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Does coworking work? A colleague-craving freelancer gives the non-office office a try

On a sleepy Tuesday morning, the day began with pancakes, homemade blueberry compote, and discussions about everything from the nature of social media to the potential rise of Peruvian potatoes as a gourmet delicacy. So much for the isolation of self-employment.
Lingering near the breakfast area of CoCo, the St. Paul-based coworking space, it's easy to see the benefit of the model--all that casual conversation, without the pressure of bosses checking their watches, or colleagues who enjoy office politics.
As people come into the three-floor space, passing by the fish tank that's been playfully decorated with toy lobsters, their "coworkers" look up in greeting, occasionally spark a conversation, before settling back into their low-key work groove. There's a rhythm to the day that's unlike the stay-at-home vibe and its many distractions, or the lone-entrepreneur office, with its air of solitude.
"There is a such a strong appeal to this kind of setup because of its social aspect," says the space's co-founder Don Ball. "People can bounce ideas off each other about their work, but they can also just have a conversation. I think people who work in traditional offices take that for granted, the little moments of connection during the day. But it's something that many of the self-employed don't get on a consistent basis."
As if to prove his point, one of the CoCo denizens steps to the window to watch the noisy construction just outside, and then turns to announce what's going on. Within moments, the crew in the street has half a dozen spectators, all opining on what it must be like to work construction. "I bet that machine must feel like an extension of his body," Ball notes, and someone else muses on the potential Zen-like appeal of the job, with its precision and focus.
This type of casual chatter is commonplace in employee-laden offices, but to a freelancer like me, who last had a coworker over seven years ago, it's strangely thrilling. Usually, my world splits neatly into business and social interactions, and seeing them intersect again, as they did when I was office-bound, is refreshing. Even better, the lack of managers, regular hours, crisply professional clothing, jangling phones, or whispered grousing means the space offers the best of office life, without the common irritants.
"This place attracts people who are up for any kind of conversation, at any time," says Ball. "Coworking is not about the space, it's always about the people."
The Coffee-Shop Incubator
Coworking got its start in the Twin Cities independent professionals Zack Steven and Amy Bryant launched a pilot project at Minneapolis' Crema Cafe, with an informational meeting that attracted 30 potential coworkers. Half of them signed up for regular coworking at Crema, and as Steven became more involved, he brought in childhood friends Josh Becerra and Colin Hirdman.
The trio turned the project into a coworking space on Como Avenue in Saint Paul's Saint Anthony Park neighborhood, which they dubbed The 3rd Place. The name derives from a term used in community building, referring to a location separate from the typical social environments of home and workplace.
Much like CoCo, The 3rd Place has a very casual atmosphere, and although it's smaller than its Lowertown counterpart, it's similar in the way that people look up in greeting when someone comes in, an action that's certainly missing at coffee shops and libraries.
The space has a room with couches and chairs for client meetings or just lounging, and its work area is a row of three long tables facing a whiteboard, adjacent to a conference room. Here, the ideas bounce not just off coworkers, but everyone who comes into the space.
For example, while meandering back from the kitchen, I began chatting with a client of Hirdman's, about a project involving yoga mats from India. He threw out some ideas about marketing, and I mentioned some prominent local yoga teachers he might want to contact; then he and Hirdman went back to their meeting.
Getting Comfortable With the Cowork Vibe
This type of smooth flow between coworkers and clients would be tough to find anywhere else. Toby Cryns, a web developer and member at both coworking sites, jokes that the arrangement differs significantly from the coffee shop model because he can run to the bathroom without worrying about his laptop getting stolen.
Although he says the comment in jest, I know intimately what he means. As a typical freelancer, I sometimes crave the coziness of other people's presence while working, and head out to a Dunn Bros. or May Day Cafe, but anyplace I go tends to be the same: people working near each other, but definitely not together. If I was attempting to hammer out some prose at a coffee shop and a fellow cafe denizen turned to ask what I was working on, I'd likely respond by moving to another table.
But at CoCo and The 3rd Place, the desire to connect with others through conversation about professional and seemingly random topics is intense, and strangely comforting, though it can take some getting used to if you have been leading a solitary work life for years. "I'd like to push it further, to bounce ideas off people more often, and get comfortable running ideas past them," says Cryns. "I think when you're working on your own, you get used to not being able to do that, and it takes time to shift that mentality."

Creating a collaborative atmosphere takes time, but both CoCo and The 3rd Place seem well on their way, and both spaces' founders hope to boost membership and offer more services in the months and years ahead. (The Line looked at some of The 3rd Place's plans in our first issue, and we note a CoCo project in this one.)
"People have basic social needs," notes Becerra. "Just because you're working for yourself doesn't mean you can't fill those needs, too. That's the idea behind this, and we think it's an amazing model. We believe it can really evolve in even more exciting directions."

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer specializing in business, technology, and lifestyle topics. Her last piece for  The Line was a profile of social-media marketer Garrio Harrison.

Photos, top to bottom:

Saint Paul's expansive CoCo coworking space, in Lowertown

CoCo cofounder Don Ball

The view from CoCo's window: a conversation-starter

Web developer Toby Cryns gets down to (co)work.

Cryns: "I'd like to push [coworking] even further."

All photos by Bill Kelley

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