The new way to work on your own is to work alone together.
Across the country, spaces are springing up to meet the demands of a new work force, made up of self-employed entrepreneurs or part-time employees for whom the freedom of padding down the hall to their home office in pajamas has turned into a version of solitary confinement.
It's called co-working, and the places where it's happening are as flexible as the hours of the people who use them.
Whether it's a concierge suite at a Connecticut hotel, a small office on Chicago's Northwest Side, or a Silicon Valley company that combines day care for children and work space for parents, these shared work sites allow people to have a desk and an Internet connection without having to shush the kids during a conference call or hunt for a power outlet at a coffee shop so they can plug in their laptops.
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“In the winter time, I'd go for a week and not speak to anyone other than another voice on the telephone line,” said Jeff Park, who runs a pharmaceutical exporting business and opened a co-working space in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood last year. “It was miserable. I had zero interaction with other people.”
Park decided to rent a 1,600-square-foot space — far more than he needed for his business — and turn most of it into a co-working operation. Unlike most co-working sites, the space does not have a formal name, but Park says his co-workers have included computer programmers and Web site developers, road-warrior salesmen who need a quiet place to make sales calls, a graduate student writing his doctoral dissertation, and even a woman who runs a dog-walking business.
That's a typically broad cross-section of the people who use co-working sites, part of what author Daniel Pink calls “Free Agent Nation,” the independent contractors and freelance workers who can work anywhere as long as they can plug in a laptop, use their cell phones, and hook up to the Internet.
As an indication of how big that nation is becoming, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of single-person businesses increased from 16.5 million in 2000 to 20.4 million in 2005.
But free agents or not, humans remain social animals. Founders and frequenters of co-working offices routinely say that they sought the refuge of shared work space because being alone made them lonely. And seeking solace by setting up shop at Starbucks has its limitations.
“Sometimes that's great, but if you're on a business call and the cappuccino machine goes off in the background, it can be a distraction,” said Jeff Kubarych, a Web site developer who helped found Soundview Coworking, which uses the concierge suite on the 16th floor of a Stamford, Conn., hotel after the hotel guests have finished their morning muffins and juice.
Co-working sites first showed up in the San Francisco Bay area three years ago, and with its concentration of mobile, high-tech entrepreneurs, it remains a stronghold, with such co-working spaces as the Hat Factory, Citizen Space and Sandbox Suites.
But now, there are at least 38 co-working spaces already open or preparing to launch in the United States and several foreign countries, according to a co-working Web site, blog.coworking.info. The only one it lists in the Carolinas is in Carrboro, next to Chapel Hill.
Although the set-ups vary, the basic configuration of a co-working space is simply an open room with desks. Many include seating areas for informal meetings, conference rooms, and amenities such as a kitchenette.
Charges vary. At Soundview Coworking, users pay a monthly fee of $150. But Park has a two-tier plan at his Ravenswood site. For $150 a month, you get to use a desk but have to be willing to float from desk to desk, based on availability. A dedicated desk costs $285 a month.
Douglas Savitsky, who is working on a doctoral dissertation in sociology, has found that having a desk there has helped him focus on his work.
Before, all of his research was piled up on the dining room table in his apartment, an overwhelming mass that made him feel guilty whenever he wasn't toiling away on it, despite the fact that he also works as a computer programmer and builds audio equipment.
Apart from the advantages of a work environment, co-working also provides a way for people who would otherwise be isolated to connect with like-minded souls.
That's been the case at Cubes and Crayons in Menlo Park, Calif., which combines an office space for co-workers and a day care center for children age 5 and under.