Jueves 17 de Julio de 2008, Ip nº 238

Working alone in a group
Por Lisa Belkin

My book proposal was not writing itself. It was half-done, and the stack of research in the corner was growing tall enough to topple. Because it was the only project, among several, without a deadline, it always seemed to fall off the to-do list entirely.

One reason I write from home is that I work best at my own pace and on my own terms. I am typical of the stream of workers who have left traditional offices for home in the last decade, causing a jump in the number of single-person businesses, to 20.4 million in 2005 from 16.4 million in 2000, according to the most recent census. (Not to mention the rising number of people who work from home, especially as telecommuting grows in direct proportion with the increase in gas prices.)

What also makes me typical, though, is my discovery that home is not always conducive to work. Which is how I found myself, with my stack of research shoved into a rolling briefcase, driving 25 minutes from my house to work all last week on the 16th floor of the Marriott Hotel and Spa in Stamford, Conn. A two-room lounge there with polished tables, cozy chairs, a faux fireplace, free Wi-Fi and a printer is home to Soundview Coworking, just one of many such spaces popping up around the nation. The defacto Internet co-working headquarters, coworking.pbwiki.com, shows at least one site in more than 30 states.

Co-working spaces, which first appeared in the Bay Area three years ago, are a cross between home, work and Internet-equipped cafe. They are based on the hard-won realization that while avoiding an office is liberating, it’s also energizing to have one to which you can go.

Working from home, Starbucks or even the local library is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, users say. You get rid of the hassle of the commute, the over-the-shoulder-boss and the mind-numbing cubicle. But if you stay home, you lose the routine, the companionship and the accountability (napping is tempting). And you spend a lot of time looking for plugs and too much money buying coffee if you go to a public space. (An ongoing dilemma is how much coffee to actually drink, because you don’t want to have to leave your laptop unattended to use the bathroom.)

Writers spaces, entrepreneurial incubators and office suites in which individuals can rent a single room have existed for decades. But co-working, with its open-to-all ethos, is a little different.

The Hat Factory in San Francisco was an early site. It began when Brad Neuberg, a computer programmer who was working by himself, wanted company. He rented space in a building and added a new definition to the term co-working. He eventually moved his creation to a rehabbed former hat factory.

Each place has its own personality. The Hat Factory feels like a college dorm, its users say, or, more accurately, like the four-bedroom loft that it actually is. Its residents share it with outsiders during the day, then take it back at night. For $200 a month, you can be an anchor member, get a key and have a desk reserved. The shared area, with a kitchen, living room and large communal table, is available free to drop-ins during business hours.

Soundview, in Stamford, is a bit more formal, as I realized on the first day when the manager, Catherin S. Mahaffey, coolly scanned my shorts and T-shirt and said, “our members usually dress for work.” Soundview also looks like what it in fact is — a concierge suite at a Marriott. In fact, breakfast is served there to those with rooms on the executive floor.

After the hotel guests leave, it is the home base of the Soundview Club, a local yachting and golfing outfit whose members opened the suite to co-working last year because the club wasn’t making full use of the space. The monthly fee is $150; there are no drop-ins and you can sit where you like.

Who shows up to which co-working location varies by region. Most of the Hat Factory’s clients are in the tech fields clustered in the Silicon Valley, according to Eddie Codel, one of the organizers and a video producer. In Stamford, most of the 20 co-working members are in service industries, and there is a lot of chatting with clients on cellphones, albeit with inside voices.

At Berkeley Coworking in Northern California, the users are a “purposeful mix,” said Jonathan Zamick, the founder, who created video games for cellphones out of a sprawling two-story space and last year closed that business and opened this space to co-working.

In order to attract groups beyond computer programmers, he invited an architectural school to hold classes in the space and recruited journalists and documentary filmmakers.

“You want cross-pollination that comes with people of different types of work in the same room,” Mr. Zamick said.

At Cubes and Crayons in Menlo Park, Calif., most of the clients are women, which is not typical. Child care is part of the package. The 60 members can drop off their children and work in a quiet lounge a few yards away.

However, one mother who does not use the space is M. F. Chapman, the founder of Cubes and Crayons. She said she loves every detail of the place, from the comfy chairs that have lap desks attached (because that’s how she likes to work), to the shelves filled with business books (because that’s what she likes to read) to the quotations on the walls (things like “Don’t Follow Trends, Start Them”) because that’s what inspires her.

But once the space opened in January, she said she realized, “I wasn’t getting any work done when I was there,” because clients wanted to stop and chat. When she has real work, she now heads home. That’s where I interviewed her by phone, while her 3-year-old colored and her 9-month-old cooed in the background.

And that is the lesson of co-working. Getting down to work — in the zone, all cylinders pumping, time passing unnoticed — is an alchemy of worker and workspace. You never know what is going to make you click. In the end, it all comes down to putting your bottom in a chair, getting started and ignoring all the possible distractions. Where you do that best can differ by person and by day. It could be your office, your carefully designed office-alternative or your kitchen table with children nearby.

I was able to find it at Soundview, to a point. There were always a few people around, and their presence made it feel purposeful. There was just enough surrounding chatter. So I got to work. The only problem was that I wasn’t working on my proposal. However, I did manage to finish this article. Then I repacked my stack of notes and wheeled them home.


  26/06/2008. The New York Times.