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Nuclear chemist Mike Hanson endured grueling conditions at the federal research facility where he worked in upstate New York for over two decades. Coming and going from the razor-wire-ringed building, he was searched in front of guards armed with AR-15s. Windows were prohibited in his tiny office, and for a long time so were radios for fear they could be rewired for reverse broadcast.
Nine months ago, Hanson, 59, took early retirement from what he calls “the gulag” and took a job designing a nuclear power plant in an airy office across from Boston's South Station that's on the cutting edge of workspace the world over. Just outside his office door, there's beer and coffee. Young engineers and chemists churn in and out of his shared office space talking spiritedly. There's foosball downstairs and a salsa group soon to start a corridor away.
“I am human once again,” exclaimed Hanson, standing in the kitchen area of the 8th floor of WeWork, a shared office space business with more than 100 locations around the world soon to open two more buildings — in Boston and Cambridge. “It's so light, sometimes I can't believe that all these people are really working.”
A Community For Independent Workers
Welcome to the world of co-working, a mushrooming community of freelancers, business people and solopreneurs that is not only redefining where people work, but what they do there. As the number of American workers laboring outside of traditional work environments steadily rises — one study puts the number of independent workers at 53 million, or one third of the country's workforce — the tally of co-working locations grows. In the Boston/Cambridge area, there are more than 30 locations where a desk, or a floor of offices can be rented by the month, according to Carsten Foertsch, creator of Desmag, an online magazine about co-working. Along with the WiFi, comes a host of events like pancake breakfasts, Shark Tank auditions and poker nights. Oh, and the beer is free.
Co-working has been around in some form for a couple of decades, but an explosion of offerings in recent years finds Boston's estimated 10,000 co-workers with a lot of choice. There's the 1,500-member Workbar, which raised eyebrows last month when it opened three new locations in suburban Staples offices. There's Oficio, whose elegant Newbury Street digs and hardwood floors have been home to teams from Fitbit and the British hotelier Yotel, and, on a recent morning, a man hunched over his desk selling private jets.
Then there's WeWork, the co-working juggernaut, which has over 80,000 members worldwide, with about 2,800 desks in Boston. The New York-based firm intends to open another location downtown early next year and last week announced it is also planning a 550-desk location in Cambridge. There's even 30 co-working desks for the rock climbing set overlooking the Brooklyn Boulders gym in Somerville for $35 a day.
“When we first started, people could climb the wall to the office space, but that didn't seem so safe,” said Abby Taylor, events and partnership manager. “Now people can look out on the action in the gym and seeing all that chaos keeps them going and helps them to think.”
Once the province of hooded techies and freelancers, co-working space and what some call the “indie” movement have become key factors in urban developers' thinking. Michael Hopkins, former editor of the MIT Sloan Management Review and co-founder of The Solo Project, says that Boston's robust solo community is a big plus for companies considering relocation.
“A vibrant community of soloists is hugely attractive to companies and employees,” says Hopkins, whose Boston-based project is working to profile and generate discussion about the solo economy. “For companies it provides the flexibility they want. For employees, who are at epic disengagement levels with corporate work, it provides freedom and the opportunity for meaningful work.”
Despite their different veneers, most of the co-working options provide a similar base of services. Office space ranges from a seat at a communal “hot” desk with an electrical outlet for a few hours to a private office for one, to an entire floor for a corporate subset of over 100 workers. The cost, which generally starts at under $100 for limited access, includes WiFi, printing, janitorial services, premium coffee, beer and, in some cases, an online app that connects members and the services they provide.
Beyond the basics, prices vary. At cove, the monthly membership is $125 for access to its Kendall Square and Washington, D.C., offices. At WeWork, where the largest growing segment is members with 15 desks or more, memberships cost $45 a month while a hot desk starts at $220 a month. Oficio charges $299 for unlimited access to its common space and a private office that starts at $599 a month.
Offering both independence and community, co-working appeals as much to millennials as those tired of working at home and in corporate settings. In fact, this reporter is one of them. Having worked for over 25 years in a large metropolitan newsroom, I now have an office at WeWork's Fort Point location in Boston, which has 800 desks, welcomes members' dogs and provides free toothbrushes and tampons in the bathrooms. The writing on the walls declares, “Do What you Love” and “We Work Better Together.”
WeWork, however, is not for everybody with its large volume buildings and glass-windowed interiors. It's also not for some labor unions who object that the company, reportedly valued at $16 billion, is not worker-friendly. Janitors protested WeWork's New York offices last year after the company initially refused to hire janitors laid off by its contractor. Now, Boston construction workers say they were passed over when WeWork hired a general contractor from out of state to work on its next downtown Boston location. They object that the contractor does not honor prevailing wage rates or safety standards and last month launched a protest on social media and in front of the company's two locations.
“They are building with people wearing sneakers, no hard hats, no glasses, no safety training. It's unconscionable,” said Brian Doherty, general agent of the city's Building & Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District.
A spokesperson for WeWork, which opened its Boston buildings in 2014, said in an email that the company does, “require all contractors to adhere to laws governing safety, wages and benefits,” but declined to elaborate.
Workers 'Want To Get Out Of The House'
Although Workbar seems to appeal more to individual entrepreneurs and soloists than WeWork, they share a certain exuberance. Painted on the windows of Workbar's downtown location, a short distance from WeWork, are the phrases, “We Sit Where We're Comfortable, not Where We're Told,” and “We Don't Know Who We Are Going to Meet at Work Today.”
Bill Jacobson, founder and chief executive officer of Workbar, says that technology may have liberated people from the workplace, but people still want to be around other people. He has developed a “hub and spokes” network of 16 office locations extending from the city into the suburbs and has plans for more.
“The ideal commute is not zero. It's about 10 minutes,” said Jacobson. “People want to get out of the house and be around other people. We are social people.”
The re-shaping of the American workforce, initiated by changes in technology decades ago, was accelerated by the 2008 recession as companies laid off workers and shifted to contract work. Now, many startups find that co-working space offers them a flexibility to grow, or shrink, without hassling with leases and electric bills. Even established companies are finding that having a foothold in hip urban co-working space like WeWork, helps to appeal to millennials disinclined to take a job in the 'burbs while also allowing their current workers to inhale the buzz.
When Facebook and Vitamin Water moved into the Boston area several years ago, they rented space at Workbar's downtown location, before eventually moving into space of their own. General Electric, soon to move its headquarters to Boston, already has 60 workers on its Current team, working on alternative energy, at WeWork South Station. Even Liberty Mutual Insurance, whose headquarters is less than a mile away on Berkeley Street, rents four WeWork rooms for 50 of its people who rotate in for about three months at a time.
“We really wanted to get our team out of the standard working norm,” explained Adam L'Italien, Liberty Mutual's vice president and manager of innovation for Global Consumer Markets. “The sense of creation there is a big draw. We definitely think that helps us draw in talent that might not think about insurance as a next step. We want to show them this is an exciting industry.”
Louie Balasny, one of the founders of botkeeper, a virtual robotic bookkeeping service for small businesses, has also found that WeWork is a good place to meet clients, as well as to talk new ideas. Most days Balasny, 31, can be found at a stand-up desk on the 8th floor common space — (he changes desks daily) — talking with dozens of others pouring over computers.
“If you're setting up shop on 8th floor you are not looking for quiet time. You want that, get a conference room,” said Balasny. “You are looking for connection. For us it was a great way to meet a ton of people right away.”
Evan Falchuk, founder of the United Independent Party and a 2014 candidate for Massachusetts governor, has tried many office arrangements in his years working as an entrepreneur and politician. But in the end, he has found that the relatively serene Oficio suits his needs best. Falchuk rents a private office and when political work heats up he just adds a few more desks to support extra staff.
“With co-working, you just show up and everything is taken care of,” said Falchuk. “Eventually, I am going to go rent real estate, but I'm going to miss this.”
Part of the appeal of Oficio, which has two locations serving about 400 co-workers, is its tony Newbury Street address. Managing partner Nima Yadollahpour, an architect, who founded the boutique co-working space with his friend Charlie Weisman in 2011, says some business people overseas want just the mailing address for which they pay a monthly $69, “because it's a very prestigious location.”
For years Jon Olinto, co-founder of b.good food, worked out of Starbucks locations as he travelled the country visiting his dozens of restaurants, seven of which are in Boston, rather than returning to headquarters in Malden for calls or meetings. But a few years ago he decided it was a lot easier just to head to Newbury Street.
“I spent 10 years in Starbucks, so this is a major step up,” laughs Olinto, who works at a group desk when he or his partners drop in every few weeks. “At Oficio, you know you've got a table and a bathroom for starters. And the WiFi works.”
As the co-working community in Boston matures, there is a move afoot to organize. Last year about a dozen co-working spaces formed The Boston Coworking Alliance in an effort to keep track of what's going on in the co-working community. Members include Artisan's Asylum, a shared fabrication center in Somerville and one of the alliance's founders; the Cambridge Innovation Center, considered the grandfather of local co-working; and “the purposefully small” Plug, the first U.S. location of a Brazilian co-working enterprise.
Should there be concern that such organizing might dilute the unique gestalt of the co-working world, that it might indicate the creep of the conventional workplace of yesterday, one need only consider one of WeWork's cherished acronyms to realize that that is highly unlikely. The acronym is TGIM. It stands for Thank God It's Monday.
“If you're living your life with the mindset of let's create a life and not just make a living, then Monday morning is a time of excitement, because you're back in this space with people who you love to be alongside, and you are attacking whatever is your mission or dream,” explained Dave McLaughlin, WeWork's east coast manager. “You're part of something bigger than yourself."
Sally Jacobs worked as a reporter for the Boston Globe for over 25 years and is the author of "The Other Barack," a biography of President Obama's father. A newcomer to the soloist community, she now writes for a variety of publications. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @sallyhjacobs.
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