The Social Workspace: Coworking

Since I’ve been thinking about the spaces we work in a lot lately, I thought I’d talk a bit about the new approach to work that’s taking hold among many self-employed and telecommuting workers these days: coworking. There are several different approaches to coworking, but the basic idea is simple: create a space where a bunch of people can work comfortably.

Most coworking facilities move beyond the idea of just providing a simple working space for a small fee to creating a social environment in which a community of similar-minded folks can get work done but also feel some of the camaraderie of a traditional office space. For instance, Launchpad Coworking in Austin offers “camaraderie, low workspace overhead, a chance for collaboration, and darn good coffee”; New Work City in NYC describes itself as “the gathering spot for a community of like-minded individuals who need somewhere to work that’s both creative and social, and professional and conducive to working.”

How it works

Most coworking facilities are more akin to a cool coffee house than an office suite. Some offer 24/7 access and a personal desk or workstation for a few hundred dollars a month; others offer a shared common room with tables or desks on a first-come, first-served basis. In most cases, you pay a membership fee based on your needs – you might pay $25 for a day pass or $500 for a reserved desk and your own set of keys.

For your money, you get not only a place to sit, but a range of business services and equipment at your disposal, including fax machines, photocopiers, printers, and wi-fi Internet access. Many coworking facilities also offer free coffee and snacks, lectures and workshops, and group activities. Some have conference rooms available, phone and receptionist service, mail delivery, and other amenities more typical of an office suite.

Who coworks?

The most important “resource” coworking facilities offer, though, is other people working alongside you. Freelancers and other self-employed people tend to be a) incredibly creative, b) very entrepreneurial, and c) very generous. Bring them together and you start laying the groundwork for a network of smart, creative, driven, and knowledgeable people who offer each other advice, collaboration, camaraderie, and “creative juice”.

This philosophy is reflected in the fact that most coworking centers don’t “rent office space”, they offer “membership”. And those members might include commercial writers, graphic designers, journalists, novelists, web programmers, working musicians and actors, and solopreneurs.

Why cowork?

Besides the neat facilities, there are lots of reasons that people choose to cowork. Some just get a charge out of the creative energy of this kind of workspace. Others need a comfortable place they can meet with clients or partners.

For most coworkers, though, I think the biggest factor is the loneliness of working at home. Until you’ve left an office job behind, it’s hard to understand how enervating working at home can be. Some thrive at home, of course, but many struggle. I know I do – when I  don’t have classes to teach or another reason to leave the house, I can sometimes go for days without having a conversation with another person!

Coworking facilities help ease this sense of isolation – even for people who never utter a word to their fellow members. Just the simple fact of being out and about can be a powerful motivator for many work-at-home types.

Where can you cowork?

Coworking is a new enough concept that it can be hard to find coworking facilities, even in major cities. (My own hometown of Las Vegas doesn’t have one, for example, although I’m strongly considering that as a call to action!)

The Coworking Wiki lists coworking spaces and plans, along with tons of other information about coworking.

Another resource is the Coworking Community Blog, which has a Google Map showing the location of coworking spots around the world.

You can also Google “coworking + [your city]” and see what comes up.

If you’re travelling, check to see if your coworking space is part of the Coworking Visa group. If it is, you can use coworking spaces in cities all around the US for up to three days for no extra charge.

If you can’t find a coworking space near you, don’t despair. There are a couple of coworking options that you might still consider.

The first is a Jelly, an informal coworking event held regularly in over 100 cities worldwide. Jellies don’t usually take place in dedicated workspaces; rather, it is a gathering of several people at a coffee shop, restaurant, or other place of business (and sometimes even in people’s homes!) that offers wi-fi and is amenable to hosting a bunch of creative workers. You can find a list of Jellies on the Jelly wiki. No membership is required, and they’re typically free. (You should probably buy something from the hosting establishment, though!) If there isn’t one near you, it’s relatively easy to start your own Jelly, too.

Many cities also host coworking meetups, open to anyone interested in joining or starting a coworking space in their town. You can find a list on Meetup.com; meetups are sometimes free, but often the organizers ask for a small payment of a dollar or two to help defray the charge Meetup.com charges for hosting their group.

Finally, you can start your own. The authors of I’m Outta Here, a book about coworking, have a one-page guide to starting a coworking group that will help get you started. The Coworking Google Group can connect you with interested people from all over for advice and encouragement, too. The key thing is to start building a community of people who want to be involved and to work out what kind of coworking situation will work best given that community’s needs and desires. From there, you can determine how to proceed – a full-fledge coworking location is a real business, and there is simply no one-size-fits-all plan for creating one.

Is coworking for you?

If you would benefit from being around other creative people, if your work keeps you on the move and you’d like to see a friendly face now and again, if working at home isn’t quite coming together, drop in to a coworking space or a Jelly near you and see if you like it. Since most of them offer one-day visits, you can check it out without making any long-term commitment. Maybe coworking is something that would be useful once or twice a month, just for a change of pace? Or maybe you’ll be hooked!

If you’re already using a coworking facility in your town, let us know in the comments how you like it. If you run one, feel free to let us know all about it! And, if you live in Las Vegas and think we could use a coworking space, let me know – I might want to get in touch with you!

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