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Originally published Sunday, October 2, 2011 at 2:57 PM

Shared work space gaining popularity

It's a growing trend, this practice called "co-working" — where contractors, consultants, bloggers and others of the self-employed tribe rent desk space, private workstations or small offices in a common space complete with Wi-Fi, copiers, coffee and the other accouterments of office life.

San Jose Mercury News

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In the next Silicon Valley boom — and let's hope to God there is a next valley boom — the story is not going to be one of improbable startups that launched in someone's garage. Instead, the story is going to be of improbable startups that launched in some semichaotic communal work space where free agents toiled side by side with other free agents they didn't know from Adam.

It's been a growing trend for some time, this practice called "co-working" — where contractors, consultants, bloggers and others of the self-employed tribe rent desk space, private workstations or small offices in a common space complete with Wi-Fi, copiers, coffee and the other accouterments of office life. There are serious economic and technological reasons driving the arrangement, but the most important thing about it may be what it says about us.

It turns out that no matter the marvels of mobile phones, the fabulousness of Facebook or the wonders of the webinar, many human beings need to be around other human beings to feel truly productive. We need each other for ideas, encouragement, conversation and the occasional good-natured razzing. It's why we work. OK, money is why we work. But it's why we can enjoy coming to work.

"You get isolated spending day after day by yourself," says Brad Cammon, who spent months working from home on Jamgrams, his electronic greeting-card startup. "You really start to lose it."

Remember when working from home was the thing? We were freed from the bonds of our office cubicles by advances in computing, telephony and networking. Now there is something of a backlash, resulting in places like NextSpace, the 3-month-old downtown San Jose, Calif., co-working center where Cammon has relocated much of his work life.

He is among those who have crawled out of their home offices in search of better working conditions. Some tried Starbucks as an alternative and found it lacking. They now "want to have someone to say 'hi' to in the morning, and not just the barista," says Gretchen Knight Baisa, who manages NextSpace's San Jose location, the fourth the company has opened in California.

Co-working, which appears to have started on the West Coast, has spread nationwide in recent years. While growth statistics are hard to come by, you can look at NextSpace's experience as an indicator. The company has opened four locations in three years, while landing about $630,000 in angel investment, says NextSpace CEO Jeremy Neuner.

It stands to reason that the practice would be increasing, says Santa Clara University management professor Terri Griffith, at a time when traditional jobs are disappearing and workers are becoming far more comfortable with the technology required to build an untethered workforce.

You'll find some of these workers on the first floor of the historic Lion Building at Second and San Fernando streets in San Jose. About 40 members pay $175 to $2,500 a month to sit at tables and cubicles in an open room, or to occupy a few small offices along the walls.

And while they are focused on creating, launching, promoting, growing and succeeding at their own things, they find time for each other.

When a client of information-technology consultant Tina Burke needs some fill-in workers, Burke turns to Balance Professional & Technical Resources, a temporary staffing agency situated in the office across the room. When Todd Wilkinson's WordWatch, which helps small businesses with AdWord campaigns, needs Web hosting services, Burke, whose Ayuda Networks is a reseller for Rackspace, connects him with the cloud company.

"It's good for them. It's good for us," Burke says. "We're able to help one another out."

The move to common work spaces is all about connections — for commerce and companionship. There are happy hours at NextSpace complete with pomegranate martinis. There are brown-bag lunches and late-night runs to the taco truck. Walk around the NextSpace office and you'll hear stories of the importance of those connections.

"After one year of working at home, I had to get out," says Elastic Digital CEO Cameron Avery. "I had to save my marriage." OK, he's joking. But there is something about being surrounded by others who are working and focused on business and interested in your challenges and who might even have ideas about how to surmount them.

"I'd never get that sitting at home," says Avery, whose company creates digital tools to drive sales. "All I get is wonderful artwork from my 6-year-old, which is food for the soul." But it isn't something you can easily monetize.

Which is not to say that money is everything. It's just to say that pomegranate martinis aside, this is a workplace. And in the end, that's something many industrious worker need.

Mike Cassidy is a columnist with the San Jose Mercury News.

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