August 19, 2022

Workstation: Working Separately, Together

THE grass is always greener on the other side of the cubicle. Corporate types curse during long commutes and feel shackled to their desks when the weather outside is gorgeous. If only they could work from home and have a more flexible schedule.

Freelancers who possess that very advantage, though, can suffer from bouts of loneliness and laziness. They may crave the camaraderie and structure that the office worker takes for granted.

Some companies offer telecommuting and sabbaticals to satisfy the wanderlust of the worker bee. But what about the poor lonely freelancer? Enter the concept of “co-working,” in which small and independent operators toil together in one shared office space.

The idea may seem artificial. Shouldn’t people who share an office also have a shared purpose?

Alex Hillman, who helped form a co-working space in Philadelphia called IndyHall, says that while its members aren’t focused on a single product or service, they do share a mission: to create a sense of community.

Mr. Hillman, 27, dropped out of Drexel University five years ago to be a freelance Web developer. At first he was excited by the freedom and flexibility he had working out of his apartment. But his office was in his bedroom, and he found that there was no separation of his work and his personal life.

And he felt isolated. It’s important, he realized, to have people nearby to “challenge you, bounce ideas off of and laugh about the latest thing you saw on the Internet.”

That’s why he helped start IndyHall, a 5,000-square-foot office space with an open floor plan, clusters of desk and a décor that Mr. Hillman describes as “artsy and funky.”

IndyHall has around 130 active members, about 30 of whom have permanent desks and pay $275 a month for full-time status. You might think everyone there was working for the same cutting-edge start-up company if you didn’t know better.

Mr. Hillman emphasizes that co-working is about more than people sharing desks. IndyHall also sponsors events and happy hours. And it is expected that interactions within the community will lead to new ideas, new projects and new clients.

This kind of cross-pollination has occurred at Hive at 55, a co-working space at 55 Broad Street in Lower Manhattan, where a Web designer can work alongside an app developer, an accountant, a lawyer or a freelance writer.

As a result, a lawyer has helped incorporate businesses, a writer has written Web copy and a Web designer has created a site for other members, says Daria Siegel, director of the space.

Never underestimate the value of eavesdropping. Tom Conlon and Paige Rosenberg, partners in the creative design firm North Street, overheard the conversations of a fellow Hive member, Dylan Goelz, who works on the traffic app Roadify. As a result, Mr. Conlon and Ms. Rosenberg got work redesigning the look of the app.

Hive at 55 is no library. Members are encouraged to talk with one another and their clients. As in corporations, that raises the possibility of being distracted.

People in co-working communities have been known to ask for favors that other members are unwilling to provide. And little skirmishes can erupt over who gets to sit at which workstation.

But for people like Ms. Rosenberg, the advantages of co-working outweigh the drawbacks.

For a while, Ms. Rosenberg worked for several midsize to large corporations in Manhattan, and at times had to contend with office politics and corporate hierarchies to get things done. She also felt obliged to show up for work even if she didn’t have work to do.

Right after she helped start North Street, she worked from home, and isolation set in. She could find herself going through a whole day without using her voice.

Now her vocal cords get more of a workout. She and Mr. Conlon both work 60 to 80 hours a week at Hive at 55.

Partly subsidized by the city, Hive at 55 offers free scanning, free copying and free coffee. It also provides private meeting rooms and a few private offices. Membership fees range from a one-day drop-in fee of $25 to 24/7 access for $450 a month.

Mr. Conlon lives right down the street, but Ms. Rosenberg has a 30-minute commute on the subway. She likes to use that time not only to read the paper but also to make the transition from home to work. When she worked on her own, she says, “I didn’t give that to myself. It was always, ‘Time to work, time to work.’ ”

When she arrives at work now, she experiences a part of office life that she liked back when she was in the corporate world: the sound of other tapping keyboards. She sees people around her being productive, she says, and it’s contagious.

Workstation is a new column about working life.

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