By JANE HODGES
Telecommuters, entrepreneurs, and the self-employed all grapple with the logistical challenges of working alone. At home, workers face isolation and domestic distraction. At the corner coffee shop offering free Wi-Fi, there’s insufficient privacy, too few electrical outlets and the nuisance of latte orders shouted out through the day.
A growing number of workers face these hassles every day. As of November 2009, there were nine million self-employed workers in the U.S., according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Meanwhile, the volume of workers telecommuting at least once a month for employers grew 17% between 2006 and 2008, to 33.7 million workers, according to WorldatWork, a human-resources research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Telecommuting has grown more widespread among full-time workers due to technology advances and corporate efforts to drive down overhead by lowering real-estate costs, says Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange, a telecommuting research organization in Alexandria, Va. “Organizations are starting to see the benefits of telecommuting for the bottom line,” Ms. Auten says. “The ability to work offsite is even a recruitment tool.”
For those who lack a conventional office, shared, or “coworking,” spaces promise to solve some of the dilemmas of working alone. These facilities provide environments where professional nomads can work in relative quiet and even socialize around the coffee pot, or copier.
Just how well could we “cowork”? To find out, we took laptop and cellphone to four facilities in four cities, Office Nomads in Seattle; Souk in Portland, Ore.; The Coop in Chicago; and New Work City in Manhattan. All four are located in popular neighborhoods near public transit.
The facilities offered a variety of pricing plans ranging from day rates for the noncommittal to full-time 24-hour access memberships. Aside from solo workstations, they all also offered free high-speed Internet connections, free coffee, whiteboards and areas (with beanbag chairs) for small group brainstorming sessions, restrooms, lockers or storage, and light office amenities such as copiers.
Reservations weren’t required at any of the spaces, but were available at Souk and are forthcoming at New Work City.
All the facilities belonged to the “Coworking Visa” program, which lets members in participating coworking spaces use partner spaces elsewhere when traveling.
All also offered first-come/first-serve use of conference rooms for quick private chats or calls. At Souk, you could pay to reserve conference rooms for formal meetings or longer uses.
The Coop, located in Chicago’s West Loop area, was the smallest space we tested, with desk-top spaces pushed up against one another without dividers.
We visited twice during the week—on a Wednesday and Thursday—and appreciated that a few workers—an accountant and a consultant—greeted us. Working in a formal office motivated us more to work and we appreciated the comfy black leather chairs and good lighting. But the lack of barriers between desks meant we could see coworkers’ computer screens, and vice versa.
We were unsure of phone etiquette, but learned it was acceptable to make calls in the open when coworkers conducted job interviews and client meetings over the phone. While slightly distracting, the open-air calls were no worse than in a conventional office.
Manhattan’s New Work City, on the edge of SoHo, was on the compact side. The space had a 20-worker capacity and didn’t take reservations when we called, but the owner said a reservation systems is in the works. After check-in, we snagged one of the few remaining spots. We appreciated that our work space was spacious and that coworkers seemed industrious. Some of the office denizens appeared familiar with one another and a bulletin board posted community news, but we didn’t feel pressured to socialize.
Both coworking spaces we tried in the techie Northwest were bigger. Seattle’s Office Nomads, located in youthful and artistic Capitol Hill, can accommodate several dozen workers with its mix of closed-door offices, open desks and lounge areas. Office Nomads didn’t require a reservation and won’t charge for the first visit. Office Nomads was well-lit, with abundant plugs and desk options.
Coworkers—as well as the site’s founders—introduced themselves and offered help. We weren’t sure if we visited on a particularly friendly day or if this was the norm. Office Nomads appeared to place an emphasis on creating a community for its members; there was a “State of the Nomads” monthly meeting at midday. A bulletin board listed in-house social options as well as visiting speakers slated to appear, and also featured quirky photos and fun facts about members. Office Nomads also offered the most extensive weekday hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
We made a reservation to use Souk, on the edge of Portland’s Pearl District and Chinatown, for a Thursday. We were surprised at how quiet the space was, with less than 15 workers inhabiting a space sufficient for several dozen more. The friendly office manager checked us in, gave us a tour, and even made us an Americano coffee from the office cappuccino maker.
Souk offered the widest variety of work-space configurations. Full-time members could use enclosed offices, but less-frequent coworkers could choose from rolling desks in a large open room, a communal work table, or first-come/first-serve semi-private rooms with walls and sliding doors. We liked that rolling desks in the open room could be moved at coworkers’ discretion—toward a wall for privacy, near a partner for collaboration. The open room also offered lightweight partitions for makeshift privacy. We chose a semi-private room. Noise was minimal, but we overheard some consultants and nonprofit sector types talking about work projects. Abstract art adorned the brick walls and furnishings included Herman Miller chairs and modern desks.
All in all, we liked coworking spaces. There were a few hitches, however. We needed to spend considerable time on the phone and felt uncomfortable discussing confidential matters publicly or hogging conference rooms. The other complication is that while coworking spaces guarantee and deliver a baseline of services, they also offer lots of extras based on loose rules. For instance, sometimes the facilities stay open later than posted hours and sometimes they don’t, or conference rooms aren’t always available.
For those of us with tight deadlines or plan-ahead mentalities, this can be stressful. But considering how cheap and flexible coworking is relative to a full-time lease—and the social perks—we don’t have problems with this unpredictability.
—Lori Barrett in Chicago and Shivani Vora in New York contributed to this article.
|COMPANY||COST||HOURS AND VIBE||COMMENT|
|Office NomadsSeattle(officenomads.com)||First visit free ;
three visits/month, $50; $375/month Monday-Friday access;
$475/month 24/7 access
|8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon. to Fri. Mix of professionals in their 20s to 40s, friendly staff, irreverent bulletin board touts full-time members’ work and hobbies, after-hours events.||Staffers were welcoming but not cloying. Background noise was low. We felt funny making calls in the open. Well lit, with variety of work spaces.|
$249/month for 80 hours weekday usage;
$275/month for 24-hour access
|9 a.m.-5 p.m., Mon. to Fri. Large, quiet space with mix of work space types (open, private) and conference rooms but no task lighting; tech and nonprofit executives were present.||Friendly office manager made us espresso and took interest in us and our work; large variety of work-space types; single-day users aren’t allowed in on Fridays; street parking difficult.|
|New Work CityNew York(nwcny.com)||First visit free; $20-$25 per day for drop-in; $50/month for 3 visits/month; $150/month (2 days/week); $200/month (3 days/week); $500/month for 24-hour access||9 a.m.-6 p.m., Mon.-Fri. Maximum 20 workers in the space, a brightly lit room with banks of spacious desks. Quiet, productive environment used by techies, entrepreneurs.||Reservation system forthcoming, lockers may be available for less-frequent members, office is sometimes open until 8 p.m. (but no guarantees), after-hours events.|
|The CoopChicago(coworkchicago.com)||$20/day; $90/week; $300/month||9 a.m.-5 p.m., Mon.-Fri., with extended hours for monthly users. Some coworkers were service professionals (accountants, consultants). Space had nice mix of overhead and natural light.||No private space for phone calls. Desks faced one another, permitting views of others’ computer screens. Noise level was similar to a “regular” office. 24-hour access plan forthcoming.|