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Apr. 19 2010 - 12:52 pm | 396 views | 0 recommendations | 15 comments

Coworking: what’s the real story?

About two months ago, I started doing research at a “coworking” space in Los Angeles. Coworking is something of a phenomenon in urban cities across the U.S. and around the world.  The basic idea is for otherwise independent workers to be able to pool resources such as office space, internet connection,  equipment, and some of that je ne sais quoi of traditional office environments—networking opportunities, water-cooler rituals, someone to have cigarette break with.

Popular accounts of “coworking” trace its origins to San Francisco, where in 2005 a young computer programmer named Brad Neuberg opened Hat Factory, essentially a large space he filled with IKEA desks and rented out to other tech-minded independents by the hour, day, or month. Since then, a mere five years later, coworking is, as say they say, ‘blowin’ up.’ The one I frequent, let’s call it “LA Co.” (though the real name is far more clever), literally has to turn people away for lack of space. A plan is in the works to open a site three times as big.

Most social commentators are unabashedly giddy about coworking. The New York Times’ Dan Fost calls it a “cooperative for the modern age,” alluding to the communal utopianism of the 60s. Coworkers themselves act more like evangelicals than paying customers (rates range from $99 to $1,000 a month at LA Co.). And me? I love going to my “field site.” My cube at UCLA is quiet and lonely. LA Co. is lively and hip. The people are fascinating and helpful. I look forward to going there and I always leave more energized than when I came in.

But an unabashedly giddy tale does not sociology make, my friends. Beyond the requirements of my would-be profession—find something controversial, or else!—there are a few incongruities about coworking that have me scratching my head. I’m going to use this blog to tell you about them. Maybe you can help me figure out what it all means.

An interesting place to start is Brad Nueberg himself, the aforementioned godfather of coworking. About his decision to open Hat Factory, Mr. Nueberg told The Times

“It seemed I could either have a job, which would give me structure and community or I could be freelance and have freedom and independence. Why couldn’t I have both?”

Neuberg opened Hat Factory ostensibly so he cold have both, but today he no longer coworks. He’s a “Developer Advocate” at Google. Perhaps Mr. Neuberg decided that freedom and independence couldn’t compete with health insurance and a killer 401(k)?


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  1. collapse expand

    Thanks for your insight (and comedy!). There is certainly a buzz about coworking gaining steam across the U.S. I think it is a fantastic option for people who need part-time office space and need some social interaction during their workday because they would otherwise be working alone. I believe there are some solid networking benefits as well. However, coworking is not for everyone. For anyone else who is looking for an affordable full or part time office space, check out the shared office spaces listed at http://www.SharedBusinessSpace.com. This web site has national listings of shared office, space listed by businesses who have extra space within their office. This includes shared medical space, shared studio space, and even shared commercial kitchen space. It is a fantastic resource for independents, small businesses and entrepreneurs.

  2. collapse expand

    Seems to me this idea has been around a lot longer than 2005. The real estate term is “Executive Suites”. I know of several people who were independent business people or consultants who would rent communal office space and split the costs of phone and computer networks, a receptionist, and office equipment like copiers and such.

    • collapse expand

      Coworking spaces aren’t quite the same as “Executive Suites”…but they are similar and the difference is something I’m trying to tease out. Exec suites are a bit more impersonal: you rent a space in a building and that’s it. Coworking spaces generally try to foster some kind of community, either by having a more open office plan, community boards and events, even to the “owner” or managers introducing people in the office to each other.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I don’t think there’s any gritty truth to be revealed about Brad’s decision to work for Google. I don’t know Brad but I am involved in the coworking community. People’s careers evolve. Coworking works for lots of people at a specific time in their lives and some move on to paid positions and some remain as freelancers for life. Two of my coworkers have “dream companies” that they would happily leave freelancing/coworking for if a position were offered to them.

    • collapse expand

      Great point, Angel. San Fransisco’s coworking scene is certainly thriving because of Brad’s initial efforts. He may have felt he did all he could do for coworking in SF, and moved on to create more change. PLUS, Google is a very coworking-friendly environment with atypical thinking on what a “corporate environment” should be.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Looking forward to this series.

    I hope you’ll cover all the pro coworking spaces–as well as casual coworking-conducive spaces–in Los Angeles to give true perspective on the scene.

    ALSO, I’d love for you to name names, regardless of your opinions, as a reference for those wanting/willing to get involved. Coworking is a community resource for full-time freelancers, small-business owners who want a more professional look without a lease, telecommuters, those in a job transition…

    While some spaces can be pricey, there are alternatives like “complimentary coworking around Los Angeles” once a week, and affordable specials for loyal fans.

  5. collapse expand

    Hi there, nice article. It was great starting and being a part of coworking, and its been inspiring to see how its grown the last few years. I joined Google because I wanted to keep growing and try something new. I fully expect to leave some day and be self-employed again, and I love the idea that I’ll probably end up at a coworking space again when I do!

    Best,
    Brad Neuberg
    http://codinginparadise.org

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We’re two twenty-somethings who joined the real world armed with diplomas worth a combined half million dollars from Middlebury College—only to find out that we didn’t have a clue. No one prepared us for the inflexibility of the whole workplace set-up. No one warned us that the Mommies were at War, or that employers still assumed men were okay seeing their kids every other week, or that the U.S. doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave, vacation, or sick leave. The current work-life model isn’t working. Let’s talk about it.

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