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When Jerome Chang started his own architecture firm from his home in 2007, he felt isolated. He missed the office camaraderie at his old architecture jobs, sitting around hashing out new ideas with co-workers. Everyday he would schedule lunch meetings just so he could get outside and interact with other humans.
Chang considered renting office space to share with another business before stumbling upon the concept of “coworking,” which brings remote workers, entrepreneurs, and freelancers together to share a workspace and create community. At the time only a few coworking spaces had popped up in tech-heavy San Francisco, and Chang saw this as a solution not just to his own problem, but a problem plaguing a growing number of Americans: finding human connection—and the innovations that come with it—in an age of working remotely.
With the internet, video conferencing, and instant messaging, companies often find it more cost-effective and convenient for employees to work from home, sometimes thousands of miles away from the main office. Currently 24 percent of employees in America work from home some hours of the week, and that number will increase to 40 percent by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And while some studies show working from home increases productivity, studies also show it blurs work-life balance and increases isolation. For these reasons, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently banned working from home, calling all Yahoo employees to return to the office. Best Buy followed suit, while other large companies like AT&T, Accenture, and Twitter are sending employees to coworking spaces to inspire creativity and find talent.
“When I heard of coworking, the ideas of collaboration and community fit perfectly with what I had in mind,” Chang said. He found an office for sale in West Los Angeles above a beauty store and within walking distance from all the major home business needs: Staples, Kinko’s, a post office, restaurants, and coffee shops. Using his architecture background, he created a modern space designed to cultivate collaboration. Skylights bring in light, making windows unnecessary, which blocks out distractions from the busy Wilshire Boulevard. A wall of glass separates private offices from the main space and a table for group meetings sits in the middle of each cubicle cluster.
When Chang opened Blankspaces in 2008, it was the first coworking office in Southern California, and one of the first 10 offices in the country. Today, nearly 2,500 coworking spaces exist worldwide from Bangkok to Austin to Amsterdam, with 781 in the United States, according to the Global Coworking Census. Coworking spaces increased more than 300 percent since 2010.
Chang, now 40, said managing the workspace was tiring at first, as he had to stay at the office from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day until he could afford to hire more staff. But as word spread about Blankspaces, more remote workers, especially those in the tech and entertainment industries, joined. In 2011, Chang opened a second location in Santa Monica. He plans to open a downtown space soon.
Under the West L.A. office’s exposed wood trusses, about 40 people work on individual projects, occasionally chatting with neighbors about current events and new ramen restaurants. An older man critiques a movie script over the phone. Across the table a young man with his feet propped up types furiously to develop a computer program. Two brothers in the corner write the next installment of the National Treasure movie series as a realtor confers with his bookkeeper in a separate cubicle.
The close proximity of different industries has led to connections and job offers. Chang said he’s seen startup founders working at Blankspaces hire the web designer sitting next to them. Recruiters also come to events looking for people with specific skill sets, such as a certain coding language.
Kristen Abitabile, 26, says working at Blankspaces has led to new clients seeking her bookkeeping services. She was originally the bookkeeper for a tech recruiter working in the building. As she made friends, she soon started working for a computer programmer and a realtor.
Abitabile finds the coworking setup a happy medium between working from home and from a typical office: “If I’m working from home I can get distracted, but here I’m always working.” She says it is less stressful than working in a typical office because no one really knows what other people are working on. It also cuts down on office politics since people aren’t competing with each other: “In traditional offices, there’s more pressure to work late, or there’s a stigma if you’re leaving for lunch. But here nobody is paying attention.”
Blankspaces works more like a gym than typical rented space, with month-to-month membership ranging from $100 per month to work at the workbar to $1,300 for a private office. The short-term commitment is attractive for young freelancers and contractors, but it also means frequent turnover. Chris Martens, a web developer in his mid-20s, said turnover is the biggest downside: Many of the people he worked next to when he joined in August no longer work there.
Still, Martens finds coworking better than working from home: “It’s lonely and depressing working by yourself, but there’s an energy here and it’s fun. … The environment motivates you to come in, especially since you’re paying for it.”
Chang sees his job as a business matchmaker, introducing people to others who work in similar fields, or are at the same stage of growing their company. He invites experts to help mentor startup founders, holds roundtable sessions for business owners, and plans weekly happy hours and parties so Blankspaces workers can meet each other.
Chang thinks the demand for coworking spaces will continue to grow: “Coworking creates that third space where you go to stay connected.”
The Theology of Work Project (theologyofwork.org) includes articles on what most books of the Bible say about work. “Often the most interesting resources come from the most unexpected places,” says William Messenger, executive editor of the TOW Project. “Who would have thought that the Song of Songs would have so much to say about workplace relationships and employee satisfaction, or that the best example of a manager in the Bible is the valiant woman in the Book of Proverbs?” He adds, “I was surprised that Paul’s discussion about yoking oxen in 2 Corinthians would have so much practical guidance for workplace relationships in business today.” —A.L.