Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Coworking at Office Nomads

I wrote this over the summer. Its rough, but I think it gives you a pretty good sense of the coworking movement:

After many years of working in academe and the nonprofits, new interests in media and a recent divorce have prompted some serious introspection about my financial situation and career goals. I needed some space to consider my professional future and space came in the form of a layoff from my research job at the U this past winter during this challenging year of recession. In addition to introspection, I have also done a lot of job hunting mixed with a variety of freelance and volunteer projects that have kept me very busy, if not terribly well-compensated.

Office Nomads has become my second home in the midst of all of these changes in my life. As an extrovert, spending long stretches of time alone in my house was deadly for my mood and ended up to be more distracting than anything else. Working at ON provided not only the companionship of many delightful and amusing people, I get way more done, too. As a freelancer working on many projects for/with different people and organizations, it feels great to feel some sense of continuity each day that an office provides- a fridge for favorite snacks, familiar faces, the proverbial “place where everybody knows your name.”

I have learned a lot, here. Not only do I feel a strong resonance with the values that undergird coworking, I have really appreciated how ON owners, Jacob and Susan have included the ON membership in decision-making and made themselves available to the Capitol Hill community. I have also really enjoyed learning about my colleagues’ various projects and businesses.

Part 1: Community Building and Greening the Work Day

I met Jacob Sayles at a Transformational Breathwork session last year. Between sessions of hyperventilation into altered states consciousness accompanied by painful tetany (TB is another story for another day), we chatted a bit about his commitment to community building (a mutual favorite subject) and about Office Nomads, his co-working space in Capitol Hill. What is co-working you ask? I was curious, too.

I first visited Office Nomads a beautiful early summer day. Sun poured through the huge windows in this former industrial space on Boylston in the hip Pike Pine Corridor neighborhood of the Hill. I found serene colors and exposed brick, free coffee and KEXP playing in the background, hip, happy people were working, and dogs occasionally ambled by. Dogs are most welcome.

Office Nomads is a space where indy contractors, solopreneurs, and other telecommuters can work from instead of their homes or coffeeshops. What makes it so special? As Jacob will tell you, it ain’t about the free coffee or the printer. Its about community. He was quoted thus in an article last year:

“You have to understand what technology can do and what it cannot do. And what technology cannot do is sit and have a beer with you.” –San Francisco Magazine, August, 2008.

There are the memorable moments- the shared experience of Michael Jackson’s passing or particularly amusing response by Cortez the Chiuaua to a siren, but what matters more is the everyday familiarity that builds between folks.The daily participation in each others’ lives - neighborhood happy hours and role playing game nights result in strong bonds among Office Nomads’ core membership. What makes this unique? This intimacy of working side by side isn’t accompanied the potentially unpleasant politics of working for the same organization.

Nomads attend each others’ birthday and bachelor parties and help each other move- the legendary Seinfeld measure of friendly intimacy. - Pretty reliable signs that “community” is indeed being built. Additionally, many organizations, including Sustainable Capitol Hill, Bar Camp Seattle, and various computer programming groups meet here regularly, as do many Biznik events. Artists also show their work on a rotating basis throughout the year and ON is open for the Capitol Hill Art Walk each month.

Jacob’s business partner, Susan Evans arrived at Coworking from a different but complementary perspective:

In a question to “green” her work day, Evans longed for a community office space that she could walk to. A pedestrian commute creates “a beautiful place to start and end my day. It improves my quality of life. What if more people could walk to work in Seattle?” she asks. “Especially since public transportation has not come together here? What would they do with the time spent on commuting?”

Evans and Sayles both are asking “what does it mean to start a business with a “triple bottom line”? The goals are about not just profitability, but contributions to society and the environment. While the financial piece is fairly straightforward, the social and environmental aspects of this project are the iterative everyday processes that really motivate the pair.

Part 2: Roots of Coworking:

Coworking is cafe-like community/collaboration space for developers, writers and independents.

Or, it's like this: start with a shared office and add cafe culture. Which is the opposite of most modern cafes. ;)
(co-working wiki. http://coworking.pbwiki.com/)

The Coworking movement finds it roots in various large cities like New York and San Francisco. As a globalized economy characterized ever-increasingly by flexibility and reliance on technology, not to mention the recession, numbers of freelancers are growing, particularly in the tech industry as well as other arenas (http://tinyurl.com/cqorcl). Finding working alone disheartening, informal networks of freelancers started meeting up in New York City in what has since become known as Jellies, a phenomenon that has now spread all over the country.

Dedicated coworking locations started springing up in several cities over the past five years, particularly in the Bay Area. Sprial Muse and the Hat Factory opened in 2006 and were followed by Chris Messina and Tara Hunt’s Citizen Space. Office Nomads opened here in Seattle in 2007 amidst several other locations providing similar services. Collaboration being a key characteristic of the movement, there is an emphasis placed on cooperation rather than competition between Coworking spaces here in Seattle and around the country.

Coworking is heavily influenced by Open Source programming culture and web 2.0 values of community building, collaboration and sharing resources. The movement’s connective tissue is found on its Wiki page and a Google group that new folks interested in starting Coworking communities in their areas post to every day from all over the world.

Looking further back, Coworking’s roots can be found in artists’, writers’ and nonprofit collectives and cooperatives that have thrived since the early 20th century and even further into the 19th century pre-industrial era of workers’ collectives.

Part 3: Accelerated Serendipity: Community building leads to collaboration

Coworking pioneers, Chris Messina and Tara Hunt refer to “accelerated serendipity” as a motivator for the movement- meaning that Coworking facilitates opportunities for increased collaboration and resource sharing, that results in work being done more efficiently and creatively.

Here at Office Nomads, accelerated serendipity is in evidence all over the place. Biznik, the networking organization for solopreneurs worked out of here for months in exchange for free advertising. ReVision Labs, an exciting project Susan Evans has been working on with Gabriel Scheer incubated here until it outgrew the space available. Ryan J. Salva’s Capitol Media is headquartered here and has created a website for Sustainable Capitol Hill and hired a number of contractors working out of ON.

Working side by side with people every day offers a great window into, well frankly, how they roll. I have both received work and referred work to my colleagues at ON. I have also

The future of Office Nomads

Growing at a rate of about one new fulltime member a month, Office Nomads will be 2 years old in November and is currently at 60% capacity. 23 of the possible 40 desks available are full. Feeling isolated working at home? I urge you to take advantage of a free day here and check it out.