As a freelancer, I often get asked about how I handle the isolation of working home alone. While I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as lonely — the job still requires connecting with people all the time — I do miss having coworkers. Back when I worked in an office that was not also my sunroom, I enjoyed being able to bounce a quick question off of a colleague or brainstorm story ideas or share a funny story. Nowadays, I have to create that peer network on my own. To some extent, social media helps fill that void, but there’s no replacement for talking to people in person.
So, I’ve been curious about whether freelance journalists have embraced the recent trend of “coworking.” For those working in solitude, “coworking” offers an alternative workplace to the home office and the coffee shop. Although they vary from place to place, a “coworking” space usually provides the amenities and collegiality of an office (without the roar of espresso machines), and the chance to mix with a diverse group.
But, I’ve often wondered, are “coworking” spaces more comfortable than coffee shops (or, quiet)? Is the place conducive to networking? Might it yield story ideas? Is it worth the price? To learn more, I spoke with a fellow freelancer, Dan Haugen, a board member for SPJ’s Minnesota Pro Chapter, who, after reporting on “coworking,” became a “coworker” himself.
AP: Can you could say a little about the type of freelance work you do? Do you usually write from home? How often do you ‘cowork’?
DH: I’m a freelance writer who covers business, technology and energy. These days it’s mostly energy reporting. I have a home office in what used to be a mud room between our garage and dining room. It’s a good set up. Ikea desk and bookshelves. A nice big 27-inch iMac. That’s where I’ve worked for most of my six years as a freelancer, but now I spend between one and three days a week working from a coworking space in downtown Minneapolis.
How did you learn about coworking in the first place? What motivated you to give it a try?
I learned about coworking on my beat. I wrote an article about the Twin Cities’ first coworking space, which was created by a technology startup company that I’d written about previously. I continued to write about the coworking trend as a few more spaces opened up around town. The largest one in the Twin Cities is CoCo (short for coworking and collaboration), which has locations in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Where do you go? What factors went into settling into that location? What are the terms?
I go to CoCo’s Minneapolis site, which is on the former trading floor of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. It’s a spectacular space, full of natural light from the four-story, floor-to-ceiling window on either end of the room. They have one-day-a-week memberships for $50 a month, and three days memberships for $150. You bring your own laptop and phone (I used a Skype headset plugged into my MacBook). They provide Internet, printers, coffee, meeting rooms, and other standard office amenities.
I’ve tried a couple others, including CoCo’s St. Paul location, but I’ve found having a convenient location is key. From home it’s about a 25 minute bus or bike commute to downtown Minneapolis, whereas downtown St. Paul could take over an hour with bus transfers. If the commute is a hassle, I’m more likely to stay at home in my sweatpants until noon. Culture is important, too. The three or four coworking spaces I’ve been in have all had their own unique feel, from the architecture to the membership.
As someone who’s been ‘coworking’ for awhile now, how’s it going? What’s it like coworking as opposed to working from home or in a coffee shop? What are the pros and cons?
Great. At home I find it’s easy to slip into bad habits, like spending too much time with “The Daily Show” or Spotify. Working somewhere else even just one day a week helps me break those bad habits and re-focus on my work. Coffee shops work OK for me when all I’m doing is writing or checking email, but they’re usually too noisy to do interviews or make professional phone calls. Plus I always feel guilty for sitting too long and end up spending too much money on refills and pastries I don’t really want. When you think about it that way, coworking really isn’t that much more expensive than coffee shops. My membership averages out to about $10 or $11 a day. I’d spend at least that much if I were camped out at a coffee shop from 8 to 5.
Has coworking helped you in your work?
Another benefit of coworking for me has been the sort of serendipitous interactions that you end up having when you’re working in a roomful of other freelancers and entrepreneurs. I’ve met other freelance writers. I’ve run into freelance communications people who work with companies on my beats. I’ve met inventors who I’ve gone on to write about. I recently overheard someone talking about light bulbs and introduced myself. Turns out people from a startup company that’s developing an app-controlled light bulb socket were working at the table next to me. I ended up writing a story on them as part of my energy beat. And then there’s even more encounters that happen on the sidewalk and in the skyways on the way too and from the coworking office.
One perk I haven’t used but would like to someday is CoCo’s national network. It’s part of an organization called the League of Extraordinary Coworking Spaces that includes about a dozen coworking spaces from coast to coast that honor each others’ memberships. So if I find myself needing to work in Seattle or Los Angeles or New York, I have access to spaces there with my regular CoCo membership.
Do you recommend coworking to others? Any tips for doing so?
If there’s a convenient, affordable coworking space near you where you feel comfortable and productive, then yes! As journalists, it’s so important to be connected to the world, and it can be hard to do that if your only link is a computer. The League of Extraordinary Coworking Spaces is a good starting place, or just Google “coworking” and your city. The first day is free at many coworking sites, so skip around and try a few until you find the one that fits you best.
Like Haugen, I like to get out of my home office but I find it difficult to get much done in coffee shops. Even on “writing days,” with my headphones on, it’s tough to tune out everything that’s going on around me. My neighborhood coffee shop can get noisy, fast. Then, there’s the logistics, like nabbing a table close enough to an electrical outlet to plug my laptop in. I also get nervous about leaving my stuff on the table, should I need to stretch my legs for a moment. Judging by Haugen’s experience, I think I’ll give “coworking” a try. Now, to find a “coworking” spot close to home.
Anna Pratt (Twitter @annapratt) Email
As a staff reporter-turned-freelance journalist, Anna Pratt, who lives in Minneapolis, Minn., has ventured into garbage houses, spent the night in a homeless shelter and witnessed a fistfight in a church basement, all for various stories. Over the past nine years, her byline has appeared in the Star Tribune, The Line, the Southwest Journal, the Minnesota Independent and several suburban and community papers, web publications and broadcast media in the Twin Cities. She’s had many beats, including education, community news, business, development, arts, civil/human rights and immigration. Pratt chairs the programming committee for the award-winning Minnesota Pro Chapter of SPJ and she’s running for president-elect of the chapter. She also serves on the organization’s national programming committee. To read more, visitannaprattjournalist.com.