Friday, May 27, 2011

CoWorking California and Vermont Style: Comparing CoLoft and Office Squared

Storefront Entry to CoLoft - Santa Monica, California
     Walking down Santa Monica Boulevard in sunny California about a month ago I serendipitously walked by CoLoft, a trendy yet down to earth co-working space. It caught my eye as I always on the lookout for interesting workspace environments. 
Office Squared Tree Covered Courtyard (courtesy of O2) 

     Hailing from Vermont I was familiar with one in Burlington called Office Squared or 02 who I had yet to visit at that point but had mental notes to do so soon. CoLoft's easy going open converted retail storefront with high ceilings and ample day-lighting greeted me. Energized with enthusiasm to see new ideas like this at work, I retraced my steps opened the door and walked in. People typed away on laptops all around, talking on smartphones with some engaged together in quiet yet intense conversations.
     Simple workstations set up on elegant sawhorses with straightforward table tops were standard. Here and there desktop computers were set up with double screens with workers staring intently into them. Someone came up to me and there I asked If I could take pictures of the inside. He said no as it was against CoLoft policy to respect and protect the privacy of their work community. I asked if the owners were there and could I talk to them?
Front Page of the Santa Monica Daily Press! by Coloft
CoLoft Interior by Brandon Wise, Originally printed in Santa Monica Daily Press
     Shortly after Avesta Rasouli, one of the founders of CoLoft greeted me. I told him I was a vacationing architect just walking by and did he have a moment. He sighed and said, "Unfortunately I'm in the middle of a meeting where I'm looking at expanding my space. Take a look at our website and email me. We'll talk later." And so I did. That moment was a perfect diagram for the growing coworking phenomena, fitting within the "Sharing Economy" as so eloquently identified by Rachel Botswan and Roo Rogers in their exciting book "What's Mine is Yours – the Rise of Collaborative Consumption" published in 2010.
     The book talks about the rise of the sharing economy and collaborative consumption fueled by the growth of the internet and dissolving of barriers in trade and communication across geography and time. The rising fluidity of our how easy it is to communicate, organize, work together and shop manifested itself in businesses like Ebay, Craigs List among others. The sharing comes in recognizing there often is available capacity or excess capacity sitting idle of cars, sofas in apartments, hotel rooms laying empty, workers with time on their hands, money underinvested, land available for gardeners. The internet enabled unlikely new configurations of commerce and entrepreneurship impossible to envision only a generation ago. Within this larger movement of the sharing economy coworking emerged.
     Botswan and Rogers identified how this movement began with the Spiral Muse Group in 2005 or so whose founding members who ranged from at home professionals, consultants and independent contractors, who realized they "yearned for some form of working community where they could cross-pollinate ideas face to face." Up until then they worked a nomadic existence in coffeehouses and libraries and other spaces but soon found those places wanting for meaningful interactions and places to work effectively. Thus coworking as defined in Wikipedia as "a style of work involving a shared working environment, sometimes an office, yet (with) independent activity." Coworkers often share values or sets of ideals energizing their individual work yet are transformed by "synergies" of unlike but motivated professionals working together, percolating ideas and challenges off of one another.
     Coworking spaces can be full off cooperative style intentional working communities to independent businesses run by entrepreneurs who seized the opportunity to develop alternative work settings catering to this new breed of independent tech savvy workers. They realized the most critical aspect of these kind of businesses was not the space or access to shared resources but fostering a true sense of community and connection between members. They are generally not for rent larger scale Office Suites like HQ Global Workplaces or business incubator type spaces as they tend to lack the community appeal of coworking spaces while having many of the same amenities, yet in a more corporate setting.
     For those unfamiliar with this trend over the last ten years it's really taken off with coworking spaces now all around the world in most major cities. Fast Company in May published a brief article called Brave New Coworking World where they wrote about the 5M project, a four acre campus with three initial tenants serving up a hybridized version of coworking with Hub SoMa (a more traditional coworking space), TechShop (a so called do it yourself workshop) and Intersection for the Arts (an arts incubator type space). As FC says this growing campus offers both traditional office features with non-traditional options for prototyping and small scale manufacturing of business ideas and products. A veritable dynamo of entrepreneurism and as the website says "radical collaboration". 

View of Office Squared Reception Area
View of Office Squared Open Work Area

Office Squared Open Area & Conference Room

     Returning back to Vermont, I visited and had multiple conversations with Jen Mincar, the owner of Office Squared. O2's storefront is sandwiched between tall mid-rise turn of the century buildings with a beautiful tree covered plaza in front for outdoor events. Jan said her business is growing like "gangbusters" providing an integral component to help grow Burlington's creative economy saying also her business constantly evolves to match the needs of her members.
CoWorkers Collaborating at Office Squared (courtesy of O2)
     She reinforced the coworking concept by saying"despite the electronic age, as human beings, we still need human face to face interactions. We need to see people and have physical connection." She also said she's expanding her offerings to her community to meet more demand opening up private offices above the more open storefront level work space she built out in 2009 along with the building owner, Dave Farrington. They offer independent open work areas, a conference room, a small team room, teleconferencing equipment. Her space is also available for private evening events or larger seminars. I asked who designed who contemporary spirited workspace and to tell me a little story about it. I was surprised to learn it was DIY.
Office Squared In Action - Workshop Session Mode (courtesy of O2)
     I learned she did it herself along with the building owner Dave. It was originally corporate offices for a bus company with "hung ceilings, nasty carpet, white walls, rubber base…essentially zero character. She envisioned an open, brightly lit more contemporary feeling space and did the old fashioned way by rolling up her sleeves. "Interior finishes include a substantial amount of reclaimed steel, leftover materials from other projects." She also said "many complement her on the feel of the space, how it's extremely functional yet with a retro-industrial feel."
     To find that look she and Dave kept an eye out for the unusual yet functional. As she said "For example, the wood edge on my workstation was waste strips of Baltic birch plywood from an old University of Vermont construction job. The steel I-beam on my desk was reclaimed from a back loading dock at an industrial building in the South End of Burlington. The sink is reused from a dentist office renovation…the metal wall covering in the bathroom was salvaged from old floor coverings from fork trucks in an old building. We exposed all of the structure. I recently replaced 36 75-watt halogen fixtures with 11 watt LEDs and installed a new super-efficient HVAC unit. The Floor finish is a BONA product (no VOC) as well as the paint on the walls."
     I asked her now she's been in her space for a while, what improvements might she make. She said "privacy areas are lacking. Everything was left open, even the conference rooms. In retrospect I would have closed those in, however we are expanding to offer private office space upstairs called O2plus" While upstairs, those who use these spaces still will have access to all of the shared facilities below. She also mentioned it's important to be stay flexible for her members allowing month to month memberships.
     Returning to California, I asked Cam Kashani Rasouli also a founder of CoLoft how is her business doing. She said "We are doing awesome. After only a little more than a year, we are pretty much at capacity and now application only. We are figuring out the next steps as we speak. Definitely expanding." Like Jen in Vermont, Cam and Avesto find it's about the people, not about the space. Cam said "let the business change according to the people – listen to them. And make sure you have a passion for people, or you won't love it. We love people and it always feels like we're around friends."
     Like Office Squared in Vermont, CoLoft design evolved out the talents of its owners in a more design, build manner. Avesta to the design lead on the space creating a workplace with a "cool airy vibe…something between a coffee shop and an office.". CoLoft's location in the heart of Santa Monica is superlative for them. It's the place to be as far as they are concerned with all of the startups and tech in general in the area, which is their niche.
LA Startup Weekend at the Coloft
From StartUp Weekend at CoLoft (courtesy of CoLoft flickr stream)
     Asking Cam to sound in on where she sees CoLoft and coworking down the road, let's say in three to five years, she replied "We see coworking becoming the "third place", after home and office, replacing coffee shops in terms of work (not coffee). For me as an independent design professional more in a startup mode myself, I see the sense in this, especially in places like my more rural Vermont. Here rising energy prices are curbing workers appetite for those hour long commutes to the office from homes far away from where the work is.
     Like Cam in California and Jen in Vermont, I believe coworking spaces as a business concept will certainly continue to evolve and mature in the years to come. Especially in Vermont with our many smaller cities, villages and towns, there always is a supply of underutilized storefronts with great locations or coffee shops already with numerous workers spending much of their days in their shops. Stepping up the presence of such hybrid workspaces can only be helpful keeping workers closer to home, fostering stronger local business communities and neighborhoods. Workers would be closer to their families and friends and have the choice to participate more fully in community or leisure activities. We would also experience strong secondary benefits such as further reducing reliance on foreign oil and incrementally helping to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It's a deep green initiative.
     Thus coworking is a win win environmentally for all locally and an important building block of the surging multi-billion dollar sharing economy articulated by Botswan and Rogers in "What's Mine is Yours".  I also believe we'll be seeing more coworking options springing up in communities near you.  The 911's or the Millenials who are now in or finishing college will be the next generation at work.  As they use smartphones, tweet their status updates and friend or like people or businesses, so to will they likely have the ability to cowork.  Today this seems atypical office and work behavior, but tomorrow don't count on it.
     To learn more about coworking see the Wiki which not only goes into it more in depth with research studies but also has links to coworking sites and networks around the world. The Wiki also tells you how to get more involved in coworking. For those who Tweet and want to be get involved that way, the coworking hashtag is #coworking. I encourage those in Santa Monica and Burlington to take a look at CoLoft and Office Squared. But given how busy they are please contact them in advance!



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