Freelancing offers a number of powerful advantages: you can work from home; you get to avoid the commute; you can skip the office gossip. But it also delivers a bunch of disadvantages; you have to work from home; you never leave the house; you have no one to gossip with. Coworking attempts to bring back the fun and camaraderie that come from working in company while still leaving behind the frustrations and obligations that come with working for a company. But is it everything it’s cracked up to be? Is shared office space the solution to all the ills of freelancing?
The practice appears to have started in 2006 when entrepreneur Amit Gupta and his roommate Luke Crawford opened their New York home to freelancing friends, and created Jelly. Since then the practice has spread. Similar “Jellies” have opened in more than 100 cities around the world. The Hub, another co-working network that allows members to use any of their spaces anywhere, is active in twelve cities on four continents. Desk Wanted, a coworking search site, boasts 650 workplaces available for rent, and there are countless independent coworking spaces that provide local solutions for freelancers who want to unchain themselves from their home desks and attach themselves to a workspace somewhere else.
Coworking Will Make You Rich
Members pay a monthly fee (The Hub charges $300 a month for up to 100 hours of use, or $450 for unlimited usage) and receive a free Internet connection, printing and photocopying facilities, the use of meeting rooms, a refreshment area and, most importantly, the company of other freelancers.
According to a new ebook by Angel Kwiatkovski and Beth Buczynski, that company can solve a stream of freelancer problems. Coworking, they argue, can help people
“develop their full potential and become more truly themselves…. Through coworking you can become a more well-rounded, balanced, tolerant, educated, motivated citizen of the world, all while realizing your personal and professional goals.”
Sharing a desk can end isolation, remove the “empty feeling” that working alone brings, and can even “save you from destitution.”
That’s a lot of big claims for a service that delivers little more than space at a big desk. Clearly, coworking can solve a number of problems and produce some very useful benefits. The book contains comments from 30 coworkers who wax lyrical about the lessons they learned by listening to the conversations of people in different fields, the new ideas they were able to generate by asking others for help and, most importantly, the new clients they found by explaining what they do and showing how well they do it.
But much depends on the nature of the space and the stage of career development of the freelancer. A survey conducted by DeskMag, an online coworking magazine, found that more than half of coworkers prefer to share a workspace with fewer than 20 people, and less than 4 percent said that they wanted to work with more than 50 other freelancers. While just over a fifth said that size doesn’t matter, coworkers appear to prefer a workspace that’s small enough to form close relationships with others even at the expense of a wider variety of different backgrounds. Given a choice between lots of opportunities or a handful of new friends, coworkers seem to opt for the new friends most of the time.
After Four Years, the Love Affair Ends
Satisfaction with the space also appears to vary with time. It takes about three months for a coworker to report a high level of satisfaction with a coworking space, a level that continues to rise until the second year. At that point, the advantages become routine and the benefits taken for granted. By the fourth year, although 85 percent of the coworkers surveyed still reported being satisfied with their coworking space, identification has fallen, as have attendance rates. Coworkers are more likely at that point to say that they’ll be leaving within a year.
It’s hard to say though how much of that drop is down to the space and how much is a result of the end of a love affair with freelancing. Many of those who move on from coworking head back to the corporate world where they can enjoy a more reliable income — at least until the next downturn.
And not all coworkers are freelancers. DeskMag’s survey found that only 54 percent described themselves as self-employed. One in five employed others and a similar number were employees, usually in companies with fewer than five workers.
Interestingly, more than half of respondents were aged between 20 and 34, and 35 percent were aged 35-49. The survey, which appears to have been aimed at potential creators of coworking spaces, looked at the locations of the sites’ users but it didn’t examine their home life, a factor which is likely to play an important role in the decision to cowork.
That the majority of coworkers are young may not be surprising. They’re also the people likeliest to live alone or with roommates while those aged above 34 are more likely to be married and have a home life dictated by the needs of a young family. For them, a shared workspace might be able to deliver grown-up conversations but it’s not a replacement for an “empty feeling,” nor will it bring an end to “isolation” when their lives are filled with school runs, ballet classes and organizing playdates.
DeskMag’s survey found that the most common benefit that coworking brought was “better interactions with others,” as well as an increase in motivation and productivity. Only a minority, a group that fell with age, reported that coworking had enabled them to increase their earnings.
Coworking then can be fun. Its growth around the world suggests that it’s a work style that has appeal to many, and especially to young types who really need to get out of the house more often. But it’s not going to revolutionize a small freelance business and it certainly won’t save you from destitution.