Boom in shared office spaces -- yeah, that'll work

Forgoing my $1.75 "rent" for a toasted bagel to sit at a cafe and write, I accepted an invitation last week to visit the hive at 55, one of the many shared work spaces for freelancers that have popped up during our recession hangover. Fancy digs. Lounge. Conference room. Thirteen-story view of downtown Manhattan. I could get used to this.

With more laid-off and independent workers seeking an alternative to doing business at home, the number of co-working offices has increased by 60% in the past year to more than 200 nationwide, according to Steve King from the trendspotting firm Emergent Research.
Although not as cheap as a coffee shop, the fees are reasonable, the surroundings more professional, and you're in like-minded company, King said. And Wi-Fi is free.

The hive at 55 opened Dec. 1. I spent the day there to see how the other pink-slipped half lived. Loved the cherry red couch, exposed ceilings, free fax and copier, and free coffee. Prices range from $25 for one day to $500 a month for 24/7 access-- close to the going rate in most big cities.

"The home office was wearing thin because I'm a social being," said Elizabeth Savage, a facilitator of books for the sight-impaired who moved in recently.

Bill Aurnhammer, an iPhone application consultant, had worked at home for eight years, complaining that the line between habitat and job had blurred. Calvin Yee, an executive consultant, liked the value of his three-day-a-month plan. "If you shake your couch hard enough, you'll find $50," Yee said.

The hive at 55 is about 25% booked, estimated Daria Siegel, director of the facility. But the vacancy rate will likely shrink, as other recently established freelance sanctuaries have shown.

Office Nomads
in Seattle opened in September and quickly filled about 60% of its desks each day, said Alexandra Kruse, Nomads' community cultivator. From urban planners to ornithologists, the "residence members" desire a social infrastructure foremost, she said.

"Most of these people have come to Office Nomads because coffee shops weren't working as conference rooms and their kitchen table wasn't feeding their creativity," Kruse said.

Jerome Chang opened BlankSpaces in Los Angeles in April 2008. Enrollment has steadily risen since. Asked how he addresses the problem of loquacious co-workers, Chang replied, "We support white noise so that if only a couple of people speak, it can be loud, but when many people speak, it's actually 'quieter'." (The Hive, by the way, has "quiet rooms" or chatting and cell-squawking areas.)

Other companies are competing for independent workers on a much grander scale. Regus offers 1,001 offices in 75 countries, including some locations at swanky metropolitan addresses. The company's website advertises global access plans starting as low as $69 a month for shared space and $99 a month for a private office. The rates go up from there depending on usage, location and a la carte requests, such as conference rooms.

Jeff Doughman, the central region vice president, said the company typically caters to "road warriors." "We try to leverage our ubiquity," he said.

Usually when I walk into a highrise with marble walls, I'm wearing a $5 tie and I'm about to proofread insurance forms. Spending the day at a place like the Hive made me feel like a big shot.

I think I'll go get a cup of that free coffee.
Read Full Story