The Leap from Jelly to Coworking: How to Choose a Space

For a week, from January 16 - 22, indie workers around the world are getting together for Worldwide Jellyweek. A Jelly is the perfect litmus test for freelancers, mobile workers, and startups figuring out whether they’ll enjoy working in collaborative work environments (check out this "Guide to Casual Coworking" for tips on working at a Jelly). But if you’re already hooked on the idea, and want something more structured, the natural next step is to road test a local coworking space.

While coworking spaces share the same tenets of community, collaboration, openness, sustainability and accessibility as Jellies, they offer the casual coworker more options.

When deciding on a coworking space, shopping around can be tough. Choosing a coworking space is essentially a “Goldilocks Dilemma”— you won’t really know a space is perfect and just right for you until you try it. And even then it may sometimes take a few trials before you find the space that’s perfect for you.

Consider your work style, personality, and work requirements. Will you need private spaces and conference rooms to hold meetings? Do you prefer to be around people working in the same industry? Do you need your own dedicated desk or do you plan occasional drop-ins only? Do you require state-of-the-art lighting or 24-hour access? Do you work better in small or big groups? How tolerant are you of noise?

Based on research for Working in the UnOffice: A Guide to Coworking (Night Owls Press, 2011), we've compiled a checklist of factors to consider when choosing your ideal space:

#1 Type of community. With the plethora of coworking spaces around, you’re bound to find one— or several— that will suit your needs and go with your personality and preferences. Each coworking space also has its own culture and ambience. Choose wisely. The main types of spaces are incubators, workshops/D-I-Y/hacker spaces, social enterprise and nonprofit coworking spaces, industry-specific/niche spaces, coworking spaces for established businesses, and satellite spaces that focus on telecommuters.

#2 Industry requirements. What you need in a coworking space will also depend on whether you’re a graphic designer, journalist/writer, in IT/Tech, a consultant, or social enterprise or nonprofit. What type of work do you do? When you’re spoiled for choices, what you do now will help you determine which coworking space would be ideal for you and your business or organization. Looking for coworking space based on the particular needs of your industry is critical.

#3 Membership costs and plans. Open or dedicated desk? Month-to-month or pay as you go? In general, coworking spaces offer differing membership levels based on space, time, access, and combinations thereof. Different spaces have different names for their plans and packages so make sure to study the details in case you need to make a comparison between spaces.

Membership fees can also range from free to $200-800 per month per person or for small teams of up to 2-4 people. Take a good look at your work habits, and your current needs, so you can identify which membership package suits you the best.

#4 Membership turnover. Membership numbers can fluctuate in coworking spaces as new people come in and current members expand and move out. On one hand, high turnover rates can be seen as a sign of instability at a space or that the community is in flux; on the other hand, it can signal that a space attracts and cultivates superstars that are steadily expanding and find they have little choice but to “graduate” and leave for bigger, greener pastures.

Many businesses and organizations also see coworking as an intermediate step in their life cycle. If they’re looking for a temporary place to run their operations, test the waters of their business model and viability as companies, coworking can provide the accessible desk space and the necessary office facilities with minimal risks.

#5 Stability and longevity of the space. Businesses and organizations looking for rock-solid foundations to roost should also research the reputation and traction of the spaces they are considering— particularly given the trend of many coworking spaces going belly up as they struggle to fill desks. Younger, fledging spaces often worry about profitability to survive. What if the space you sign up for suddenly goes bust? One of the biggest reasons for a space to close is that it can’t meet the membership threshold to cover the rent and keep the lights on.

Still, for many spaces, community takes precedence before any concerns about long-term viability. They want to push a movement, not turn profits. There are those who advocate for community first— and for many first generation coworking spaces, the primary objective has been cultivating that community.

#6 Access to multiple locations. If access to a network of spaces is important to you, try coworking spaces that have locations in multiple cities. A lot of spaces are expanding as ‘franchises’ to other locations, rather than creating a giant single space. The Hub, Next Space, Gangplank, pariSoma Innovation Loft are a few spaces that are rolling out multiple sites with different models. Each community is linked across the network of their particular coworking brand, like a series of embassies belonging to the same country, with each adopting its own unique look and feel and catering to different populations. One caveat: with franchise models of coworking, there is a challenge in replicating the basic essence of a space and then letting it evolve organically into its own micro-community.

#7 Diversity of the community. A bigger, more diverse membership can transform and energize a community. Ask about industry representation at the space. Who’s coworking there and what do they do?

#8 Accessibility, amenities, and programming. Before making the final decision, here are a few more factors to consider:

9-to-5 vs. 24-hour accessibility. 24/7 access to the workspace usually comes with the highest level of membership. Members are often given keys, swipe cards, or pass codes. Limited access is usually cheaper.

- Size and density of the space. Find out how many members there are (permanent and casual) and how big the space is (square footage)— and then do the math. Will you feel cramped? Size and density of a space will affect the noise levels and level of privacy. Find out what’s important to you and your business.

- Look-and-feel and layout. When shopping for a space, prospective members want to look for a place that not only looks and feels right, but also provides the creative environment where they can thrive. Does the space invite collaboration? Does it reinvent the office in creative ways? Does the space reflect your personal brand?

- Right equipment and amenities. Free WiFi internet is usually standard. What else do you need? Whiteboards? Printers? Other business services? Gourmet coffee on tap?

- Access to private spaces and conference rooms. If you need to present to a client or require a more contained team brainstorming session, meeting rooms come in handy. Check if there are enclosed private areas (e.g. some spaces offer noise-proof “phone booths”) and conference rooms where you can host client meetings face-to-face and/or over Skype and videochat.

- Programming and events offered. Probably one the best reasons to join a coworking space: the networking opportunities and activities offered. How do its members interact? To further build community and collaboration, coworking spaces organize different events ranging from brown bag lunches and networking nights with different experts and sponsors, to workshops on resume writing or Ruby on Rails to fun outings and socials. Programming can be fun and whimsical or educational and practical in focus.

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