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Coworking: Reshaping the Traditional Workplace

Millions of American workers spend their entire day in cubicles, lamenting the lack of privacy, the noise from cube mates, and the lackluster design of their space. But with more employers utilizing virtual office methods, a newer option called coworking is emerging that lets individuals with different jobs and employers lease a desk and space in the same office.

Coworking sites can meet workers' practical needs and also promote collaboration and brainstorming amongst the renters.

Creative individuals seem especially attracted to coworking, as it offers a solution for freelancers and contract employees who dislike the isolation of working out of home.

Wil Bosbyshell, who teaches Graphic Design at The Art Institute of Charlotte, participates in an artists' collective sharing building space that lets him work on projects alone, or collaborate with the other artists in the building. The traditional workplace does not always lend itself to a creative atmosphere, Bosbyshell says.

"You need to be away from that to do a lot of individual creativity," he adds. "As far as group creativity, it works better in person than in email. If we weren't all sitting around talking about it, there wouldn't be the same opportunity."

After 40 years as a staple of office furniture, the cubicle might have lost its appeal for many employees. In a 2004 survey by Logitech on workspace, 84% of cubicle dwellers said their workspace comfort level could be improved.

And while some believe that telecommuting can result in higher morale and job satisfaction as well as decreased employee stress and turnover, the millions who telecommute can also be lonely without the sense of community that comes from being around people in an office. Coworking helps to foster that sense of community, says Bill Jacobson, director of WorkBar, a coworking site in Boston.

"People are happy when they are getting satisfaction out of their job," he says. "That satisfaction is something that coworking should provide. It's about building up more relationships and bonds in related and unrelated businesses."

Details and options available to participants vary by coworking locations. For example, the Charlotte Art League offers two levels of membership, Bosbyshell says. The higher level allows the individual to keep studio space in the building, while lower-level members don't have the dedicated studio space. At WorkBar, higher-level memberships include the use of conference rooms, printers, internet connections, phones, and even administrative help with things like expense reports.

Those services are what attract many adopters of coworking who might otherwise just work from home.

"What we've done is try to create the ideal situation for professionals and treat it more like a gym membership," Jacobson says. "You probably aren't going to go every day but you want to know it's there and has all the facilities for when you need it."

And professionals are responding. The downturn in the economy and subsequent job losses mean many people are doing freelance and entrepreneurial work. The increasing popularity of telecommuting also drives people to find alternative work space.

Mike Sullivan is president of the website aBetterOffice, which offers information and directories on alternative work space, including coworking. Sullivan himself uses coworking and says it is creating a whole new niche in office space.

But Sullivan points out that coworking is not for everyone, and even those it interests should investigate sites before joining. The culture differs at each establishment.

"More than any other type of office space, coworking has a culture-based atmosphere based on the owners and the occupants of the workspace," he explains. "There is typically an open area where people work so you have to work, eat, and breathe together. So certain people will walk in and not want to work there based on the individual culture."

Sullivan advises asking coworking owners about trial periods because most of the sites let potential members come in for a fixed period of time at no cost. That gives people an idea about the coworking site's culture, he says.

The collaborative nature of many coworking sites attracts a lot of creative workers - artists, writers, and designers. Still, it's not an arrangement that would suit everyone, admits Jacobson of WorkBar.

"If you're the type of the person that wants to have pictures of your kids on your desk, it can be hard to get that here," he says. "In today's world, being more flexible and mobile is a big attribute so the thought of having everything set up how you want it everyday just gets you more regimented - which is not what our members are about."

WorkBar tries to facilitate partnering among individuals by providing a lounge area and a kitchen for members to converse informally, Jacovson says. The site also organizes regular get-togethers for interested members.

Sullivan of aBetterOffice thinks the community aspect of coworking is one of its biggest draws. He recalls how one of the participants at his coworking site was building a website and received assistance in everything from website design and writing to search engine optimization from his coworkers.

"That's the co in coworking," Sullivan adds. "It's about how independents can work together more effectively."

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