As the Mobile Workforce Grows, Coworking Brings Back the Water Cooler Effect

Share By Alexandra Kirkman

A fundamental shift in how people work is redefining “the office,” as coworking spaces pop up to provide gathering points for people working remotely

As an increasing number of employees are working remotely, the traditional office is becoming a thing of the past. Yet while working from home certainly is more convenient, it can be isolating.

What if you could have the flexibility of working independently and the camaraderie of coworkers at the water cooler Monday morning? Enter the alternative workspace — a startup campus of sorts that provides outlets, WIFI and, in some cases, entrepreneurial mentors.

A study by software company Intuit predicts that by 2020, some 40 percent of the U.S. workforce will be “contingent” workers — defined as freelancers, temps and independent contractors. As the way people work migrates toward a more fluid, nomadic model, coworking spaces are cropping up seemingly everywhere to accommodate this changing paradigm.

While this seismic shift in the workforce speaks to the myriad benefits of this new kind of independent employment model, the downside from a social perspective is sizable. It’s one of the key drivers behind the rise of coworking spaces.

Cure for Loneliness

“One of the biggest challenges with being an entrepreneur is the loneliness factor—it’s very isolating,” says Bonnie Fahy, founder of startup Ellan Media, which is currently creating an online course on how to build a business through outsourcing.

“The act of getting up and going to work makes me happier,” said Fahy, who regularly works out of the Wix Lounge in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “I really enjoy it, and have met some great people there who are doing similar things. And when I work around other people, I feel an implied pressure to keep working.”

Indeed, the psychological benefits of coworking are real. According to Deskmag’s latest annual survey on coworking: 71 percent of respondents said their creativity had increased since joining, and 62 percent said their standard of work had improved. Countering the common claim that coworking spaces can be distracting, 68 percent said they were able to focus better, while 64 percent said they could complete tasks on time.

Corporations Jumping Aboard

Not surprisingly, this boon in coworking means it’s no longer the exclusive domain of entrepreneurs and freelancers. As the phenomenon gains steam, more corporations are exploring its benefits.

Insurance industry behemoth State Farm has opened Next Door in Chicago, a “community space” where visitors can meet with “financial coaches,” take classes, hold an event, or just hang out—all gratis (except for the coffee).

Workplace furnishings powerhouse Steelcase, which prides itself on its careful study of workplace behavior and environment throughout its over 100-year history, has launched Workspring. With two Chicago addresses—along with a network of affiliate locations and partners such as Marriott — the initiative was launched to support “corporate, mobile workers with unparalleled choice and variety in individual workspaces.”

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is exploring adding coworking campuses at the company headquarters and is the driving force behind the Downtown Project, which has allocated $350 million to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. One of its stated goals is “to create the coworking capital of the world,” focused on innovation, learning and entrepreneurship. To that end, one of the local startups the consortium funds is Work in Progress, which already has opened three coworking spaces in Sin City.

Connecting Workers with Spaces

The coworking trend is also benefitting companies clamoring to accommodate the needs of the new mobile workforce. LiquidSpace, for example, is the first real-time marketplace that connects those seeking workspace with places to work — from coworking spaces to business centers, hotel lobbies and just about anywhere in between.

“Organizations are transforming their approach to workspace, as the definition of the ‘workplace’ gets broader,” says Mark Gilbreath, LiquidSpace’s CEO. He notes that the company’s internal studies show that the average worker uses his assigned office or desk only 30 to 40 percent of the time, though companies obviously bear the expense of these offices 24/7.

With the mobile workforce expected to reach 1.5 billion people worldwide by 2015, according to a 2012 forecast by research firm IDC, companies are clamoring for workspace solutions. According to LiquidSpace partner Jones Lang LaSalle, 79 percent of U.S. companies are exploring alternative workspace solutions.

For companies with unoccupied space, such as an unused office, conference room or cubicle, Sharedesk.net is like an  Airbnb for office spaces. Sharedesk helps companies rent out their office space and connects them with individuals looking to try coworking.

Coworking in the Suburbs

And contrary to popular opinion, coworking isn’t just a city thing. Office Evolution, a virtual office provider based in Boulder, Colo., now has nine locations throughout the state. By targeting suburban communities and smaller towns, founder and CEO Mark Hemmeter says he’s found a relatively untapped market in the industry. He has plans for 500 more locations across the country over the next five to six years.

“Coworking spaces have largely been considered an urban phenomenon,” said Hemmeter, who’s company targets suburban entrepreneurs over 35 who have families and want to work near home. “To me, the great irony is that in this increasingly tech-isolated world, people hunger for contact with other people.”

So how will “the office” be defined in another decade? Only time will tell, but as coworking continues to evolve, so will its definition.

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