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Coworking: How to work solo, but not alone

Telecommuters and the self-employed avoid isolation by renting shared workspaces.

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One of the Sandbox start-ups is "graduating" to its own office in the weeks ahead. DanceJam, a video website focusing on dance, moved into Sandbox Suites a few months ago with three to four regular workers.

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Now that venture funding has swelled its ranks to nine, plus a couple of interns, the workers have begun to outgrow the shared office and feel self-conscious about being the nosiest tenant in the space.

Noisy neighbors is part of the charm of Beta House, a coworking location in Cambridge, Mass. Taking up the top two stories of a multifamily house, the shared space feels like a techie fraternity. Electronic music is pumping. Someone had set up drum pads from the Rock Band video game. About half of the dozen coworkers tapped on keyboards, while the rest chatted in the open kitchen area.

"This place is a good mixture of all the things a young company needs," says AnYuan Guo, CEO of the video-based job counselor "There's networking, a place to get things done, collaboration."

Although most of the Beta House members work on their own projects, many stress how helpful it is to have other programmers around. They can pitch ideas, share hacks, and work through stubborn code. And because everyone is working toward different goals, there's no sense of office politics and little fear of ideas being stolen, says Jeff Dlouhy, a sophomore at Northeastern University who uses Beta House to get away from his dorm room and program new features for the open-source Web browser Camino.

"There's not that much competition," he says. "But sometimes there is a little geek envy."

Coworkers connect via the Web

Since the movement sprang from the open-source community, coworking uses many of the same self-organizing tools to spread the word. There's a coworking wiki site, several blogs, and countless Web pages devoted to promoting the idea and matching up workers with offices.

The main coworking location in Dublin, Ireland, grew out of a single website. "What we did was set up," just to see if there was any interest, says Jason Roe, an Irish freelance Web designer. He launched the site last March. By May, he had unveiled the first office. Another, larger space should be opening this month, he says.

The growth in coworking is no surprise to Rose Stanley, a work-life practice leader for the human resource association WorldatWork in Scottsdale, Ariz.

In 2006, the number of Americans who said they never telecommute dropped 24 percent, according to a study by WorldatWork. The fastest-growing segment was those who worked remotely every day, rising 20 percent to 14.7 million Americans. WorldatWork has yet to release the 2007 numbers, but Ms. Stanley expects the trends to continue.

In fact, with WorldatWork growing as a company, it's considering a situation very similar to coworking.

"Recently, we've been talking about opening a remote office," Stanley says. "But it doesn't have to be just for us. We've talked about sharing the space with other companies."

Staff writer Ben Arnoldy contributed to this story from San Francisco.