When coworking comes to town

Author: 
Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

Rod Stevens, the business development consultant from Bainbridge Island, Washington, dropped into New Haven in late December, wanting to take a look at a “coworking loft” called the Bourse.

Stevens tracks the movements and preferences of creative workers, especially in the West, and he’s noticed a growing number of “coworking spaces” — facilities where independent workers cluster together in search of coffee, colleagues, conversation, and sometimes collaboration.

In Stevens’s view, New Urbanism has for years focused much of its energy on building vivacious retail and shopping streets. The challenge now, he thinks, is to shift to a different emphasis — toward making workplaces that suit today’s workforce and strengthen a community’s vitality.

The Bourse (boursenewhaven.com), opened in early December by New Haven architect Robert and his wife Carol, half a block from the downtown Green, is the latest example of coworking, and a grand one at that.

For $292 a month, an individual can have unlimited use of the tall-ceilinged second floor of a century-old building the Orrs purchased several years ago. (Carol, trained as a landscape architect, now runs New Haven’s most imaginative second-hand store, the English Market, in its capacious ground floor. On the fourth floor is the architectural firm Robert Orr & Associates.)

The Orrs outfitted the Bourse — the name is derived from an early trading exchange, Ter Beurze, in Bruges, Belgium — with varied sizes and kinds of tables and seating, to stylish effect. There’s a front space containing a library, including books of his late father, Robert D. Orr, governor of Indiana in the 1980s. The library has a couch, wing chairs, a fireplace, and even a baby grand piano.

Behind the library — which can be used for “peer review, seminars/presentations, launchings, and social gathering” — is a kitchenette where coffee and tea are available each day for free. Across from the kitchenette are storage lockers reclaimed from a local school. Stretching to the back of the very deep building is a big open space in which people work — at long tables, drafting tables, or small tables or in other settings.

Included in the monthly fee are high-speed WiFi; copying, printing, and faxing; electricity for running a laptop or charging a device; secure bike racks; and a professional mailing address. If the $292-a-month plan isn’t attractive, there are others, such as a $125-a-month pass entitling you to use the space on weeknights between 7 PM and 8 AM and around the clock on weekends. There are also cards for a set number of visits — five visits cost $15; ten visits cost $25.

Revolutionizing work life

Americans don’t work the way they used to. Even before Wall Street brought down the economy in 2008, millions of people were working from home or in arrangements far different from the tightly scheduled office jobs of 40 years ago. Now, with many scratching to make a living in a badly damaged economy, coworking is springing up to meet the needs of independent workers, many of whom need little more than a laptop and a mobile phone to conduct business.

On Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle, Stevens says a major social center is the Treehouse Café, which draws residents of the 23,000-population island steadily all day, from 7 AM to midnight. People are looking for convivial places to be with one another, he observes. That’s what coworking promises to a laptop-toting crowd that recognizes the home office as, too often, a one-way ticket to isolation.

After Stevens, Orr, and I finished exploring the Bourse, we went out walking in New Haven’s Ninth Square — a district of hundred-year-old brick buildings that underwent renovation in the 1990s and has slowly filled with good restaurants, tiny shops, and an occasional architect’s office. We’d progressed only a block and a half from the Bourse when we came upon The Grove, which apparently is New Haven’s original coworking space, having beaten the Bourse to opening day by three months.

The Grove (grovenewhaven.com) is in many ways the Bourse’s opposite. Where the Bourse is several thousand square feet and capable of holding several dozen people comfortably in one gigantic open space (Orr considered partitions but didn’t like their visual effect), The Grove is small (1,700 square feet) and compartmentalized. Its conference room, where people often eat lunch, can seat 20 people around a boardroom table. The room can be reconfigured into a classroom for as many as 18 participants.

The Grove has five other rooms of varying sizes, so an interview or a private work session can take place out of sight. The Grove opened Sept. 9 through an arrangement that the City of New Haven negotiated with the building owner, Ninth Square Realty, under which no rent would be required for the first three months. This is part of the City’s Cultural Affairs program aimed at encouraging “pop-up stores” and other creative endeavors in underused buildings.

Ken Janke, who operates The Grove with a partner, Slate Ballard, comes from the nonprofit, social-change realm. “There are about 24 different businesses or nonprofits here at The Grove now, about a 50-50 mix of businesses and nonprofits,” Janke said. The standard fee for unlimited use is $250 a month, but, as in most coworking spaces, there are other options as well. The day rate is $25. “People can purchase blocks of those,” Janke said. “Over the holidays, we had a man from Shanghai, China, who bought a block of day passes.”

Anywhere in the world, a person can buy a “Coworking Visa” (see wiki.coworking.info), which entitles the person to use any participating coworking facility for free. No one has yet done that at The Grove, but Janke says some individuals work part-time at The Grove and also commute to workspaces in New York City.

Rachel Botsman, in a Dec. 10 posting on the Global Coworking Blog, traced the origins of coworking in the US to Brad Neuberg, then a 31-year-old freelance open-source software programmer in San Francisco, who in 2005 “rallied three fellow techies who had also been talking about the solitary tensions of working independently. They rented a space called the Spiral Muse for two days a week in the Mission and set up a few folding tables, wireless Internet, and a printer and created a basic meeting space. Neuberg had no idea he was starting what would become a global movement.”

Janke says: “I think the reason coworking has taken off so well in the last four to five years in the States is that when the economy bottomed out and people were released from their work, they started being creative about how to find themselves, how to work differently, how to reengineer their lives. I don’t think people are eager to go back to the way it was.”

To judge from a Nov. 18 post on the Global Coworking Blog, the rooms offered by The Grove are more typical of coworking nationally than are the facilities at the Bourse. Though some coworking spaces are classy, most “tend to stress casual functionality,” the blog relates. (One especially nice touch at The Grove is that the walls double as exhibition space for local photographer Jennifer Jane and other photographers.)

Coffee is free in most coworking establishments. Most places also offer the use of a conference room to their members. Across the country, says Botsman, “The spaces themselves vary in terms of perks and culture, but they are all based on combining the best elements of a coffee shop (social, energetic, creative) and the best elements of a workspace (productive, functional).”

She quotes the French social science researchers Dominique Cardon and Christoph Aguiton’s description of a coworking space: “Something which is neither a desk in a company nor the domicile of the person; it is a kind of public place you can join when you want, with the guarantee of finding some social life and the chance of a useful exchange.”

Often there is an emphasis on doing things with fellow coworkers — helping with problems, participating in classes, generating a work or nonwork product, having evening gatherings and parties.
At The Grove, David Halliday, a commodities trader who has recently been consulting in Uganda, told me, “I’m usually here about 6 ½ hours a day. I get twice as much done here as at home. Here I feel I should be working.”

Another regular at The Grove, David Henry, works with Ten Thousand Homes, an organization that’s tackling the enormous problem of children without parents in subSaharan Africa. “We’re able to trade ideas and create something a bit more remarkable than we could otherwise do,” he said, citing the benefit of encountering — in a small building in New Haven — another person working in Africa.

Collaboration is something that Janke encourages. “We host workshops, events that are skill-based, to help sharpen the ideas that people are working on…. When you walk in this door, everybody knows you, knows what projects you’re working on.”

Not every coworking facility may be as socially concerned as The Grove, but mutual help and shared learning seem to be widely shared ideals of coworking at this stage in its evolution.

Coworking is surely a boon to cities, town centers, and other places where people’s paths cross. Many coworking spaces are in urban locations or in centers of communities, in part because independent workers who want contact with others gravitate to those settings. Coworking provides another means of bringing more people into places that can benefit from their presence and imagination.

The movement can fill some of the empty spaces in urban centers and add to their liveliness. In a sense, coworking is a kind of Bootstrap Urbanism, taking Richard Florida’s concept of the “creative class” and applying it to today’s difficult economic situation.

When old social and economic supports disappear, people have to invent new ones. Coworking should end up being good both for people and for places.

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