David Brunelle was living the dream: He'd shucked his 9-to-5 office job, liberated himself from the cubicle farm and started his own business. He was working from home, being his own boss . and before long, wallowing in freedom.
"More often than not, I'd find myself on the couch, playing Xbox at 1 in the afternoon," says Brunelle, a Seattle web developer. "It became pretty clear that to be productive, I needed structure, I needed to set boundaries between my work and my home life, and I needed to be around other people who are serious about their work."
Co-Working With BenefitsHere's an unexpected perk of the co-working movement: A co-working website that offers overnight accommodations in some of the world's great cities, for the fraction of the price of a hotel room.
Headed to New York City? Airbnb lists a fully equipped studio apartment with a view of the Empire State Building for $169 a night. Traveling to Paris? There's an airy apartment in Le Marais for $140 a night. There are also cheaper, and less cushy, options: nightly rentals of spare bedrooms, sofa beds, futons and--yes--air mattresses, for less than $100 a night, in more than 1,000 cities worldwide.
Airbnb was launched in 2008 after three San Francisco entrepreneurs recognized the need for lodging in the city. Roommates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky decided to offer up their place, along with some breakfast and local hospitality, to a few friendly strangers attending a conference. It was a success, and with help from their tech-savvy friend Nathan Blecharczyk, the three launched a website, found a few guests and Airbnb was born. The fully automated site handles secure online credit card transactions, and includes rich user profiles and user reviews.
Fortunately, Brunelle, who launched his web design company last November, discovered Office Nomads, a 5,000-square-foot collection of work spaces designed for people just like him: sole proprietors, freelancers, artists, consultants and other independent workers who have emerged to work and connect under the same roof.
Their search for a workplace that combines the best of a home office, an internet cafe and a traditional office has given rise to a whole new movement, with an awkward but apt name: "co-working." It's a dramatic U-turn in the quest for the perfect work environment--a migration back to the cubicle from the often-idealized home office, but a cubicle reimagined for a time when the line between domestic and professional life has never been more blurred.
Co-working spaces--which cost anywhere from $25 a day for occasional drop-ins to $500 or more a month--only began popping up a few years ago in places like New York and San Francisco. Now they are slowly becoming a national and international phenomenon. The potential is huge: More than 10 million Americans are self-employed, up from about 8 million in 1980. Freelance job sites are booming, too: Elance.com had postings jump 40 percent in the first half of this year, while Guru.com saw its total membership grow by 15% over the year before.
The appeal of co-working seems clear: It provides people like Brunelle a professional and social package that most alternatives can't match. For starters, there's the real-live-human camaraderie you can't get from Facebook or text messaging, as well as the potential for networking and uncovering new business opportunities. A co-working office can also offer a sounding board for ideas in an informal setting. And it relieves, for the most part, the energy-sapping world of office politics--not to mention blood-draining commutes.
All that, plus a basic support system that typically includes dedicated spaces for working and for socializing, high-speed internet, a kitchenette and, naturally, some type of caffeine-dispensing appliance. Printers and fax machines could also be available. Some spaces sweeten the package with lockers, showers and yoga classes. Others offer audio-video equipment, organized social outings, consulting services--and one of the newest services: child care.
Capitalizing on the fact that co-workers may have small children in need of supervision, Cubes&Crayons in Northern California has added onsite child care at its locations in San Francisco and Mountain View. What the company calls "professional, developmentally appropriate" care for children between the ages of 3 months and 5 years is provided during regular business hours. There's flexibility in choosing a plan--full-time, part-time or drop-in. Rates for members range from $17 an hour for occasional drop-ins to a flat fee of $600 per month for 60 hours of care. Cubes&Crayons may be the first, but it is unlikely to be the last, to start grooming the next generation of co-workers.
But for most people, what makes co-working alluring isn't the child care or the yoga but the cooperative spirit and community vibe fostered by the people who populate those spaces.
Take Tony Bacigalupo. "I was working from home for a web consulting firm and realized I needed to be around other people and out of the house," he explains. "The local café wasn't great as a work environment either. Then I discovered there was already a burgeoning movement for people like me."
Similar disenchantment with working from home prompted Andrew Luter, a private equity investor in Denver, and Susan Evans, an environmental consultant in Seattle, to turn to co-working at around the same time.
"Isolation," Evans says, "is an inconvenient byproduct of the concept of home-office convenience." For Luter, the problem with working from home "wasn't just the distractions, it was the sense of physical and mental separation."
Having met enough like-minded people to believe co-working was more than a passing fancy, Bacigalupo, Evans and Luter were soon investing in the business and helping propel the movement in their respective cities. In April 2007, Luter opened the Hive in Denver. Seven months later, Office Nomads, the brainchild of Evans and business partner Jacob Sayles, began welcoming members in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. And a year after that, Bacigalupo opened New Work City in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. Meanwhile, co-working spaces also were debuting across the country--and not just in the largest cities but in smaller urban areas and university towns with thriving populations of entrepreneurs and independent workers.
Now, less than a year after opening, New Work City hosts anywhere from 40 to 50 full- and part-time members on a given day. To be there, they can pay a $25 daily drop-in fee or $500 a month for a full-time membership, which affords them 24/7 access to the space. The Hive, meanwhile, has roughly 20 members who use its 4,000-square-foot space, paying $199 per month for 24/7 access. Brunelle is one of about 25 full-time members at Office Nomads; for $475 they get "resident" status, which comes with a dedicated desk and 24/7 access. There are also part-timers and drop-ins.
Graphic artists and business consultants, architects and publicists, authors and code-writers: As diverse and colorful as the co-working crowd is, there are unifying threads. "No one in here wants to work by themselves; everyone is here because they want to be here," Evans says.
And, Bacigalupo adds, co-workers tend to be personable types. "The jerks rarely stick around, if they come here in the first place, and they rarely do. These are offices spaces without all the sucky parts of an office."
He explains that people spent most of the 20th century figuring out how to go from blue-collar to white-collar jobs. "Now we're looking for a new kind of personal workplace beyond the white-collar environment," he says. "I think what we're seeing now is a resurgence of interest in the possibilities of the virtual office--a healthier, more sustainable version of telecommuting."
The variety of people working in complementary fields can make co-working spaces fertile ground for new business opportunities, too. "There's certainly work being passed to and fro among members," Evans says. "That is definitely a consistent theme across co-working spaces. It's a huge benefit."
In the end, it is camaraderie, community and connectedness that fuel this trend. "It is what members make it," Evans says, "and they have made it pretty awesome."
So awesome, in fact, that Brunelle says he has "no complaints and no regrets" after six months as an Office Nomads full-timer--even though it's meant sacrificing those pajamas-and-Xbox afternoons.
Your Branch Office
So, how do you go about finding your nearest co-working space? Check out http://coworking.pbworks.com/CoworkingVisa or search Google using your city name and the word "co-working."
And if business takes you on the road, there are dozens of work spaces in the U.S. and abroad that have open-door policies for co-workers from out of town. as part of a loosely structured "visa" program. This means you don't have to hole up in a hotel room to conduct business or you can rub shoulders with co-workers in other cities, Co-working spaces in at least 17 states and 13 countries have signed on to participate in the program, which invites co-workers to drop in and work at little or no cost.
"If you're a member of a co-working space, come on in, take a seat and work here as many days as you like," says Susan Evans, co-founder of Office Nomads in Seattle. Terms, such as whether to call or e-mail ahead to confirm space availability, vary by organization. For an updated list of visa-friendly spaces and their requirements, check http://coworking.pbworks.com/CoworkingVisa .
David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.