Thursday, March 31, 2011
How Coworking Saved my Home Life
The floor plan of my current apartment
Manhattan apartments are famously small. Mine has a bedroom, a bathroom, a short hallway, and another room that we use as our kitchen, living room, dining room, music room, and office. The office part consists of a tiny IKEA desk perched in the corner next to the fire door, between my partner's synthesizer keyboard and the futon mattress that serves as our couch. There's enough room for me, a chair, and my steno machine, but not much else. This setup was more or less okay during the school year, when I mostly worked onsite at the various universities I CARTed for, but in the summer, when the CART work was on hold and I spent my days doing (more time-consuming, less lucrative, but readily available) offline transcription work, things occasionally got a little tense.
My desk, sandwiched between the piano and the fire door
Yes, there are definite advantages to working at home. I didn't have a dress code. I could raid the fridge between jobs. The cat was always eager to help with administrative tasks, especially if they involved crinkly paper. And, naturally, that famous old work-at-home chestnut, the 10-second commute. But over the course of a long, sticky summer, when it was just me and my machine on the same 2 x 2-foot patch of floor day after day -- or, on days when my partner wasn't working, the two of us trying to give each other a little space without overheating physically or mentally -- I started hankering for an offsite office.
Coworking is a relatively new concept, but it's caught on with small businesses and self-employed workers in many cities around the world. Essentially, it's just an affordable way to duplicate the amenities of a home office in a semi-public arena, to lessen the isolation and fuzzy work/life divide that can affect people confined to home offices. Choosing a freelance life over a full-time job means a good amount of autonomy, but many people miss the camaraderie to be found working alongside the same people every weekday. Coworking is an attempt to solve that problem.
It wasn't until the fall of my third year as a CART provider that I finally found my coworking co-op. When out in the field and between classes, I had been doing my transcript editing, class prep, and other unbillable work either in campus libraries or in various coffee shops nearby. Two of the universities I CARTed for offered free internet, and I was still new enough at freelancing that the idea of sitting down with a frothy drink and an apple turnover before taking out my steno machine for some transcription work seemed incredibly decadent and cool. I still enjoy working in coffee shops occasionally -- especially since getting my wireless 4G modem, so I'm not forced to stick to the ones that offer free internet -- but eventually the novelty started to wear a little thin. For one thing, the choice was always between refilling my glass every hour or being a freeloading jerk, and sometimes my workload outlasted either my appetite or my wallet. Also, if I ever wanted to take a phone call or go to the bathroom, I'd have to pack my gear into my backpack and take it with me, then unpack it all again when I got back -- even assuming the seat I'd left was still open. This wasn't a big deal when I was just editing transcripts on my laptop, but when I got a year-round transcription client that began sending me new audio files four or five days a week, it was a lot more cumbersome to juggle my laptop, steno machine, foot pedal, and bulky can headphones every time I felt like getting up.
Still, I was balancing things pretty well between campuses and coffee shops until I got a job at a new university that didn't offer free internet access and wasn't willing to give a registration code to an independent contractor like me. To make things worse, the only place nearby that offered WiFi was McDonald's; there wasn't a coffee shop for blocks. I knew that a regimen of daily cheeseburgers wouldn't do me any favors in the long run, so I went looking for other options. At that time, the only wireless modems on the market were 3G, not really quick enough to do what I needed, so I went online to see if there was any cheap office space available in the area. To my surprise and delight, I discovered Common Spaces, a coworking co-op, only two blocks away! For $200 a month, I could get the use of a desk, high speed internet, a laser printer/scanner, a kitchen, a couch, a roof garden, a conference room for client meetings, the vicarious productivity of a few dozen coworkers, and all the free coffee I could drink. Who could say no to that?
Two of Common Spaces' many seating options.
I signed up that fall and adored it immediately. My coworkers were fascinating entrepreneurs and freelancers, with businesses ranging from green roof landscaping to web design to miniature cupcake manufacture, and just having people around me working diligently seemed to dampen my impulse to procrastinate. Best of all, none of those people were either my boss or my underlings, and I didn't have to answer to any of them. It had all the advantages of a traditional office, without any of the stifling elements that drove me to freelancing in the first place. I spent two semesters happily moseying between the university and the coworking space, but then both of my clients graduated, and I got a CART assignment at another university about a 15-minute walk away. Spring semester was over by then, and I briefly debated the idea of giving up the space and going back to the desk in my living room, but I just couldn't stand the thought of yet another summer crammed into a corner. For the next four months, I used the high speed commercial broadband at Common Spaces for nabbing dozens of per diem remote CART jobs, for writing new posts on the StenoKnight webpage, for doing my transcription work without feeling like I was bothering anyone with my sprawling setup, and of course, for working on Plover. A month after moving into Common Spaces, I'd posted an ad on the elevator's corkboard asking for Python lessons. That posting eventually turned into a collaboration between me and a freelance programmer who was working in a different co-op on a different floor of the building. Weekly Python lessons turned into weekly development sessions, and the world's first open source steno software was born. Even if I'd gotten nothing else out of working there, finding Plover's programmer was more than worth the rent.
The roof garden at Common Spaces
Summer changed to Fall, and Fall to Spring, and I kept enjoying the benefits of coworking. Instead of coming home after CARTing the day's classes and flomping on the futon mattress for several more hours of work, I was able to get my work done at the office, then come home and help with dinner or just hang out, without the ever-expanding bubble of my freelancing schedule constantly threatening to engulf the rest of my life. I got a steady remote CART client, which made me very grateful that I could use the office's rock solid internet connection instead of my apartment's unpredictable cable modem. I enticed a consultant friend to sign up for flex space too, so we could eat lunch together and occasionally talk shop; we're in totally different industries, but many parts of freelancing are universal. The office was a lifeline to me, and my job would have been unspeakably harder without it.
You probably sensed that "but" coming, didn't you? Today I paid my last monthly check to Common Spaces for the time being. Why? Because today I also signed a lease on a new two-bedroom apartment. Yep, I'm rejoining the ranks of the working-at-home. The last few years have been good ones, and I'm finally able to afford more than a three-room apartment. The new place has a living room that's just a living room, a kitchen that's just a kitchen, and -- I can hardly believe it -- an office that's just an office, with an actual door and everything. My remote CART work looks like it'll be moving to five days a week for the next few months, and it'll be nice to get out of bed at 7:20 a.m. instead of getting up at 6:00 (5:00, before the recent Daylight Savings switchover) and dashing for the train down to Brooklyn. I'm curious to see how much of a difference it'll make to have a room with a door, whether I'll be able to delineate my work life and home life or whether they'll start creeping back into each other. I know I'll miss my coworkers, the beautiful roof garden, and the vermicomposting bin I set up last May and have been maintaining with kitchen scraps ever since. In a way, I'm sure I'll also miss my one-hour one-way commute, which gave me time to read novels or listen to podcasts without worrying that I should be working. But having a dedicated desk with two monitors and all my stuff set up the way I like it will be a nice change from carrying all my gear on my back every day. (Common Spaces has a dedicated desk option, but it's double the cost of flex space.) Plus it looks like my next couple years of onsite CART will largely be centered around The Bronx, so keeping a home base in Brooklyn makes less sense than it did when I was working at several schools that were all a few subway stops from the co-op.
So once I get my home office set up the way I like it, I'm sure I'll post some pictures. I might drop by Common Spaces just to visit, and who knows? Maybe someday I'll even renew my membership. But whatever happens in the future, coworking has been an invaluable experience for me, and I can't recommend it highly enough.