Entering CoworkBuffalo feels a bit like joining a late night study session in a college library.
A few young professionals huddle around a hub of IKEA tables with their headphones on, their heads down, their eyes fixed to their laptops. Aside from occasional small talk, it’s quiet enough to hear the clicking of computer mice. If it weren’t for the computers, you would think the place is attempting a retro vibe. One of the white walls is checkered with vinyl records, brought in from a yard sale. A wooden phone booth occupies one corner, should anyone need a moment’s privacy.
But despite all appearances, CoworkBuffalo is the epitome of a 21st century workplace. It has no cubicles, no water cooler, no punch clocks, no bosses or managers. Each co-worker is working on a different project, for a different client, who is probably in a different city or time zone. For its members, CoworkBuffalo isn’t an office so much as a home away from home – a home, that is, where they actually can get some work done.
“This space works for pretty much anybody who can work from a laptop,” said co-founder Kevin Purdy, a freelance technology writer. “We’re really happy to have created a space for Buffalo’s small, growing, but disconnected tech community.”
CoworkBuffalo, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in May, is a public workspace for people looking to get out of their normal office or, in many cases, create a normal office for themselves. Its regulars are writers, programmers, entrepreneurs, designers, free-lancers, the self-starters and the self-employed. While the autonomy of these jobs might sound enticing, the popular phrase “remote workers” is dead-on, as this wired-in work leaves out the collaboration, concentration and work/life separation that are standard for office jobs of old. At CoworkBuffalo, the city’s new media workers have a stable environment away from crying children and whirring espresso machines and the temptations of television. They can work alone, together.
In the local tech community, “everyone was clamoring for a place like this,” said co-founder Nick Quaranto, a programmer for the Chicago-based website 37signals. Before CoworkBuffalo started, its founders – Brian Fending, Dan Magnuszewski, Purdy and Quaranto, all in their late 20s or 30s – were familiar with the deficiencies of mobile work. For the past few years, each of them kept busy with a slew of programming, writing and entrepreneurial gigs. It’s the kind of work that pays the bills and requires some teamwork, but still doesn’t resemble the average full-time job. After years of struggling to concentrate at home or connect to the Wi-Fi in bustling coffee shops, they felt their fellow remote workers could use something better.
“Working from home really stinks,” said Purdy, a onetime Buffalo News intern and correspondent who also founded the annual TedxBuffalo conference. “It’s great sometimes, but then you start wanting ice cream at 11 in the morning. And then anyone can call you and ask, ‘Hey, I bought some stuff from Target, can you help me move?’ And you’re like, ‘No – I’m working.’ ” At CoworkBuffalo, he said he enjoys what he calls a “ ‘Mad Men,’ ’50s-style” schedule: “I come here, do my job and go home.”
After looking at about a dozen spaces last year, the founders settled on a second-floor suite (at 225 Delaware Ave., Suite 10) that is, perhaps poetically, right above a Spot Coffee. Purdy said that they “started with nothing,” bringing only a few tables and chairs. A year after opening, CoworkBuffalo remains simple by design. There’s the phone booth, a corner table for making coffee and tea, a printer, two refrigerators, free Wi-Fi and little else. Even after adding a second room for meetings and conference calls, the whole space is still half the size of most CEO offices. It isn’t much, and for its loyal visitors, that’s why it works.
“When I come here, I know I’ll get work done,” said Colleen Dunham, a member who runs her own book indexing service. Dunham is an early riser, preferring to get to CoworkBuffalo around 8 a.m., before anyone else settles in. Once the day picks up, though, she thrives on the communal spirit. “When people are working hard, I feel like I’m going to work hard. It helps me focus to have other people around.”
Plus, there’s an economic incentive, since a spot at CoworkBuffalo comes at a price: $10 a day, $75 for a 10-visit pass and $100 for monthly membership. As Dunham learned, “you’re wasting money if you’re wasting time,” she says.
Paying $100 for a seat at an IKEA table might sound crazy to those who can return to the same desk every morning. But long before co-working came to Buffalo, it was clearly in high demand. In the last decade, as desk jobs and 9-to-5 workdays become relics of an analogue past, a worldwide trend of co-working has flourished.
According to a March survey by Deskmag, an online co-working magazine, there are nearly 2,500 co-working spaces around the world and almost 900 in the United States alone, more than any other country. Most are not as modest as CoworkBuffalo, which relies on word-of-mouth promotion and usually houses less than 10 workers a day. In cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, some co-working spaces match the grandiosity of a corporate headquarters, with cafes, kitchens, ping-pong tables and rooms for pets. Regardless of size, though, each co-working spot shares a simple mission: giving an old-fashioned sense of order and belonging to an increasingly independent workforce.
A co-working space is “like an office without all the politics and B.S.,” said David Moffitt, founder of Coworking Rochester, which opened there in 2009. “You can get all your work done with people and go out and get a beer afterward, without worrying about the hierarchy and all that.” Moffitt adds that, whatever benefits one sees in working at home or by themselves, co-working has one major advantage: “There’s just more camaraderie.”
That camaraderie has already coalesced at CoworkBuffalo. In lieu of any formal code of conduct, the place operates on an honor system of unwritten rules and unspoken trust. Although it is officially open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, monthly members get their own keys, so they can work as early or late as they need. Regular workers pack lunches for the day, keep their favorite coffees and teas in stock and ship personal packages to the suite, where they are kept on shelves until the owners retrieve them. When workers are wearing headphones, everyone else abides by an in-house mantra: “Respect the headphones,” or in other words, leave them alone.
Over time, co-founder Fending said he discerned a more subtle sign of companionship: While the workers could sit anywhere in the two rooms, they “tend to cluster” as close as possible, rather than isolate themselves with their work. Proximity seems to boost productivity. It also allows for easy conversation, advice on projects and kudos for accomplishments, as when one member recently announced a new programming job.
“It felt like one of our members graduated college,” Purdy recalled.
That member is Brian Borncamp, a 24-year-old programmer who worked remotely for a Web development company in Minnesota. After moving back to Buffalo last year, Borncamp tried working at home, and said it was “draining, and it gets kind of lonely.” He tried a few days in a coffee shop, and found it “almost unworkable.” But since coming to CoworkBuffalo in September, he’s remained a devoted co-worker – something that won’t change after accepting an offer for a Texas-based cloud company.
“At CoworkBuffalo, I can change companies as many times as I want but still have the same social group,” Borncamp says. “That’s just not how it works somewhere else.”