Coworking: Seattle office collectives take off

The art -- and business -- of working alone together.
Crosscut archive image.

A few members of Greenwood's Works Progress

The art -- and business -- of working alone together.

As a self-employed financial planner, Dana Twight mostly worked from home, occasionally visiting her local coffee shop if she needed to meet clients. But her routine changed when she heard a local radio station interview with Jacob Sayles.

Sayles is the co-owner of Office Nomads, a Capitol Hill coworking space. Twight decided to visit Office Nomads last spring for a trial day. After just one visit, she felt more productive. Another bonus: Office Nomads was only a few minutes from her house.

Dana Twight is only a drop in the wave of freelancers who are benefiting from the collaborative space scene that is booming in the Pacific Northwest.

Coworking, if you’ve never heard of it, is the act of making a personal choice to work alongside other people instead of in isolation. The idea emerged in 2005. Credit Brad Neuberg, a software developer in San Francisco.

Seattle's collaborative space scene started two years later when Sayles and Susan Dorsch founded Office Nomads. The city's coworking scene has since grown — there was only one space in 2007, now there are 19 spread around the Greater Seattle area. That growth is due in part to an increase in the number of freelancers (bigger companies have increasingly turned to contract workers to save money) and telecommuters (improved technology facilitates more remote work). A boom in startup businesses is also fueling the growth.

Like Twight, hundreds of freelancers and telecommuters began looking for an ideal workspace. Coffee shops, libraries and cubicle rentals have long been sanctuaries for freelancers grown frustrated with distractions at home. Coworking spaces give freelancers and telecommuters something more — an intentional community.

Having recently upgraded her Office Nomads membership to five days per month, Twight stresses the importance of community in completing her work. “It's nice to have that sense of being with other people,” she says.

Twight first heard chatter about cubicle rentals in the early 2000s, but the image of an office cubicle seemed too cold to her. At Office Nomads, Twight feels a sense of community, especially as she interacts with people of various occupations, from graphic designers to a freelance science writer for the EPA. Although she kept to herself when she first started working there, Twight has become more active. For one of the weekly brown bag lunches the space hosts, she led a workshop about insurance for small entrepreneurs.

Member outings, networking events and brown bag lunches are common ways many coworking spaces foster community. Some space owners employ additional staff specifically to manage their coworking communities. Some are volunteers, some are compensated through memberships, and some are paid.

At Office Nomads, "Community Cultivators" get free membership in exchange for being the eyes and ears of the space. At Works Progress, based in Greenwood, a few volunteers take shifts manning the space's welcome desk and organizing workshops.

As Seattle's coworking scene grew, Susan Dorsch and a couple of her colleagues formed Coworking Seattle as a support group for people trying to create community-based coworking spaces. In 2012, boasting more members, the group changed its name to the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance and defined a distinct mission: to unify, support and promote the collaborative space movement in Seattle.

The Alliance's regular, third-Tuesday-of-the-month meetings bring Seattle's collaborative space owners and prospective coworkers together. In the past three years, the gatherings have spawned and strengthened the relationships among collaborative spaces in Seattle.

Jessie Rymph and Marnee Chua of the newly-opened Works Progress got their first insights into managing a collaborative space when they connected with the owner of a Maple Valley coworking space at an SCSA meeting.

Rymph noted that the Alliance has made the collaborative space scene in Seattle very supportive, especially compared to other cities across the country, where coworking businesses can be more competitive. One reason for the comity is that each Seattle coworking space is trying to appeal to a different demographic.

HUB Seattle, in Pioneer Square, targets start-ups dealing in social enterprises; a market its members go after by providing event spaces and the opportunity to rent private, more permanent offices. Office Nomads, on the other hand, attracts all nature of individuals living on Capitol Hill. They recently expanded their space by adding a second floor and along with it more desks and private spaces. Works Progress also caters to a wide range of people, but focuses more on those living in Greenwood, and on working parents with its efforts to add child-care facilities. Like HUB and Office Nomads, Works Progress provides its members with desks, and offers one private meeting room.

There are some expenses involved in managing a coworking space. But they are fairly basic. General overhead includes rent, utilities, office supplies and refreshments (coffee & tea). Some coworking spaces such as HUB Seattle and Office Nomads use an honor system for incidentals like refreshments, giving members an option to pay through PayPal. But collaborative space owners devote most of their time to fostering the community.

Take Jessie Rymph from Works Progress, for example. Before its grand opening last March, she had to build the Works Progress community from scratch. After sending out a survey to parents interested in coworking in June of last year, she used the mailing list to reach out for prospective members. Rymph and her partner, Chua, are also involved in the Phinneywood Business Association, which has allowed them to network with other businesses in the area and organize social outings, such as art walks, for members.

Works Progress currently has seven members; three work in the nonprofit sector, two work at a small private company and two women are starting a legal practice together.

“Anyone who wants to start a coworking space is going to be a part of that space,” says Susan Dorsch, “so, we always advise people to attract people they want to be around with.”

The trick is to start from your personal connections or interests and expand from there, she says. What comes after, though, is not always easy. To create a positive and stable environment in a collaborative space, every member must have the desire to be there. Community, says Dorsch, should be the highest priority in establishing a successful coworking space.

During a recent SCSA meeting, Jacob Sayles echoes his partner's view when he observes that spaces with profit-based goals, ones simply trying to piggyback on the growing coworking movement often fail compared to those with more realistic expectations and a focus on community-building.

“You always go back to building relationships in the community,” says Dorsch. “Having great desks or a nice printer is not important; building relationships is. The people are the ones that make your business better.”

The statement certainly rings true for Twight. Initially lukewarm about the coworking movement, she now often advocates coworking to her fellow freelancers and telecommuters. Coworking has allowed her to tap into a new community where she has enjoyed more productivity, less office politics, good coffee and company.

After all, Twight says, "when you work at home, you can only talk to yourself for so long."





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