trading the coffee shop for collaboration: more mobile workers choosing to cowork

Andrew Auten moved from Brooklyn to Cleveland after his wife landed a teaching post at Oberlin College. They soon traded in a cubicle-sized New York apartment for a massive-by-comparison Shaker Heights home. Despite the extra room, Auten, who works on the trading floor at Key Bank, longed for company on his work-from-home days.

Emmett McDermott, a graphic designer who runs a web-design firm called 12five9, wanted to recreate the collaborative atmosphere he loved at design school. He learned about shared, collaborative work spaces from posts on Twitter. Learning that such a space didn’t exist in his hometown of Cleveland, he decided that he’d create one.

This spring, Auten launched The Open Office, a shared workspace in the former Coventry Elementary School in Cleveland Heights. Just a few months earlier, McDermott and partner Graham Veysey founded Cowork Cleveland, a loft-style shared office space in the recently restored Ohio City Firehouse. 

“This is a creative, inspiring place where people can meet other designers, artists and developers and form new relationships,” says McDermott of Cowork Cleveland.

Meanwhile, Auten of Open Office says, “We wanted to create a place that’s ‘plug-and-play’ for small businesses -- our space is perfect for people striking out on their own or forced to strike out on their own." He cites an uptick in small business growth across Ohio as one reason he believes there is unmet demand for affordable, shared office space.

These two entrepreneurs are on the leading edge of a growing trend called coworking. Simply put, coworking is a phenomenon whereby freelancers, telecommuters and other mobile workers share space to lessen the costs of facilities and equipment, access a community of like-minded entrepreneurs, and explore collaboration with others.

On a more basic level, coworking spaces cater to non-traditional workers who are tired of the isolation of working from home or the distractions of jockeying for an outlet at the local coffee shop. With an increasing number of consultants, freelancers, contract workers and telecommuters in today’s workforce, coworking is filling a growing demand for cheap office space.

Yet coworking devotees say shared office space is about much more than fleeing the home office where Netflix and laundry beckon. It creates a collaborative environment where they can get work done while fostering valuable connections. It also allows solo-preneurs to socialize with like-minded folks -- like a water cooler for the mobile world. 

“I like the people and find that there are opportunities to work with others on projects,” says Brittany Parsons, a software programmer who works for a Canadian-based company and often sets up her laptop at Cowork Cleveland. Her commute from home in the Clifton neighborhood is a breezy bike ride through Edgewater Park.

“We’ve had nearly $100,000 worth of business exchanged between members since we opened,” says McDermott of the relationships formed among Cowork Cleveland members. “Our biggest value-add is the baked-in business development.”

On a recent Wednesday morning at Cowork Cleveland, half a dozen freelancers worked at laptops throughout the room, occasionally engaging in idea-sharing or brainstorming. Loud noise is rarely a problem, they say, and the building offers private space for phone calls. If they need a pick-me-up, Rising Star Coffee is right downstairs. 

While coworkers do pay a fee, it is far less expensive than opening an office. Cowork Cleveland members pay $200 per month if they sign up for an entire year. The Open Office charges a similar fee. Both venues offer the option of $20-a-day passes. Coworkers don’t have to sign a lease and can easily set their own schedule. 

In exchange for parting with their hard-earned cash, freelancers have access to the kind of amenities one would find in a typical office: comfortable desk and chair, high-speed wireless Internet, printer, scanner, copier and a sleek, decked-out conference room.

Coworking spaces are about the farthest thing you’ll find from a boring, white-box office. Cowork Cleveland, for example, is housed in a 1,000-square-foot room with antique hardwood floors, large windows and tall ceilings. The cozy conference room has a whiteboard, 32-inch HDTV and a conference table built from a repurposed loading cart from the former Richman Brothers building. There’s even a friendly firehouse dog named Gracey.

The Open Office features tables rescued from Ohio Knitting Mills and refashioned into comfortable, library-style work stations. Modern overhead lighting hangs from pulley systems that were upcycled from a warehouse in Tulsa. The chalkboards and maps on the walls pay homage to the building’s former use as an open-plan elementary school. 

Although coworking in Cleveland still is a new phenomenon, it's gradually catching on. Cowork Cleveland has 30 members so far, while the Open Office has 15. When asked what’s needed to encourage more people to use their spaces, both operators say that entrepreneurs must see the value in venturing beyond home offices and libraries. 

“Getting one piece of new business could cover your costs for the entire year,” says Veysey. “People who are members of Cowork Cleveland have already seen this.”

Coworking also can offer value not just for solo entrepreneurs but any small business owner. Veysey says the management team of a local restaurant sometimes rents the conference room so they can have a place to brainstorm and do their paperwork. Auten has found a niche catering to small businesses that need a commercial address. 

Most coworkers are 20 to 40 years old and employed in creative, new media fields. According to Veysey and McDermott, young entrepreneurs are naturally drawn to Cowork Cleveland because it caters to the needs of today’s mobile workforce. The venue also offers an environment that nurtures creativity and independent thinking. 

“The people who work here are not between opportunities -- they have jobs,” says Veysey. “They just work by their own rules and they’re trying to create something.”

Coworking, which started in the 1990s in coastal cities like San Francisco where commercial rents are high, is spreading across the U.S. As of February 2012, there were 537 coworking spaces in the country, according to deskmag, the online magazine about coworking and its people and spaces.

Auten says the coworking trend will continue to grow due to modern employment trends. “The long-term trend is people being out on their own more. Companies have already done their cost-cutting and now they’re unsure about bringing back full-time employees.”

Will coworking takeoff in Cleveland, where office space is cheaper than in coastal cities? In some ways, it already has. Cowork Cleveland and The Open Office are not the only spaces that incorporate shared services. Business incubators such as Shaker LaunchHouse and MAGNET offer shared amenities for entrepreneurs, while collective workspaces like Zygote Press offer shared equipment for creative types. 

Although coworking in Cleveland is still an emerging market, these entrepreneurs are happy with the reception they’ve received so far. Veysey and McDermott are already covering their costs, and Auten views The Open Office as a side business. All three operators are interested in helping to nourish the growth of startup businesses.

“We never had the idea that we were going to quit our day jobs,” says Veysey. “We’re doing this because spaces like this one will help spur creativity and innovation.”

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Images 1-6: Cowork Cleveland
- Image: 7: Rising Star Coffee
- Images 8 - 12: Andrew Autin and The Open Office

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.
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