Co-working: The Ultimate in Teleworking Flexibility

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Jon Pierce's teleworking office can't get much more casual.

Operating out of the third floor of a Cambridge, Mass., triple-decker apartment building, Pierce and several of his peers come to work dressed in jeans and spend their days pecking away diligently at their keyboards. They play music sans headphones to help pass the time, with the new Radiohead album garnering significant airplay in recent days. For leisure, they've set up an electric guitar on a nearby chair that can be played during break time, and there are piles of Reese's cups and jellybeans spread across the kitchen counter to satisfy their quick hunger fixes.

While they may look like college roommates studying for a final exam, they're actually part of a growing trend in teleworking. After they spent years teleworking either at home or at the local coffee shop, Pierce and his colleagues banded together with others to form the Beta House, a co-working community for Web entrepreneurs. Co-working communities, which combine the relaxed, informal atmosphere of working at home with the sociability and cost-sharing of an office, have emerged as alternatives for telecommuters who miss having person-to-person interaction during work.

"Over the past year or two, these co-working spaces have been sprouting up around the country in recognition of individual entrepreneurs who have taken to working out of coffee shops but who still desire the kind of human interaction that they can't really get there," says Pierce, a software developer who co-founded the Beta House in February of this year to serve as a working space for independent Web developers, product managers and start-up owners. The project, say Beta House members, has been a rousing success so far.

"Personally, I'm very happy to have a four-burner gas stove, a grill on the back porch and a fridge full of beer at work," says Brian DelVecchio, a software developer who also works at the Beta House. "These are things that I find make a much more comfortable place to work. It's easy for me to focus here and get deep into things, instead of working in a cubicle."

The draw of co-working

Nationwide, there are roughly 16.2 million self-employed teleworkers and 12.4 million teleworkers employed by an outside party. A 2007 CDW survey of over 2,000 workers showed that 79 percent of workers employed in the private sector and half of workers employed in the public sector were worried about feeling isolated and missing human interaction if they were to start telecommuting. Roughly a third of both private and public-sector workers also reported that they didn't want to stay at home during work.

It is in this context, say co-working advocates, that co-working provides a valuable service. For although working in your underwear may seem appealing at first glance, many teleworkers say they quickly began to feel isolated and that they missed having colleagues nearby to bounce ideas off of.

"For the past 10 to 15 years, we've lived in an age where you can work in socks and underwear, but that doesn't prevent you from going insane," says Charles Planck, the CEO of Articulated Impact, the founding parent company of the Washington, D.C.-based Affinity Lab co-working space. "You find that if you're at home too much, you lose your edge in dealing with people."

Most co-working spaces are designed less like offices and more like lounges or coffee shops. While private desks are available to paying customers, many co-working spaces have significant common areas dedicated to encouraging interaction

The San Francisco-based Citizen Space, for instance, rents out only seven private desks, and uses the rest of its space as a common area that features a full library, meeting areas that come complete with white boards and a projector, and even a popcorn machine. Citizen Space co-founder Tara Hunt says that she and her partner Chris Messina designed their co-working space with the idea of maximizing sociability and idea sharing.

"When you're an independent worker, there are times when you're hitting a wall when it comes to getting new ideas," she says. "We didn't start out Citizen Space to be a rent-a-desk sort of office. Rather, we wanted to work among really smart, turned-on people." Hunt says one of the most interesting aspects of Citizen Space is watching how people get into daily rhythms of mixing work with social activity. Typically, people will mingle briefly at the beginning of the day, and will then settle down and work for about 45 minutes before needing a break, getting a cup of coffee and mingling some more. This differs from coffee shops, she says, where people generally don't know each other, and also from executive suites, where too much conversation if often frowned upon.

Of course, the sociability and sharing of ideas are only one part of what makes co-working appealing. Another crucial benefit of co-working is the ability to share costs with others for work essentials such as Internet connection, phone service, office supplies and rent. Planck says that paying US$895 per month to Affinity Lab not only guarantees you a desk but also two DSL pipes, various reference books, a kitchen and conference room for common use, a color copier and printer and 24-hour access to facility. A $275 monthly membership to the Philadelphia-based Independents Hall, meanwhile, gets you a full-time desk, wireless Internet connection, equipment storage space and a conference room.

The Beta House charges between $200 and $400 per month per desk, and rates depend upon on how much time a given member spends working in the space. With 12 people working out of the space at any given time, Pierce says that charging in the $200-$400 range is optimal for covering the site's expenses, which he says run an average of $3,000 to $3,500 per month

"Our costs are pretty much equally split among our members," he says.

A philosophy of open source working

People who operate within co-working spaces often refer to their way of work as a "movement." Although co-working spaces have significant differences in both service and culture, co-working as a whole is generally defined by four major values: collaboration, openness, community and sustainability. Essentially, co-working spaces encourage their members to share as many of their ideas with each other as possible and to not feel they're in competition with their co-working colleagues. This principle is encouraged by all major co-working spaces, although different spaces have different methods of prodding their members into being more open. Citizen Space, for instance, explicitly prohibits its members from signing nondisclosure agreements with one another. Affinity Lab, on the other hand, has no specific policy on NDAs, but Planck says that all members must be "people who work and play well with others."

While none of the co-workers interviewed for this story say they have ever encountered a situation where two people employed by competing firms ever had to inhabit the same co-working spaces, they do concede that such a situation could easily arise in the future. In that case, they say that the two parties would be encouraged to talk openly with each other, and that they would have to understand that their rivalry does not exist within the confines of the co-working area.

"We're a community space first, and that means the people who work here come first, and the companies they work for come second," says Alex Hillman, one of the co-founders of Independents Hall.

Of course, this model of openness has given many employers and investors pause. When Beta House member and co-founder Greg Gibson started raising capital to start his own virtual goods business, many venture capitalists expressed concern about co-working sites' vulnerabilities to hacking and other security threats. While these concerns were understandable, Gibson notes, the Beta House's password-secured wireless cable modem is still a more secure connection than what most teleworkers use.

"We actually had quite a bit of pushback from some of the investors about being located in a space like this," he says. "Their concerns were mostly security, confidentiality and concern that the guy next to you is going to steal your ideas. And we had to do quite a bit of work to explain the benefits versus the risks."

And what about investors who insist on fretting about the Beta House's Internet security?

"We tell them, 'Hey, it's much less of a worry here than it would be at Starbucks,'" he says.

This story, "Co-working: The Ultimate in Teleworking Flexibility" was originally published by Network World.

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