Shared workspaces first started as informal arrangements: Freelancers with extra space in their garage invited friends to work with them and groups of freelancers leased office space together to make it more affordable. Today, 53 million Americans—34 percent of the workforce—are independent workers. The bulk of these people are young: Seventy-eight percent are under the age of forty. A host of companies has stepped in to cater to this segment of the population by offering freelancers and entrepreneurs the amenities of an office: conference rooms, a reception desk to welcome clients, unlimited quantities of freshly brewed coffee. In doing so, these coworking organizations wind up at the vanguard of a movement of people who are prioritizing finding meaningful work, building community, and challenging conventional business practices.
Nearly two years ago, when Robert Crauderueff graduated from MIT with a master's degree in city planning, he hoped to find work shepherding companies through the process of becoming more sustainable. When he discovered that few organizations needed a full-time employee for that, he decided to launch his own consultancy, Crauderueff & Associates. He set up operations at a Manhattan coworking space called New Work City, which, for $375 a month, provides a professional setting where he can bring clients, investors, and contractors.
The space, he says, has also brought him many other intangible benefits. “I’ve found a community of individuals who each have some sort of unique take on how to contribute to the world that does not fit into the traditional corporate structure,” he tells me. “This space brings together a particular type of personality that is drawn to the excitement of creating your own work and is willing to live with the uncertainty that comes with being an independent worker.”
Working for yourself can be very isolating in many ways. For one thing, it means not having a support system when dealing with business problems. Independent workers have to pick up a range of skills that, at a bigger company, would be done by specialists. Crauderueff has had to quickly learn how to incorporate his business, handle marketing and PR, manage payroll and billing—skills he did not learn at MIT—all while securing new clients and executing major projects. He tells me that coworking has been instrumental in helping him navigate these challenges both informally, by giving him a network of friends eager to offer advice, and formally, through weekly support meetings.
New Work City’s founder, Tony Bacigalupo, says he tries to create a culture where his members can offer each other practical advice and encouragement. “We specialize in creating a sense of belonging and being part of something bigger than yourself,” Bacigalupo tells me. Manufacturing this kind of environment can be tricky, because it could easily come across as pushy or heavy-handed. People who are naturally introverted, for instance, may feel overwhelmed by forced interaction. Bacigalupo’s solution has been to offer many different opportunities for connection—motivational meetings, new member events, online discussion boards and networking meetups—so people can determine what works best for them. Crauderueff says the support system at New Work City has allowed him to quickly learn the nuts and bolts of owning a business. He tells me that members also help one another through non-work related problems, like dealing with losses and breakups or struggling to find a new apartment and childcare, which might otherwise diminish productivity.