Is a Coworking Space Better for Freelancers Than Working from Home?

Coworking and working from home
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You’ve heard all the lines. When you tell someone you’re a freelance writer, they smile and say, “That must be great. You can work from anywhere!” You usually end up answering questions about whether you work in your pajamas and slippers.

But when you don’t have your own office — or even a dedicated cubicle — it can be tough to find a place where you can focus on your work. Home comes with distractions and imperfect work surfaces, especially if you live in a small apartment in a big city. Lugging your laptop from cafe to coffee shop doesn’t always work either. Sometimes, finding the right place to work can make you feel a little like Goldilocks.

Many writers struggle to strike a balance between the freedom and discipline at their chosen workspace. Every time a new “flexible” workspace pops up in D.C., I find myself reflexively scrolling through the online photo gallery. I get wide-eyed at carefully staged workspaces, and crunch numbers to weigh the cost of a daily or monthly membership. I’m finding it hard to resist: coworking spaces are very attractive.

Working from home: A short-lived dream?

My workspace usually rotates between my couch, my kitchen table, the coffee shop and the public library. It would be lovely to have a dedicated space to work that’s not within the 300-square-foot apartment that I share with my beau.

It seems that just a few years ago, we were so excited about jobs with flexible schedules that allowed us to use our various devices to work from home. We had big dreams of accomplishing load after load of laundry during daylight hours while juggling conference calls and deadlines. Now, the novelty has worn off.

Fifty-three million Americans identify as freelancers, according to a recent survey commissioned by Freelancers Union. And now that working from home is passé, we’re starting to wear out our welcome — and our wallets — at coffee shops. Enter the coworking space, which promises fountains of productivity, endless coffee (and sometimes beer), camaraderie and perhaps even learning opportunities.

What’s coworking all about?

The dawn of coworking as a haven for the self-employed is frequently credited to Brad Neuberg, who launched a coworking space within a live/work loft in San Francisco in 2005.

“What if a day at the office is actually good for you?” wondered Kiera Butler, who visited San Francisco’s popular Citizen Space in 2008 for a Mother Jones magazine article. She found her companions for the day to be much more friendly and interested in interacting across specialties than typical officemates.

“Of course, coworking isn’t a new idea,” she wrote. “Chronically broke creative types have long gathered to work in collectives and retreats. But the current crop of coworking enthusiasts has updated the concept with an aesthetic that’s more Silicon Valley than salon.” By 2011, some 700 coworking spaces had been set up around the world.

Affinity Lab was the first freelance-friendly space in D.C. Founded as an “entrepreneurial launch platform” in 2001, it has since expanded to accommodate its growing membership; at 5,000 square feet, the generously appointed space attracts more than just VC-dreaming entrepreneurs.

But, in line with other shared workspaces in the city, it can get pricey for an independent worker seeking a desk of her own. Do the benefits outweigh the costs of paying for a workspace?

So… how expensive is coworking?

These new drop-in-friendly office spaces often come with hip perks — and a price tag to match. One office space in D.C. charges $850 per month for a private area where two people can work. Want windows? That’ll cost you extra. On the plus side, agreements there run month-to-month, so you can always change your mind if it ends up being too costly.

D.C. might seem extra expensive, but that rate is about average around the country. While many dedicated office areas cost $1,000 per month or more, some spaces have common areas or “flex desks” where you can work alongside other freelancers, and that all-hours access tends to run $250-500 per month.

Another expense to be aware of: membership fees. Some offices ask for an up-front payment of a few hundred dollars when you sign up. Others require an initial cleaning fee. Be sure to ask about those details before you commit.

Is a coworking membership worth the cost?

The resounding answer from the freelancers I consulted: yes.

Jason Connell, a leadership consultant who spends his days writing at Affinity Lab, recalled spending much of his time alone when he first moved to D.C.. “One day, I was walking by the park, and I made eye contact with a dog,” he admitted. After realizing that he had been alone all day, he knew: “I needed to get out of my apartment.”

He’s been a member at Affinity Lab for three years, at the “virtual” level that, for $325 per month, grants him access to unassigned desks and couches for as long as he wishes. “The work-life divide feels different — you see the same people and feel comfortable leaving stuff on your desk when you take a phone call,” he said. “I always felt like I was imposing on a coffee shop, even though I tipped well.”

Connell’s feelings of isolation are common among independent workers who seek shared workspace. Clay Spinuzzi of the University of Texas studied coworking spaces in Austin over the course of two years. Most of his interviewees who had previously worked alone at home reported “self-motivation problems,” and feelings of isolation, he noted in his 2012 report “Working Alone, Together.”

“Such problems are critical,” Spinuzzi recognized. “These professionals had to be highly motivated and focused because their livelihoods depended primarily or solely on their own initiative.”

So when you have deadlines to meet, it’s worth the cost to get yourself to a productive place.

Consider your preferred type of coworking environment

Molly Singer, a nonprofit management consultant, worked from home for several years before joining Affinity Lab a few months ago. When she’s not visiting clients in their own offices, she’s at her dedicated desk at the coworking space. “It’s nice to have others in your orbit,” she said. “It’s kind of lonely at home.” Her space includes a file cabinet, bookshelf, and two small plants she keeps on the windowsill behind her chair. The small nook costs $895 each month — a solid financial commitment.

But while she enjoys the company, spending 40 hours a week at a coworking space can take some getting used to. Singer admits she buys earplugs in bulk to wear when she’s working at her desk. “Around three or four in the afternoon, the whole volume can rise.” She slowly raised her hands as she looked from a conference room into the bustling open space.

Jeff Garigliano, a ghostwriter for books and consulting firms, contrasts Affinity Lab against The Writers Room in New York City. He was a member there for several years and considered it to be “very serious. No conversations. No phones. Not even on vibrate.” A qualified writer (three professional references are required with each application) can join for six months with 24-hour access for $850 — a bargain for the New Yorker seeking serenity in order to put words on paper. “New York is such a sensory assault,” Garigliano said. “You need a clear separation from [home] to get any work done.”

When he arrived in D.C., Garigliano would work in the lounge in his condo building. “The condo lounge was of course open to all, so you’d be on a conference call and someone would come in and turn on a soap opera,” he remembered. Coffee shops and their table-hogging guilt trips weren’t much better.

Now, Garigliano is one of the earliest risers to descend upon the virtual membership desks at Affinity Lab each day. That routine keeps him away from the distractions he encounters at home. “The productivity gains are worth the cost,” he said. “Work hangs over my head at home, so there is a reward to compartmentalizing here.”

Is a coworking space a good choice for you?

Sometimes it takes more than just a desk and unlimited coffee to reach peak productivity. But when a writer knows what works for them, it’s worth staying on track — even with a price tag. As Singer put it, “I’m a person of routine. I need a desk and a schedule to help me keep that routine.”

As for me, I haven’t plunked down my credit card for a long-term desk quite yet. I’ve tried a workspace in my neighborhood that’s designed for people who want to drop in and get busy for a few hours at wide tables in relatively quiet rooms. I’ll walk there when I’m feeling sluggish at home, or when a deadline looms.

But more often than not, I’m still trying to blend myth with reality. I’m still trying to tell myself that I can write anywhere.

Have you tried a coworking space? If not, are you curious about whether it might work for you?

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Lisa Rowan joined The Write Life as a contributor in 2014 and was named editor in 2015. When she's not writing about writing, she cohosts Pop Fashion, a weekly fashion and business podcast.... .

Lisa Rowan | @lisatella

Lisa Rowan
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  1. I’ve used a co-working space a few times. It was particularly helpful this summer when I had a week where my kids weren’t in summer day camp. I had a babysitter watch them at home while I used the co-working space and it was very affordable.

    The only thing I didn’t like was the ergonomic situation. In the past year I’ve made a concerted effort not to sit too long at one time because it bothers my back, and there are all those studies coming out saying how bad extended sitting is for your health. So I sometimes put my laptop on the kitchen counter, or if I’m sitting I get up frequently and walk around or do stretches/yoga poses. There are a few spots at this co-working space where you can stand and work but the height isn’t quite right for me. They also have a treadmill desk, which is awesome (I totally want one for home), but there’s only one so I don’t want to stay on it too long in case someone else wants to use it. I don’t feel comfortable randomly walking around and doing all my stretches etc. in front of people! I just paid for the unassigned open seating option, it probably wouldn’t be a problem if I got one of the actual offices with a door, but I don’t need that at this point. May seem silly, but it does make me reluctant to go there unless I really can’t work at home.

    • Erin, now I want to know more about the treadmill desk! Could you actually get anything done while walking on it? Is it better for reading vs. writing?

      • I’m curious about this as well! I have a friend who swears by his, but he spends most of his workday on the phone rather than reading/writing…

        • Sorry for the delay replying, I hope you still see this! Yes, the thing about the treadmill desk is that you walk on it very slowly. I think I had it set at about 2.0 when I was typing. I was able to turn it up faster when I was just reading something or on the phone. You’re not trying to get a cardio workout, you’re just trying to avoid sitting on your butt. I seriously want one for my home office, but they’re rather expensive. I am going to save up for one.

  2. Lisa,

    This is so timely — I was actually thinking about co-working spaces just yesterday! A new one (dedicated to female entrepreneurs) opened up in my city and I am seriously considering it. One of the best parts is that they have different buy-in levels: x amount of money for 1 day a week, x+ amount of money for 3 days a week, x++ for a whole month.

    Like you, I haven’t taken the plunge yet (spending money is so difficult sometimes when you’re self-employed!) but I am thinking seriously about trying it at the 1 day a week level and seeing how it affects my productivity.

    • Cool, Katharine — let us know if wind up giving it a try! The different buy-in levels sound great for freelancers or those who want to give it a try before making a bigger commitment.

      TWL Assistant Editor

    • Katharine, I bet if you try the 1x/week program, you’ll find that you have a super-productive weekly date with yourself. If you can maximize your output on that one day, you may not need to invest in a greater membership level. But definitely keep us posted!

  3. I’ve been meaning to check out one of the co-working spaces here in the Phoenix area, but I’m not sure what to expect. I’m definitely going to give it a try, because home is not my best place for focused intensity. I can do some social media tasks and some of what I consider mindless projects, but for actual research, organization, and creativity, I need to find something new.

  4. I’ve tried a couple in my area, but for the moment I’m sticking to my home office. It’s simply the cost that’s keeping me out of there. For the price I’m willing to spend, I’d only get 5 days a month in the co-working space, which just isn’t enough for me to justify the cost. If I could get it up to 8 days a month (or twice a week), it would make more sense for me. However the cost is a bit pricey there.

    So I continue working at home, or on occasion, at the coffee shop, which is fine with me. I like a bit of hustle & bustle around me. Plus the smell of coffee is wonderful. 🙂

  5. I enjoyed this article, Lisa. Thanks for writing it (I found it when I located the sponsoring website).

    After researching the co-working spaces in my area of Illinois, I found that they do not allow me to leave my belongings. Unlike a “true office”, I would have to lug my laptop home nightly from the shared space. So, essentially, I’m paying for camaraderie and little else to distinguish it from my public library.

    Fortunately, I live near a large university (as many of your readers might also). Great big libraries, scholarly minds (beyond that found at my public library) and, like most University libraries, open 24/7! As it is a state school, community access is welcome. This is true of most large, state universities. The rate limiting step for my going to the big college (30k students) library was–parking!

    One call to the parking dept, and non-student, 7-day-a-week parking pass is $1000 annually. So, for around $80/month (if I lived within the bus route, it’d be even cheaper), problem solved. Even though I still lug my computer, I have safe parking and several secure libraries on campus to choose from. Heaven!

    Just an idea for those looking for solace outside the home, surrounded by academic minds.

    Thanks again for your article. Wayne.

  6. You make a good argument for joining one of these co-working spaces, but I’m doubting that a lot of beginner freelancers, who can barely pay their apartment rents, could afford the additional cost. But perhaps if they had the money to just get in for a few months their productivity would increase and they would come out on top after a while.


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