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Coworking spaces: traditional office, low overhead

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 27, 2010 - There’s something to be said for a traditional work routine of commuting downtown, entering a high-rise office building and chatting with coworkers before settling in for the day. That’s a new possibility for the people who will occupy a 10,000-square-foot room inside the Shell Building beginning Aug. 2.

But little else will be traditional about the office environment at Saint Louis Coworking. Weekday hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday), and 9-to-5 schedules will hardly be the norm. Cell phones and laptops, not landlines and desktops, will be the office tools of choice. And most notably, the majority of people who gather at a coffee machine will be coworkers only in spirit -– they will represent a range of careers, companies and causes.

Welcome to the world of coworking, where freelancers, part-time workers, the self-employed and start-up principals trade in their temporary work spaces at coffee shops and living rooms for a shared office.

Cities across the country increasingly offer this collaborative working arrangement, and St. Louis is about to get its first coworking space inside a sizable commercial building. Mike Tomko, chief technology officer for the marketing agency Scorch, is working with Chris Buehler, the company’s chief executive, and officials with the Shell Building (which owns the space) to ready the 11th floor for its coworking debut next week.

The office has an industrial feel -– with exposed beams, high ceilings and an open floor plan. The room is dotted with desks, tables, couches and cabinets. There are 47 windows that collectively offer a near-panoramic view of downtown St. Louis.

Tomko said he’s always wanted to help establish a coworking space and has spent the past year researching collaborative ventures in other cities.

“You don’t need to have an office to have a business, but it validates what you’re doing,” Tomko said at the end of a recent tour of the coworking space. “The analogy I like to use is if you’re a couple you don’t need to get married, but it legitimizes the relationship.”

Coworking Options Expand

Saint Louis Coworking is set to be the largest collaborative work space in St. Louis, but it isn’t the only one. Jason Deem, owner of the development company South Side Spaces, bought a building on the corner of Cherokee Street and Jefferson Avenue in December and has since been working to renovate it into a coworking space.

Cherokee Nebula is on the second floor of the building, which has Family Dollar as the ground-floor tenant. The 12,000-square-foot facility has 25 offices, the majority of which are 15-by-15 foot enclosed spaces. A range of artists, graphic designers and web programmers already occupy some of the offices. Other rooms in building have recently been renovated and are ready for workers.

Deem said the idea is to provide space for independent contractors, small-business owners and other creative types, as well as to “encourage collaborative projects among people who are trying to enhance the Cherokee Street neighborhood.”

Private offices at Cherokee Nebula go for $250 a month, which includes utilities, Wi-Fi and access to a kitchen and other common areas. Deem said he’s also considering opening up the space to drop-in guests who want to come less frequently. The facility is open at all hours and has an on-site manager.

A renovated South St. Louis home has been another coworking site. At its peak, about 10 people regularly set up shop inside the Carondelet property that included a guest house. Lisa Rokusek, who owns the home and runs a recruiting and staffing business , offered free Wi-Fi and desk space for guests who worked in the house. People who came there often traded marketing or public relations services for the free work space. (There were no set charges for office time.)

“I’m a very collaborative person and I noticed that when people are doing freelance work or have their own business, it can get very lonely,” Rokusek said. “It’s nice to have a space where folks can work on their own projects but also have a sense of collegiality.”

Many of the people who came to the house found jobs with a permanent office. Rokusek said she’s recently been more focused on developing her business than on maintaining the coworking operation, which is now dormant.

Rokusek hosts a web page for people who are interested in learning about casual coworking arrangements. And said she’s glad that the coworking options in St. Louis are expanding.

Groundwork for New Work Space

Tomko and Buehler, consultants on the coworking venture, are signing up people to work in the space inside the Shell Building, 1221 Locust St. They expect web designers, marketing consultants, artists and bloggers to be among the early adopters of Saint Louis Coworking. Tomko posted official word about the space’s opening last Monday, and by the next day roughly 40 people had expressed an interest.

Tomko said he expects a mix of members who want to work there as little as once and as often as six days a week. The infrequent worker might “want to get out of the house and be around people or come after leaving another office for the day,” he said. Those coming four or five days a week are likely to be freelancers or people getting set to start a personal business. Tomko expects the most frequent users of the space to be those with established businesses. People who are the only St. Louis-based employees of large companies are also likely to use the space, he said.

“In this economy, being able to have a place where you can send workers without having to sign a lease, pay for utilities and buy office equipment can be a real draw,” Tomko said. Saint Louis Coworking has several types of membership plans. For $450 a month, workers get a U-shaped workstation dedicated to them. There’s a wired internet drop and power at each desk, along with a file cabinet. Those who get this dedicated space have access to the building’s conference rooms, as well as faxing, printing and mail collection and forwarding. A $300-a-month option allows people to have half of the dedicated workstation and the same amenities. There are 24 of the U-shaped stations in the room.

Drop-in members pay $100 a month for access to open work and common areas. Several tables are in prime locations near windows, but there’s no guaranteed seating, and the use of conference rooms and some of the office machines cost extra. People wanting to use the space less often can pay $15 a visit.

Tomko said Saint Louis Coworking will take part in a program in which members of coworking offices in other cities can work in the St. Louis space for free, and members from St. Louis can work in other cities that have such arrangements.

Buehler, who founded Scorch in 2009, said he’s worked both in his house and in collaborative spaces and prefers the latter. (The company has an office on a different floor inside the Shell Building and markets the commercial high-rise.)

“The coworking movement is about collaborating with people,” he said. “It’s a great place for impromptu brainstorming sessions. If you need creative minds for projects, it’s the kind of place to find people who are willing to help. It’s also a place with the kind of energy you can’t get at a coffee house.”

Saint Louis Coworking also plans to offer regular programs for the people who use the space. The first event, “Geek Night,” is Wednesday and will be targeted at web programmers and developers.

Tomko acknowledged that the coworking arrangement isn’t for everyone -– including people who like to work in silence or don’t want to be in close proximity to others. But plenty of people enjoy the shared work environment. Lori White, a new media strategist who recently moved to New York, said she wishes that a collaborative office in downtown had been available when she lived in St. Louis.

White, a former freelancer in marketing, often worked at coffee shops, the Royale and the Mud House on Cherokee Street. She became interested in having a dedicated shared workspace after a mentor opened a coworking office in San Francisco.

“It always seemed to me that there were serendipitous meetings happening online, but not so much offline in St. Louis,” White said. “There’s been a need for a community hub, like something you’d get inside a barber shop or a bar. Except in this place you’re talking about commerce. ‘I need help with this project, or you should pitch that to a company.’”

White said she considered opening a coworking space in St. Louis but never got around to it. She plans to work at Saint Louis Coworking when she visits over Labor Day.

James Macanufo, who works for a design consultancy founded in St. Louis, said when he travels for business he's always in search of a place to work that's not a hotel lobby or coffee shop.

"I haven't found the right spot yet, but I'm intrigued by the idea of running into people in your field or in another discipline who share your interests and want to share ideas," he said. "Interesting things happen in these places."

Although Macanufo has a permanent office in St. Louis, he said he's glad to see a coworking scene starting to develop here.

Elia Powers, a former Beacon staffer, is going to graduate school. 

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