term coworking. "I wanted both. So I started imagining what that would look like."
In 2005, Mr. Neuberg found a woman's community hall in San Francisco that was empty during the day, and he struck a deal to use the space as the first coworking site. Every morning, Mr. Neuberg set up tables and waited for coworkers.
"For the first two months, no one showed up," he says, laughing at his initial hubris. "But people started trickling in and the word spread." Soon enough, he had started a movement.
There are now several dozen coworking spots across the country, and more popping up on other continents. Neuberg only had his hand in a few of them. Being an open-source developer, where software code is shared freely so it can be tweaked and improved by the community, he urged others to create their own coworking spots.
"I told people, 'Steal this idea. Turn it into whatever you want it to be,' " he says.
Coworking locations now come in every flavor: loose groups of individual workers such as Office Nomad, flats that have been converted into makeshift workspaces, and well-structured offices that tout more amenities than some corporate headquarters.
Sandbox Suites in San Francisco sports fingerprint-scan locks, ergonomic ball chairs, and macchiato coffees to order. Local artwork provides some eye candy, while the kitchen space offers the real deal, including Snickers and Crunch bars.
"I prefer it to working from home. I'm much more productive," says Heather Findlay, a local publisher. She can quantify her increased productivity: She's a month ahead of schedule from last year's publishing cycle.
Because of the shared costs, coworking spots are often a great deal less expensive than leasing a private office. Sandbox Suites costs $395 a month for five days a week. An extra $100 will get you a private desk. Office Nomad charges $25 a day for drop-ins or $475 a month for a dedicated desk that's available 24/7. Factor in the price of drinks at a neighborhood cafe, and the monthly fees aren't much greater.
An evolutionary step for start-ups
Among Sandbox's 20 regular denizens are the workforces of several start-up companies.
"I think there's a natural evolution of Internet companies nowadays," says James Nicholson, CEO of YourStreet Inc., a hyperlocal news website. "You start in your house, and then you move to a coffee shop, and then you move to a coworking space, then finally you get permanent office space."