"Coworking" office spaces, leasable by the day or month (think RocketSpace in San Francisco or The Hive in Denver) are multiplying in cities all over the country. Demand is predicted to expand by as much as 40% in 2013. And for good reason. It's no secret that the efficiency-driven modern office is a joyless and at best neutral venue in most people's lives. (Think: boxy cubicles that don't enable privacy or community, lack of natural light, incoherent design, etc.) And experiments to improve office spaces are nothing new. From the "college campus" envisioned by legendary adman Jay Chiat, where employees came to the office to gather information and then work wherever they wanted within the building, to Steve Jobs' Pixar campus, fluid, open plans have been touted as environments that lead to greater collegiality and productivity. But the 21st century workforce, increasingly telecommuting and/or bouncing from job to job and city to city, is making those "modern" late-20th-century office concepts feel quaint.
To better understand what's going on, I spent time at Grind in New York City, an invitation-only co-working space. For $35 a day or $500 a month, 60 to 120 people populate Grind's 7,500 square feet at any given time. Benjamin Dyett, one of Grind's three founders, describes their members as "free radicals," or people who "network endlessly and collaborate constantly. They choose when and how they do what they do, on their own terms. They don't want job security, they want career fluidity."
It's a setup that clearly seems to be working for a growing number of people, and represents a cultural shift that is a corollary to (but extends beyond) the out-sourcing and employee churn of a top-down flexible labor force. Like cousins of the Chiat or Jobs workspaces, where full-time employees devote themselves to a single cult-like institution in groovy architecture that encourages playful collaboration, the new co-working spaces thrive on a constantly changing cast of characters — all with different skills, experience and business goals, where members are creating and running many different kinds of enterprises.
What makes these co-working spaces so attractive? (And what, in turn, can more traditional offices learn from them?)
1. They offer collaborative networks, built-in resources, and a dynamic ecosystem
While getting out of the house to work for free in the quasi-community of a coffee shop might feel like a no-strings, easily-accessible kind of co-working environment, don't be fooled. Free wifi places are fine as social gathering spots, but the random non-working others who share that space surely won't help you find new colleagues or generate development leads. Spanish-born Roberto Alcazar, who started his branded content agency EOIntegration.com at Grind at the end of 2011, told me one of the things he likes about Grind, "is that you get to interact whether you want to or not. There are lots of people with different backgrounds and disciplines and it keeps you up to speed and up to date. A five-minute chat with that investor or that start-up guy can prove to be invaluable." Former banker Hans Reichstetter, who runs three very different businesses in various stages of development out of Grind, sparkled when describing the huge diversity of people doing all sorts of things: freelancers, creatives, lawyers, entrepreneurs, accountants, coders — you see it all. "I needed an industrial designer who knew CAD and there was a guy here who knew it really well." And the fact that one's workplace neighbors are not official colleagues can have an upside in the lack of competitive game-playing and back-stabbing.
2. They foster innovation.
By attracting a variety of members from myriad backgrounds and industries, the looser connections of these constantly churning spaces also appear to have innovation advantages. Martin Ruef, a sociologist at Princeton who's studied entrepreneurs, found that those who broadened their universe of contacts from small groups of familiar acquaintances to larger, more loosely-connected networks of people were far more innovative. As another of Grind's founders, Stuart Warshaw, says, "Grind is a case study in collaboration across many disciplines and among established professionals."
3. They make starting a business simpler.
Former CNN.com sports executive Leora Blumberg, who is part of a Grind-based start-up called Personalized Media, says that the company found its way to Grind because they work on projects on an ad hoc basis with people in Europe and Washington, and they required the flexibility of operating from a place suited to a highly variable daily head count. Tom Chernaik, a lawyer running CMP.ly, a company that offers a transparent way to disclose legal terms within the social media context, thought his time at Grind was going to be temporary, but he sees no reason yet to give up the benefits of ultra-flexibility and low overhead. "With seven employees, we're at the tipping point," he says, "where it might be cheaper to get dedicated office space, but even if we do, I'll keep a daily membership here so we have access to the community."
What to Know Before You Go:
If you're interested in working from a collaborative workspace, explore the various options in your city. Visit a few on day passes to see which has the best vibe and infrastructure for you. The pricing varies from place to place — ranging from $150/month to $600/month and $15/day to $50/day. There are also a whole range of sector-specific spaces, specialized for tech, creative, food, or educational professionals. It's just one of the many ways that companies are capitalizing on flexible workspaces for a flexible workforce — a trend we can all expect to see more of in the future.
Follow the conversation at Harvard Business Review.
UPDATE: 9.24.12 Below is a clip of my appearance on CNBC
Appearing on CNBC's Squawk on the Street, Anne Kreamer, Harvard Business Review contributor, says the demand for co-working spaces are on the rise and reinventing the way small businesses lease space. -Sept. 24, 2012