Co-working 2.0: The office space race

Nicola Morgan’s co-working space, which she co-founded in late 2014, is in many ways like the others one would find in Toronto and other cities around the world. The big, airy space on Dundas Street West, at the north end of Roncesvalles Village, boasts dedicated desks and shared tables for working as well as private offices, conference rooms and event space. But there are some differentiators. Instead of fluorescent tubes, there are chandeliers in the bathroom. And soon an upscale coffee bar will be added to the office. These touches are to accommodate her specific clientele: To rent a desk in her co-working space (membership starts at $125 per month), you must be a woman.

“We wanted to provide a community for women that would offer sales support – education, coaching, training, strategy,” Morgan says of Women on the Move. “We’ll give you strategies if that’s what you need; we’ll give you a hug if that’s what you need.”

With the growth of the gig – or freelance – economy, co-working spaces have been blooming over the past decade.

Popularized by the tech industry and beautified by the creative industry, these often architecturally inspiring professional community centres act as hubs for the self-employed, offering, aside from desk space and unlimited WiFi, an attractive and progressive office-like environment with meeting rooms, receptionist services and professional development events at affordable monthly, sometimes even hourly, rates.

As the number of freelancers continues to rise – last year, according to Statistics Canada, the country saw 91,500 self-employed positions added to the job market – the fields in which they are working is diversifying. Most of 2015’s new self-employed were in finance, real estate, insurance and leasing, as The Globe and Mail reported earlier this year.

This growing freelance work force often calls for specific working conditions. A personal finance adviser, who requires privacy, isn’t likely to meet with a client in an open-concept, co-working space to discuss investments. Or as Morgan says, “women entrepreneurs require a different level of support. It’s emotional as well as educational support.” As result, the new iteration of co-working environments is focused on serving niche clientele.

Ben Larson co-founded Gateway – which is half co-working space, half business incubator program – in November, 2015. His background was working with technology startups and, after meeting a handful of entrepreneurs starting up cannabis-related businesses and venture capitalists wanting to get into the market, he created the industrial-inspired space in a historical and redeveloping Warehouse District in Oakland, Calif., as an incubator. After running events, he noticed attendees introducing themselves to each other and talking about ways in which they could work together.

“Co-working [in the marijuana sector] wasn’t originally on our radar, but it very quickly became an obvious benefit for the community,” he says. Memberships are monthly, starting at $250 (U.S.), and grants users access to desk and meeting spaces, as well as business events.

“We have everyone from lawyers, graphic designers and marketers, to growers, distributors and brand owners. What’s really become very obvious is the networks of these people are very complementary, but also, with a niche industry like cannabis, it provides an opportunity to have people not worry about the stigma of working in [this] emerging market. They just get to be heads-down in a positive space and build their companies stronger and faster.”

As times change, so do the principles of what makes a sensible office setting. Above, Globe and Mail workers go about their business at their island-like work spaces shortly after moving into their new office at the William H. Wright Building in Toronto in 1938.

The same value of trust and confidentiality applies to Law Bank, a co-working space designed specifically for lawyers. Long-time lawyer Jay Kamlet launched Law Bank in 2013 so that independent workers in the legal profession had a hub from which they could meet each other and work, but ensured the space had private areas so that lawyers could speak with clients and work on confidential matters.

“A typical co-working space is geared toward tech companies or millennials. We need our thinking time and space,” Kamlet says. “Lawyers need to maintain ethical responsibilities to clients, avoid conflicts and maintain confidentialities. This space meets those attributes.”

The communal office has shared desk space and private offices, conference rooms and private phone booths. A monthly membership, which costs $275, also gets lawyers reception and café services for clients, copy services and a business listing on Law Bank’s website. Kamlet opened the second Law Bank location in Denver at the beginning of this year and now hosts 70 lawyers across the two communal offices. He hopes to take his idea nationwide.

Niche co-working spaces aren’t limited to professions that need only desk space. Sheila Bennett opened Kitchen Sync, a co-working kitchen, in Winnipeg’s SHED District in May, 2015, her rationale being that if other professions could share office facilities, chefs could too. The one-room open-concept venue, with exposed stone walls, dark wood beams and stainless steel kitchen facilities, has space for up to three chefs to cook, package and store goods, and a dining area for events.

Space is reserved by the hour, and costs between $22-28 (Canadian) for 60 minutes. (“If they use it more often, the price goes down,” Bennett says.) So far, she’s had caterers and small-business owners who are trying to develop product to see if there is a demand. Ben Kramer is one of the chefs who uses Kitchen Sync. Last year, after running a business for several years, he decided to go out on his own as a private caterer. “It’s a great space, and for me, in this transition from having a kitchen to not looking for one or needing one yet, it’s beautiful because I pay by the hour or day,” he says. There are other options in the city – community and church kitchens – but Kramer prefers this space because “it’s new, clean and of a commercial quality.”

And in Boston, even scientists can find co-working spaces. Johannes Fruehauf and Peter Parker opened LabCentral in November, 2013, for those working in the life sciences.

“It’s always difficult to get permitting for life-science research work. To buy the equipment that you would need is extraordinarily expensive, you have to get permitting, meet health and safety requirements when working with biohazard materials. Plus you have to hire people to do that, lab managers to take care of equipment and make sure you’re in compliance with permitting,” says Caroline Grossman, LabCentral’s communications and public affairs liaison. “It can take six months to get it set up, and in that time you’re not doing anything to further your science. That was the germ of the idea for Lab Central.”

Along with traditional co-working features of open desks, meeting rooms, a communal kitchen and colourful-couch-filled lounges for events and casual conversations, there are 30 individual lab bays in a shared lab space and eight private lab suites – all fully kitted out with equipment, storage facilities and waste-removal services. An individual scientist can rent a bench just as easily as a small team can rent lab space. Membership per person is $400 (U.S.) a month plus rent for whatever space they decide to use.

Grossman says there was some concern they would need to convince life-science professionals of the benefits and opportunities of a co-working space: “Particularly in the academia world, there was always this sense that this is all so secret – what about your IP [intellectual property]? It’s one thing in the tech world. If it’s just on your own computer, no one will see anything. But the world of trying to get your papers published is very secretive, so people were concerned that co-working couldn’t work for life sciences.”

The concerns, it turned out, were unnecessary. “We thought it would take three years to be full, but we were full with a waiting list in 10 months,” Grossman says.

All of these co-working spaces have seen some of its members outgrow the space, but rather than be concerned about their business model, they see it as a testament to the concept.

“The other day I ran into someone who moved out of the space because his practice got too big,” Kamlet says. “I was so proud.”

This story ran in The Globe and Mail (November 23, 2016)