More Americans are freelancing, and a growing number of them are choosing not to work from their kitchen tables.
An increasing number of co-working spaces are popping up as a result, and commercial real-estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle expects that the growth of the office-space niche will continue over the next few years. These are shared office spaces — often with free refreshments — that provide a place to work among other people, often hosting happy hours and networking events as well, said Julia Georgules, director of research for the office sector at Jones Lang LaSalle.
Those amenities don’t come cheap: Cost at a co-working space averages $139 per square foot per year, compared with $49.59 per square foot for a traditional space in a central business district. Assuming that a person uses an average 50 square feet of space, that’s $6,950 for a co-working space annually. But there are various levels of membership, and terms can be flexible. For example, at WeWork, a company that operates co-working offices, an unassigned space at one of its offices in Chicago’s central business district starts at $400 a month ($4,800 a year), while a dedicated desk starts at $520 a month ($6,240 a year) and a private office starts at $750 a month ($9,000 a year).
“People see value in that,” Georgules said. “That’s the whole sharing economy — everything’s built up of networks.” And freelancers are willing to invest in their small businesses to make those connections in person, and not just over the internet, she added.
It’s also no wonder then that a recent “Tomorrow’s Workplace” competition, sponsored by Staples Business Advantage and Metropolis magazine, produced both first- and second-place winners that focused on serving this particular group of workers. Submissions were to focus on what the workplace would look like in 2021.
The first place entry designed a flexible workspace in a large “naturally occurring retirement community” in Manhattan, the residential co-op Penn South.
The structure would include the office space, a cafe and a day-care center, and plenty of parking for food trucks. A courtyard would separate the workspaces from the day care, and would also create a “multigenerational crossover space” where parents could hang out with their kids on breaks. There would be intimate meeting spaces and lounging pods on the second floor, where users could relax or engage in group work. Other conveniences include workspaces with plug-and-play monitors and keyboards, access to printing, 3-D printing and conferencing technology. All workspaces would have access to natural light, as well as glare control.
But its location, near many retirees, is the real star of this concept. Many people of retirement age are working longer, either because they want to or they need to financially. And their involvement at this workplace would give it a multigenerational feel that is often missing from today’s co-working spaces, typically filled with people in their 20s and 30s.
“You lose something that you have in the traditional office, where you have senior people and interns. You have a work knowledge that goes through the generations and different skills,” said Matthias Neumann, a designer with Ethelind Coblin in New York, which won the competition. A diversity of workers and generations could create a more enriching experience, he said.
Taking second place was a proposal by designer Jie Zhang that allows workers to truly become digital nomads, with inflatable offices that can be set up practically anywhere. These collapsible structures are insulated, both thermally and acoustically, and offer a futuristic view of how people might work someday. One of Zhang’s submitted diagrams shows a person carrying the inflatable in a shoulder bag. The directions: “arrive,” “unroll” and “inflate.”
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“The inflatable is actually not a new idea; it was already kind of an experimental architectural object from the ’60s by radical design groups from Italy and the University of California, Berkeley. Initially, you could think of them as balloons, and they can inflate, really lightweight.” The inflatables in her design are also technologically enabled, and can be set up anywhere — including vacant parking lots, which Zhang predicts will become less used when driverless cars cause people to ditch their personal automobiles.
It’s also worth noting that while co-working has grown recently, it’s uncertain whether it will continue to grow when the economy faces its next downturn. The co-working industry totaled 27 million square feet of office space this spring, which is just 0.7% of the total U.S. office market, but substantial for a niche that barely existed just years ago, according to a Jones Lang LaSalle report.
Companies like Regus and WeWork dominate the industry, and both have experienced significant growth. “WeWork didn’t exist before 2010, and now they occupy 5 million square feet,” Georgules said. “Between 2013 and 2016, Regis has doubled its locations, and in addition to that acquired a brand called Spaces.”
Co-working space has been available in New York, Chicago and San Francisco for a while, but smaller markets like Charlotte, St. Louis and Northern Virginia are seeing more leasing activity, according to the Jones Lang LaSalle report. Currently, 35% of the workforce is made up of freelancers; the number of freelancers rose to 55 million in 2016, up from 53 million in 2014, according to a recent survey from Upwork, a freelancing website, and Freelancers Union, an organization that represents freelancers.
And because of the unique environment that they offer — allowing employees to engage with people from other fields — some large companies are choosing to occupy a corner of a co-working office so that they can have employees mingle with people from other businesses, Georgules said.
But for the freelance worker in the so-called gig economy, having a place to work — away from home — can be invigorating. Because working from the kitchen table is fun for only so long.
“It’s great for two months. And then you slowly realize that you didn’t even get dressed and you worked all day. The spatial component to go somewhere and work is really important,” Neumann said.