Hunkered down in coffee shops with glowing screens and steaming cups
are not college students checking their social media or moms checking their email. These are the digital nomads – freelancers or entrepreneurs. They’ve escaped their cramped home offices and uncomfortable chairs to crank out a new business proposal or report to a client.
Now, the next step. Instead of dealing with the din that is a public space, purposefully designed workplaces for these sometimes solitary workers have been appearing across the Upstate as part of a global trend: co-working.
Rather than sharing a table with a coffeehouse stranger, a co-worker shares space with fellow freelancers or entrepreneurs. They work with each other in the same space and sometimes on the same projects. Co-working spaces offer a place to work and meet clients, typically for a rental fee. Workers can keep flexible hours, share common areas and many times collaborate.
And the movement is building. According to Deskmag.com, a site devoted to co-working and its settings, two-thirds of co-working spaces surveyed in 2012 are considering expanding.
Near the train station in downtown Greenville is CoWork Railside, a dedicated space for nearly 30 workers in a former general store used by railroad staff. Matthew Smith, a designer and cofounder of the Iron Yard, took over the space that was once Crescent Studios and now helps manage it. CoWork became part of the Iron Yard in 2012. Owner Trey Cole Design Group, which also has an office in CoWork, renovated the building.
When you walk into the open, warm space with exposed wood beams, brick walls and plenty of windows, at the forefront is a bar with high-tech coffee machine. There’s also a common conference room – complete with a disco ball. In the adjoining room are traditional desks and standing desks for the co-workers. Two round rooms with doors are available for small meetings and private phone calls.
Co-working offers a flexible workspace along with community and collaboration for freelancers and entrepreneurs, Smith says. The members of CoWork are “well-experienced, talented designers, developers – people involved in the creative industry and business,” he said.
Membership is at varying levels, ranging from “tips” to $300 per month for full-time members. Drop-in workers and monthly Café Members get access to Wi-Fi and common spaces while full-time members get a desk to call their own and a computer monitor.
“We let the community aspect of co-work be handled by the co-workers,” says Smith. “It’s a very cooperative environment in that way.”
Leaving Corporate for Café
In CoWork’s café area, Rob Wright works creating iOS projects for Apple and Java. Smith explains that after working together on a few projects, Smith later convinced Wright to quit his job of 15 years to go out on his own. Wright lives in Anderson and had commuted to Taylors for 12 years.
Wright says co-working suits him. “For me, café membership is good because I don’t want to be at home every day all day, but also don’t want to commute to Greenville every day, so it’s a good compromise for me.”
Wright says collaboration happens because he is not isolated in the home office. “It’s a great community to bounce ideas off of to get feedback. Everyone has an opinion and there are very few quiet people here.”
He says if he ever returns to a corporate setting, he would use the CoWork group as a source for talent. “For a town the size of Greenville, this is super-unique. It’s a gem, really.”
Smith says his co-working space is unique because they have had many members stay for a number of years.
“Many co-working spaces across the country are set up for transients. We’re not set up that way. We want people to build businesses and keep them here,” he says. Members are accepted at first on a trial basis. They aren’t interviewed, but come in to work for a month to see how it suits them and how the relationship evolves.
“We all get along really, really well, and we’ve got a ton of personalities here, from the super-quiet guy all the way to loudmouths,” he says. That’s an important reality to remember, because while there are ways to escape engagement, “your headphones are the closest thing to a closed door you can get” in the open office plan, he added.
Freedom to Re-Think
Though the dress code and atmosphere are relaxed, Smith says the members are very professional and some of the most talented people in their fields, some speaking internationally on their specialties. “Most of us have great productivity here. You also need that freedom to think and rethink about what you’re working on.”
Janice Antley, a designer who owns Mighty Mouse Productions, is currently the only female at CoWork Railside. She says she was happy to join after years of working solo. “I worked from home for 15 years – like in a vacuum, in a box – and you feel stagnant. I came here and was learning new things, meeting new people and have better resources because everyone is in-house together.”
Dodd Caldwell, who works on tech products like instant websites for nonprofits and a system for recurring online payments, was headed out the door to work at the coffee shop for a change of scenery. One advantage of co-work “is that you have a lot of creative juices, but some days the headphones are enough and some days you have to get out,” he says.
CoWork members will soon have additional venues for that change of scenery, The Forge on Main Street in Greenville and The Mill in downtown Spartanburg, both due to open this spring, Smith says. “We believe that everyone needs to get out of the office and if this is your office, you still need to get out sometimes.”
Tenants and Collaborators
Co-working came out of a series of developments rather than a grand design for the 55-year-old architectural firm Craig Gaulden Davis, says Ed Zeigler, president. The firm employed 40 people before the 2008 economic downturn, but now has 14 on staff.
In 2011, the interior design studio, located on the ground floor of the 8,000-square foot building, moved upstairs. “When we started getting smaller, we decided to integrate our two studios: the architecture and the interior design,” says Zeigler.
The relocation energized the design staff – while it had regularly met with the architectural staff before, the change in proximity boosted collaboration, he says. This new synergy, however, left an entire floor vacant.
Searching for a way to fill it, the firm spread the word that there was space available and soon had a former staffer, residential designer Mel Dias, using one of the three ground-floor conference rooms as his office. Dias, who had been working out of his home, loves the arrangement.
Dias’s specialties don’t overlap with the larger firm, but complement each other, as does the other group who took over the former interior design studio, Blue Water Civil Design. Blue Water moved into the building with seven employees in October 2011.
The three companies sometimes collaborate on jobs and are often able to answer the others’ questions about their specialties, says Dias. They also share some equipment like teleconferencing gear, copy machines and the plotter for drawing.
And in the corner of the second floor sits a part-time co-worker: Vernon Trice, owner of VET1 IT Consulting. He’s a contractor who works on the firm’s computers, but Craig Gaulden Davis provides him with a workstation when he comes in once a week. Trice says he appreciates one of his clients offering him a base of operations. “I really enjoy this space,” he adds.
“It’s given our whole office sort of a boost, to have more people in the building and to have different disciplines in the building,” says Zeigler. “Each of us has brought each other work since we’ve been in the building together.”
Jason Henderson of Blue Water Civil Design says he and his partners had worked out of their homes before sharing the space at Craig Gaulden Davis. He’s now a fan of co-working and calls it “definitely a unique opportunity.”
Though Blue Water Civil Design had worked on a few projects for the architectural firm, they have done more since moving into the building and would like to continue, says Blue Water partner Lynn Solesbee.
“They will come and ask about a civil issue on a project that we may or may not be involved in. We’ll offer some free advice and try to send some architectural work their way when we get a chance,” he says. “I think it’s mutually beneficial.”