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

by | Nov 7, 2014

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 2014 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?