When Steve Jobs pulled a Macbook Air out of a manila envelope at MacWorld 2008 it was a seminal moment. Not only did the new machine have the usual Apple-sexy design and must-have looks that have been thrilling fanboys even since before the birth of the first iPod. It was also incredibly light yet still feature-heavy. Jobs showed that an office was no longer a place where you can find an envelope; an envelope was now capable of holding an entire office.
It’s a revolution whose effects can be seen in cafés across the country. Wherever coffee is poured, croissants are served and wi-fi is delivered for no additional charge, tables are full of laptops stuffed with professional software and manned by tech types who are writing code, creating designs or typing emails. They might not be doing it on Macbook Airs, but they’re not doing it in company offices either.
They’re also not doing it in company. Today’s freelancers might have little need of a corporate parking space, a suit or a cubicle but everyone needs social interaction, the inevitable bonus — together with office politics and juicy gossip — that comes with the traditional workspace.
Freelancing with Friends
That’s the addition that co-working is supposed to deliver. The practice is believed to have started in early 2006, when roommates Amit Gupta and Luke Crawford invited their freelancing friends to work together at their apartment. Jelly, as they called the meetup, has now become a regular event taking place at venues from Beijing to Bangalore that allow freelancing types to meet, chat and work in a social environment. Independent workers can keep the “free” part of freelancing but still enjoy the banter that makes office working bearable.
One of Jelly’s first attendees was Tony Bacigalupo, a work-at-home project manager for Desktop Solutions.
“Working from home was awesome, until it started to drive me crazy,” he told us. “I needed to get out of the house and work alongside other people, and figured there were other people out there in the same position.
“After attending my first event, I was blown away by the great people I worked alongside. I was hooked. Started going to every Jelly I could.”
Jelly only happened once every two weeks. Tony though worked every day so when he learned of a new coworking community which would always be open, he became one of the group’s leaders. CooperBricolage met for a month in an East Village café, but it quickly became clear that there was a need for a dedicated co-working space in Manhattan to supplement the one that had already opened in Brooklyn.
New Work City opened on Varick Street at the beginning of November, 2008, and is now used by between 40 and 50 people a month. Most are members, paying monthly fees that range from $25 for access one day a month to as much as $550 for a key granting access 24/7, storage space, a mailing address and priority use of the conference room. A number of the site’s users are also occasional visitors or people from out of town who pay a $25 daily rate. Most are tech types, developers, designers, consultants, startups and managers who get to enjoy fast wireless Internet and a seat at a desk or shared table.
Membership fell when the site opened just as the economy crashed but newly laid-off workers are also coming to New Work City. Many of them, Tony believes, may choose not to return to the office and full-time employment at all.
Coworking’s Extra Value
The fees then don’t seem to be putting people off even though they make Starbucks’ three dollar coffees — with a table and next door’s Internet access thrown in for nothing — look like good value. New Work City is profitable. No one earns a salary for running the place but the fees bring in more revenue than New Work City spends and Tony is looking at ways to scale up so that it can employ staff.
That suggests a dedicated co-working space does deliver something valuable that’s missing even in a coffee house filled with freelancers.
“Context,” explains Tony. “When working in a cafe, you might be working alongside other people, but you don’t have any good way of connecting with these people. Also, many freelancers and entrepreneurs could use better resources than a typical cafe setup: a faster, more consistent Internet connection, conference room, printing capabilities, a desk, etc.”
Presumably though, those connections also brings distractions. Offices have doors and even cubicles have walls, allowing employees to focus on productivity without being tempted to look at the viral video being watched on the screen next to them. Tony concedes that coworking can indeed bring diversions but points out that the people who come to New Work City are hard-working types who are serious about what they do. They have fun, he argues, but their industriousness is inspiring and that in itself can help productivity.
More importantly, the knowledge possessed — and shared by people at the same table — can open whole new opportunities.
“[D]istractions tend to be of a productive slant — in a given day of coworking, one might easily come home having learned about a new site or project or having discussed a new idea that helps them in a way they didn’t expect,” says Tony. “We call the phenomenon ‘accelerated serendipity.’”
Getting the most out of a coworking space then means doing more than turning up and staying longer than you can sit comfortably in a café with one cup of coffee and something sweet and flaky. It means talking with the other members, helping to plan and run events, contributing to improving the workspace and swapping ideas and knowledge.
It means helping to create a community out of the disparate workers who fill the space.
“Over time, the value of the community becomes really irreplaceable,” says Tony. “For collaboration, sharing knowledge, networking, and even just for social needs, the coworking space brings people together to fill those roles.”