Walk into any coffee shop and you'll see them--a new generation of the self-employed tapping away at their laptops or conducting sales calls over the quiet din and a warm cup of java. Many freelancers and solo-preneurs have adopted the coffee shop as an office away from home--a place not only to plug in and conduct business, but also to connect with other people.
"From home, you don't have that same energy as you find in an office," says Tara Hunt, 34. "Sure, you have the convenience of being able to roll out of bed and answer emails in your pajamas, but it gets lonely."
Jerome Chang, founder of Los Angeles-based BlankSpaces agrees. "Every freelancer has experienced this isolation," he says. "Not only do you want to work in a community, but you also want to be able to bounce ideas off other people. It's what we all miss when we leave the corporate environment."
Socializing with fellow workers and conducting business in a professional environment are just some of the things office employees take for granted until they're lost. That's why Hunt, Chang and many others are creating co-working spaces, an emerging trend that gives solo-preneurs a professional and social environment in which to work.
One Part Coffee Shop, One Part Office
In 2006, Hunt and partners Brad Neuberg and Chris Messina created Citizen Space a co-working space in San Francisco that combines the social, energetic and creative elements of a coffee shop with the productive, functional elements of an office.
The result is a comfy, artsy space that looks like a coffee shop, yet offers amenities such as desks, white boards, office supplies and a private boardroom. Drop-in co-workers can share a worktable for free, while people seeking a more permanent space can rent a private desk for a monthly fee. All co-workers are expected to abide by the rules of respect, openness and positive collaboration.
"Co-working provides an awesome, instant network," says Hunt, adding that co-workers are encouraged to share ideas and expertise.
"People will put up mock-ups for websites or sketch out business plans on a white board and leave it up overnight. By the next day, other people in the office will have written notes saying, 'What would be even better is if you did this.' or 'In my experience, I found that.' It's valuable feedback you wouldn't get at home or in a coffee shop."
This melting pot of experience from different business backgrounds creates a breeding ground for new ideas that's invaluable to co-workers.
Co-working environments come in two forms: those that have a laid-back, indie vibe that's conducive to creativity--best for free-spirited workers like freelancers or web designers--and those that provide a more businesslike environment for people to meet with clients--as is the case for architects and real estate agents.
"There is some benefit to reinforcing some [corporate] office components," says Chang, 35.
Unlike Citizen Space, BlankSpaces provides individual cubicles, private offices, conference rooms, mailboxes, a full staff and access to technologies such as color laser printers, copiers, fax machines and high-definition projectors. One look at the BlankSpaces website, and you'll see it looks less like a coffee shop and more like a corporate office.
"In my case, I tried to stay a good distance away from that coffee shop aesthetic, because ultimately you still need to do work and bring in clients," Chang says.
The Future of Co-Working
For now, co-working is mainly for self-employed individuals who want the freedom and flexibility of "going into the office" only when they need to. But the co-working philosophy has attributes many small businesses can adopt.
"I'm seeing a lot of small businesses opening their doors to co-workers," Hunt says. Businesses with extra space are renting out empty desks and sharing their unused office space for a nominal fee. The result is an extended network of people sharing ideas under one roof.
Chang says business owners could also use co-working to maximize their monthly rent. "When you work five days a week, who pays the rent for Saturday and Sunday? That's just a lost expense."
Whether it's to share knowledge or to share rent, co-working is a trend that's attracting more and more people. As the co-working community grows, so will its influence on the evolving office environment.