Co-workspaces: No colleagues? Why you should consider renting some

As self-employment rises, co-workspaces are offering a popular alternative to the lonely home office.

Working from home had its benefits for Calgary-based graphic designer Jeff Gibson — among them, personal space and control over his schedule. But after three years, he began to notice a shrinking network and a general feeling of isolation. So last November, along with his friends Quinton Rafuse and Nik Thierry, Gibson launched CoworkYYC — a 2,500-square-foot, open-concept co-workspace, accented with a brick fireplace and pop art — in downtown Calgary. These days, Gibson is sharing the space with 14 other freelancers and contractors from a range of sectors. Co-working, he says, gives self-employed people the opportunity to work in a creative, collegial atmosphere.

“Co-working boosts your network instantaneously,” he says. “The proximity and energy of other people makes you more efficient.” Rafuse, who is a VP of geosciences for a junior oil and gas firm, adds that CoworkYYC couldn’t have launched at a better time. While co-working has existed in pockets for some time, it has taken off in the wake of the recession, which has resulted in a growing number of people working for themselves. “We wouldn’t have started up in normal times,” he says.

This increase in self-employment is a nationwide trend. Between October 2008 and October 2009, Statistics Canada noted the loss of 480,000 jobs. During the same time, more than 100,000 self-employment positions were created. Between 2006 and 2009, self-employment in Canada rose 8%, with close to 2.7 million people now working for themselves. As a result, whether self-employed people are looking for the colleague experience or a separation of home and work, co-working is becoming a popular option.

Generally speaking, co-work offices aren’t the maze of high-walled cubicles that might dominate other workspaces. Most boast an open-concept design and, at minimum, provide users with desks, meeting tables, Internet access and, in some cases, kitchens and relaxation areas. According to California-based Emergent Research, there are more than 200 co-working spaces throughout the U.S. In Canada, they’re setting up shop in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and elsewhere.

“There’s disillusionment with the corporate lifestyle,” says Mike Brcic of Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation, one of the oldest co-work arrangements in Canada. “People don’t want to be a cog in the machine. They want to unleash creativity and passion, and we see that here.”

For those who rent a co-work desk, it often becomes about more than just getting out of the house. Many have found business contacts through colleagues. Vancouver’s Network Hub is one of the most in-demand co-work spaces in Canada. They offer simple desk space as well as private offices for high-spenders. Co-ordinator Minna Van says the space is now “work” for over 40 developers, programmers, marketing professionals and even a courier company. “It’s definitely a creative class,” she says. “Our biggest industry is the startup entrepreneur.”

“People work together to develop ideas,” says Shirley Chan, the CEO of Vancouver’s Building Opportunities with Business (BOB), which has just launched a new co-work space in the city’s Gastown district. “Being isolated is not ideal for being creative. You need access to other people of like mind.”

“It’s invigorating,” agrees Lorraine Murphy, a writer who uses the BOB space. “It’s going to change the way work happens. It’s not a cubicle farm, but it’s a professional and creative environment.”

For many people, co-working is important enough as a morale booster to offset the cost of membership. Payment varies, with most offering day rates and monthly options. For instance, for about $450 per month, workers at CoworkYYC get a desk, Internet access, printer use, a mailbox and access to the boardroom and kitchen. They also have the benefit of bouncing ideas off of those working in the graphic design, web design and oil and gas industries.

But co-working is not without its challenges. For one thing, it has to be cost-effective, and sometimes that means out-of-the-way locations. “The biggest and fanciest [co-work spaces] are in the west in Vancouver,” says Andrew McKay, an initiatives co-ordinator at BOB. “But being a few blocks east is generally cheaper for us. This is smaller, indie and grassroots.”

And etiquette has yet to be determined for many co-work spaces. Is it OK to bring in a cellphone? Can you switch desks? “There can be clashes of personalities,” admits Murphy. But she says for her, the benefits far outweigh the challenges: “I could tell how much better I felt by how much work I did, and how much better it was,” she says.