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members of Workantile co-working space

Working Alone, Together

Co-work spaces are springing up around town. For gig workers, they're "an antidote to loneliness."

by Eve Silberman

From the September, 2019 issue

Soon after the downtown co-working space Workantile opened, a member raided the communal "beer fridge," got drunk, threw up, and passed out. He was awakened by angry members the next morning and expelled--but the frustrated colleagues who'd cleaned up after him insisted it was time to more thoroughly vet newcomers.

Thus emerged the rule requiring prospective members to attend for a week on a trial basis--and to collect three signatures from other members attesting to their collegiality. One man kept aloof all week then tried to bribe people to sign with free coffee. No deal.

Nothing's foolproof, but the change helped weed out "people who are not serious" about sharing a work space, says Sarah Zettel, a Workantile "maintainer," a kind of super volunteer.

On a recent day, about a dozen Workantile members tap on laptops on scattered tables on the first floor of the restored Goodyear Department Store downtown, drawing occasional glances from passersby on Main St.

Zettel recalls her excitement in the summer of 2009 when Workantile's sign appeared in that window. The author of thirty-five books under half a dozen pseudonyms, she'd found working at home both isolating and distracting. She had planted herself at libraries and coffee shops but tired of carrying her laptop on bathroom breaks. At coffee shops, she says "after a certain amount of time you're not a guest, you're an intruder."

Zettel hesitated briefly because of the cost--she recalls it was about $200 a month for full-time access--but joined within a few months. She's now one of fifty-three members, about half of them full time. Though full-time access now costs $225 a month, she says co-working has more than paid for itself: "I went from being able to write one book a year to two or two and a half books."

---

Like Zettel, locals who make their livelihoods on their laptops increasingly are willing to pay for access to a desk in an open office with good WiFi. Currently there are

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about a dozen co-working spaces in Ann Arbor, though some of those mainly rent individual private offices.

Some co-workers are "remote" corporate employees, but more are self-employed or work for start-ups. Techies dominate--there are lots of web designers--but you'll also find marketers, lawyers, nonprofit administrators, and creative types like Zettel.

"What we're seeing is a big movement in the world of work," says U-M Ross School of Business prof Gretchen Spreitzer, who's been following co-working culture. "For manufacturing you have to be on site. For a lot of other jobs, if you have a computer and a phone, you can do your work in any place."

Programmer Brad Neuberg opened what is generally accepted as the first "official" co-working space in the U.S. in 2005 in San Francisco. Ann Arbor came early to the game; both Workantile and the Tech Brewery on Jones Dr. opened in 2009.

Monthly rates vary depending on location, design features, and amenities.

Workantile members keep costs down by doing light cleaning and trash pickup themselves, though dues cover a weekly cleaning service. There are weekly social lunches, a web designer organizes a Dungeons & Dragons game every Friday, and there are occasional wine-tasting and crafting sessions.

While creating a cohesive community is very important to Workantile, says Spreitzer, for behemoths like WeWork, it's more about making money. WeWork's parent company, which operates more than 450 co-working (and traditional office) spaces around the world, was recently valued at $47 billion, and expects to go public as early as this month.

Though the dazzle is dampened by huge operating losses, the numbers reveal how quickly this twenty-first-century option has caught on. Even in less intimate work spaces, says Spreitzer, people respond to the "appeal of working alone--together."

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Next door to the Embassy Hotel on Huron St., the city's largest and most luxurious co-working space is getting its finishing touches. Cahoots occupies three adjacent buildings in the block between Fourth and Fifth avenues, anchored by the exquisite Art Deco facade of the former Kleinschmidt Insurance building.

In late July, Cahoots director Alison Todak gave me a tour that wound through busy work spaces to rooms still under construction where contractors were stirring paint. "The new entrance will look like a high-end hotel lobby," Todak says as we pass the former Kleinschmidt front door.

In mid August, Cahoots already counted 170 members working for thirty-six tech companies. Once construction wraps up this month, amenities will include a cafe featuring Roos Roast coffee; a gym and sauna; a rooftop deck with a bocce ball court; a fireplace; and a Tesla that members can borrow if they need to run out during the day.

For all this, full-time members pay $425 a month; part-timers pay $239. Only full-timers can borrow the Tesla, and the gym costs an extra $20 per month. But unlike Workantile, no one at Cahoots will be asked to take out the garbage.

Recent U-M grad Gus Schlissler and two others work for tiny security startup Circadian Risk (the three of them are half the staff). Before moving to Cahoots, he says, he worked at home for half a year.

"Truth be told, it kinda drove me crazy," Schlissler says. "I remember one time in January where, other than walking the dog, I didn't leave my house for three whole days. I think the separation of home and office life is vital for my sanity."

Cahoots's biggest tenant is artificial intelligence company Clinc. Since its launch in 2015, Clinc has soared from a handful of employees to ninety-some. As it grew, the company just kept renting more and more desks--so many that during construction, they overflowed into a temporary "Clinc Annex" in the City Center Building.

Clinc recently received an investment infusion of $52 million. Co-founder Jason Mars, a U-M computer science prof, told VentureBeat.com that by next year he expects to have 140 people. They probably won't be in Cahoots, though--he told the website that the company is finally looking for a space of its own.

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On quiet Jones Dr. off Plymouth Rd., the Tech Brewery anchors the main floor of the Northern Brewery, whose other tenants include Avalon Housing.

The brick walls and floors carry over from the building's previous life as a foundry and, yes, a brewery. When I crash a happy hour there one recent Friday, building owner Doug Smith happily recalls the work space's fortuitous creation.

A young tech entrepreneur came in disgruntled because he had lost space in another building. Dug Song and Smith chatted, and the idea for the co-working space emerged.

"I was still looking for a regular tenant," Smith recalls, shaking his head at life's vagaries. "It was just one of those casual decisions. They couldn't pay $1,000 a month. They [Song and others] could pay $200 a month!"

The casual ambience of co-work spaces makes it easy to forget that some of the (mostly) young people staring at their screens may be on the track of serious money. Song's venture quickly outgrew co-working. Duo Security had about 700 employees by the time tech giant Cisco purchased it last year--for $2.3 billion.

Song still drops by, Smith says, but he's not among the ten or so people at today's happy hour. All are men, and there's a suggestion of bro-culture in the foosball table in the lobby and (I can't help thinking) in the pile of foil candy wrappers on the counter that could so easily have been tossed.

Manager Scott Goci says, a bit apologetically, that the Tech Brewery's almost forty members include just three or four women, a deficit he attributes to the general shortage of women in tech. Some women make a point of asking about the number of female members at co-working spaces they check out--and several mention enviously that there's an all-women space, Pastel, in Plymouth.

Tech Brewery full-timers pay $225 a month, or $75 for one-day-a-week access. In jeans and shorts, sipping Dr Peppers and beers, the members talk life and shop. "The thing about Spark [the tech incubator on Liberty] is that once you're in, you're in," one says. "But you have to get in."

One older man brought a homemade dessert. He tells me he once rented a desk but now just drops in for camaraderie and maybe job leads. "Did you hear about all the white-collar workers Ford laid off?" he asks. "Well, I'm one of them."

Goci, thirty-one, gets free desk space for managing the place--talking to prospective members, handling maintenance problems, and so on. Occasionally, a member just doesn't work out, like the salesman who annoyed his neighbors by taking calls all day long. "I had to explain to him he couldn't do that here," Goci says. "He understood--and left."

At any given time, about half of the members are trying to launch start-ups, which usually means hustling for investments or loans. "Emotions can run high," says Goci, who's been there himself. He says support and advice from other co-workers eases some of the pressure.

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As the number of co-working options increases, more prospective members are shopping around. I meet Lindsey Rogers, a transplanted Bostonian, at an open house to promote an ownership change at Cowork Ann Arbor, located in a basement on Main St.

Asked what she does, Rogers replies, "I'm a consultant to people who want to change the world. I help them develop their vision." She hands me her business card, which describes her as a "Decision Coach and Adviser." Rogers hopes to find new friends as well as a place to plug in her laptop and calls co-working "an antidote to loneliness."

Charging just $125 a month for five-day weeks, Cowork Ann Arbor is a great deal. You will, however, have to explain to visitors that though it's downstairs from Ayla & Co., the entrance is in the alley between Main and Fourth Ave.

The subterranean location notwithstanding, Cowork presents a cheerful countenance, with bright lighting and white walls covered with splashy abstracts.

Although techies are the core clientele, there are also creatives like poet and editor Frederick Glaysher, who joined in July after after years of driving from his hometown, Rochester, to work in libraries in Ann Arbor. (A U-M grad, he regards the city as "my real home.") A charismatic presence with blond-gray hair falling to his shoulders, he explains that he is producing a play called The Parliament of Poets at Theatre Nova (see Events, Sept. 22). It's partially set on the moon, he says, and "Don Quixote is the master of ceremonies."

Emily McGuire joined last year after trying to run her email marketing business, Flourish & Grit, from home while caring for her infant son. "I used to think I was an introvert until I started working at home and went a little batty," she says, with only her baby and her cat for company. When her husband got home, she was so thrilled to talk to an adult that she exploded with conversation.

McGuire organized a weekly meetup for other people who worked at home. She was touched to realize that a few people who came were so shy it was an effort for them to speak up: "They were so used to being alone."

Now she co-works one or two days a week. And, she says, "I have a community!"     (end of article)

[Originally published in September, 2019.]

 

 
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