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Virtual Workers and Coworking

Photography: pyramis

“I could be doing this at home.”

It’s a thought that’s becoming increasingly common among office workers. When you can email, phone, teleconference and even video conference, who really does need the pain of the daily commute and the hassle of office politics? Wouldn’t we all be a lot happier making our own schedules, working from our home offices, and sending in the completed work without ever seeing the boss, the gridlock or the line in the staff canteen?

Well, perhaps. Although one recent survey claims that 42 percent of US companies operate some form of telework system, working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s the feeling that you’re never away from the office, the discipline required to stay at the keyboard when the television, the bed and the refrigerator are all just a short step away, and the belief, still held by many, that working from home isn’t working at all.

Above all though, there’s the solitude. Colleagues might be irritating, infuriating and often in the way, but they’re also friends, and those are much harder to find when you only need to leave the house to go shopping.

Virtual Working, Real Results

As virtual working – a term used to describe the method of work rather the work itself — has taken off, a new solution has sprung up. Co-working involves groups of telecommuters finding a communal office space and sharing it. The advantages are clear: co-workers get all of the social benefits of working alongside other professionals but none of the drawbacks of dark looks from the boss when they come in at ten or leave after a couple of hours. They also get the technical help and creative inspiration that can come from sharing a space with other skilled types, and the networking can be useful too.

“Working socially in a co-working setting can be really fun and a great way to break out of working alone or just with your partner in your living room every day,” says Ryanne Hodson,  a former children’s television editor and videoblogger. “It’s nice to see and interact with other people and have a schedule.”

It’s an idea that’s taken off. Jelly, a co-working space created by Amit Gupta in New York in early 2006, has already franchised itself across 20 cities around the world. The co-working wiki lists dozens of locations from Krakow in Poland to Campinas in Brazil.

The formats – and the rates – vary. Co-working spaces often consist of a communal office in which everyone works together but may also contain individual rooms where workers can enjoy privacy and avoid distractions while still being able to leave the house and pop out of the door to see familiar faces. The Hat Factory, the co-working space in San Francisco that Ryanne co-founded and worked in for six months before moving out of the city, offers lockers, a full kitchen and a “comfy living room/lounge area” for $200 a month – significantly less than the usual office rent in San Francisco. According to Ryanne, the site would see around 20 people a day when she was there, most of whom were either “tech geeks” or vloggers and filmmakers like herself. A small number of regulars, including Ryanne, functioned as “anchors.” They paid the rent regularly and received keys. Drop-ins would leave a small amount in a tip jar to contribute towards the costs.

Who Makes the Coffee Round Here?

The result wasn’t just the chance to communicate with something livelier than the keyboard. There were professional benefits too.  Sharing a space often developed into sharing knowledge and creating new work as well.

“Because you are in a more social setting… if something is funky with your website, you’ll inevitably shout out ‘Does anyone know why my page isn’t validating?'” explains Ryanne. “You get to know people’s skills pretty quick and can recommend them for jobs and vice versa.

“A lot of times, because you were working alongside someone you would end up working with them on projects.”

One question though is whether co-working spaces offer more than cafés. Both provide coffee and both tend to have wireless connections, which means that laptop-wielding workers have all the office they need. But café-working tends to come with two-hour limits, the most you can reasonably squeeze out of a single cappuccino and tend to be much less sociable than a co-working space which brings in the same faces day after day. And when you’ve paid $200 in advance, you’re much more likely to make the most of it and spend as much time there as possible. Remembering that you’ll need to cough up a few bucks for a cup of something hot and frothy might well put you off leaving the house.

But co-working does break one of the most important of our rules for café-working: the rule against talking to people. Chatting to other telecommuters might be informative, entertaining and occasionally even beneficial but it does get in the way of work. According to Ryanne though, it’s still more productive than trying to do it from home.

“The great thing about co-working is that it didn’t have the distractions that home often does. When you’re taking a break, you go back to work. Sometimes at home, you take a break and never go back to work.”

And there is one more advantage that co-working spaces have over cafes: they’re expanding. Starbucks outlets on the other hand, might soon be harder to find than a telephone booth.


  1. Yvonne Says:

    This is EXCELLENT! The 1st paragraph captured my thoughts for the last 2 years I worked in a large corporate office.

  2. Griffin Says:

    I've definitely considered co-working environments and may in the future actually sign up for one. I love the idea, but right now I'm not too burnt out of working from home. 🙂 //g

  3. Steve Says:

    Great post!

    I'm assuming the $200 in your example is referring to the payment 1 person would make, or for the entire office space?

    I guess co-working would work for people who are making a decent wage.


  4. Evona Says:

    I think there are many advantages to coworking, some of which are that coworking spaces offer "office space" and a sense that you are in an office with the objective to be productive and get work done rather than "hanging out" in a cafe. Also, I think being in a cafe often comes with the pressure to buy and be a loyal customer... obviously coffee and snacks wont break the bank but having to feel like your expected to buy and give back can sometimes make for an uncomfortable work environment. As for working from home... I find that distractions are overwhelming and that being in bed or on the couch can significantly decrease productivity. I've recently started working at WorkBar, a coworking space in downtown Boston and can say that I have seen the advantages first hand and that places like this are popping up all over the place.

    Also, coworking offers a sense of community that you wont really find at home or in cafe's, unless visited by the same people consistently. I find through talking with other coworking spaces that we are all are trying to build that same sense of community by holding social events, hosting professional development events and encouraging an environment to network with other professionals in.

    workbarboston.com for a look into Boston coworking

  5. Neil Says:

    This is quite an interesting concept but not sure if I will be doing this. It sounds a bit weird to me atleast at the moment. Working from office, it comes with its daily irritations but it keeps you on the go and there is more opportunity on interact with your colleagues and get the jobs done. Working from a virtual office at home, you avoid the irritations but at times getting the job done could be difficult as you are dependent on co workers to respond and it also comes with its distractions.I agree with your points on coworking office wrt being informative, maybe more fun but then disadvantages of non colleague contact when at office & avoiding the travel hassle if working from home are there too.. Maybe it does work for some.

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