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Working Alone, Together

By ALEX WILLIAMS

Co-working sites offer new options for solo entrepreneurs, including independent lawyers.

Whitney Tingle, a New York entrepreneur, once had the common fantasy of ditching the 9-to-5 world, starting her own business and working in the serenity of her home. It did not quite work out as planned.

Co-working sites, which allow for solo work but also encourage collaboration, include Grind, a Manhattan “work space for free-range humans.”
A year after cofounding Sakara Life, an organic-meal delivery company, she discovered that “there was no beginning or end to work,” said Ms. Tingle, 27. “I would get distracted by dust bunnies under the desk and end up vacuuming in the middle of the day, or look at myself in the mirror at 7 p.m. and realize I was still in pajamas.” And though health food was her business, she could not stay away from her boyfriend’s pretzel supply. “They would stare at me from the perch above the fridge,” Ms. Tingle said plaintively.

Concerned about her sanity and waistline, she and her business partner, Danielle DuBoise, in August applied to NeueHouse, a new “co-working” space near Madison Square that has fashioned itself as a private club. The work space has a lavish industrial-chic interior, courtesy of the designer David Rockwell; charter members that include Chris Blackwell, the Island Records founder, and Jefferson Hack, of the British magazine Dazed & Confused; and yearly fees that can reach five figures.

In just a few months, Ms. Tingle said, her mood has brightened, and her company has doubled its revenues through the contacts she has made there. “It’s impossible to get that sort of thing at a Starbucks,” she said.

This was supposed to be the age of the mobile (a k a nonexistent) office, with “solopreneurs” telecommuting from home or the beach in elastic-waist pants. But many who work independently are discovering alienation lurking behind the home-office fantasy, and an increasing number are joining a new generation of co-working organizations, like Grind, Fueled Collective and NeueHouse — some more exclusive than others. There are work spaces for writers (the Brooklyn Writers Space); for design types and bloggers (Studiomates, in Dumbo); and scores for tech entrepreneurs, including ones that double as continuing-ed campuses (General Assembly, which opened in New York in 2011, offers classes on subjects like “back-end Web development”).

Though there were grumbles when the Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer did away with her employees’ work-from-home arrangements, maybe she was on to something: many workers are saying they need a hive to be happy and productive.

One is Rebekah Epstein, who used to run a public relations agency out of her home in Austin, Tex., with only her dachshund, Dixie, whose barking once forced Ms. Epstein into a dark coat closet as she carried out a sensitive negotiation by phone with a client. Frustrated, she joined a local space called Link Coworking, which offers birthday drinks, mixers and potluck dinners to members, as well as colleagues to look presentable for. “It seems like a small thing,” Ms. Epstein said. “But getting dressed for work makes a huge difference.”

Ivory Chafin-Blanchard, a Web producer in Brooklyn who similarly wearied of working in a bathrobe and sunglasses on her sun-drenched terrace, had another complaint.

“When you don’t have to commute, and you’ve got a demanding workload, it is very hard to switch off,” said Ms. Chafin-Blanchard, 32. At home, she added, “if I wasn’t working, I felt guilty.”

She spent so many hours “on” that she tried to make her home office physically uncomfortable — installing a hard, upright chair and a glass desk — to keep her from spending too many hours there. “I had to depersonalize my house,” she said.

Last September, she gave up and joined Grind, a so-called “work space for free-range humans,” a “22nd century platform” on Park Avenue South that opened with a minimalist-chic interior in 2011, promising to “help talent collaborate in a new way: outside the system.” (Or in front of the vending machine, where Ms. Chafin-Blanchard said she met someone who is now a partner in her business.)

Ever since the futurist Alvin Toffler painted utopian images of the “electronic cottage” in his 1980 book, “The Third Wave,” professionals have imagined trading committee meetings and soul-crushing commutes for a life of self-directed fulfillment. The percentage of American workers who work exclusively from home, while still small, grew by 37 percent between 1997 and 2010, to 6.6 percent, according to one Census Bureau survey. While estimates vary widely on the number of millions who make up Freelance Nation, as of 2009, more than 15 million workers in the United States listed themselves as self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it seems the work-from-home dream was not all it was cracked up to be. There are now nearly 800 commercial co-working facilities in the United States, up from a little more than 300 only two years ago, and about 40 in 2008, according to an annual survey by Deskmag, an online magazine that covers the co-working industry.

Surely it wasn’t the fluorescent lights and office politics they were missing? But Tierney O’Dea Booker, 37, who ran a media consultancy out of her home in Austin before joining Link, pointed out that there can be a positive side to the latter. “The workplace is essentially gameified, with points and obstacles, rewards, pitfalls and allies,” she said. “When you’re alone, you have to make up your own system to self-propel. It’s easy to set the bar at the wrong level for yourself on a daily basis, either by not pushing yourself hard enough or too hard, trying to reach an unrealistic goal and feeling inadequate as a result.”

Read the full article at the New York Times

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