There was a time in the mid-1990s when lots of people thought the conventional office building was doomed. The commercial property bubble had popped, a recession hit and, with the advent of the Internet, many figured the downtown towers and suburban office parks might never recover. We’d all soon be working from our homes.
Like so many predictions around the Internet, it was wrong, or at least premature. Commercial office space would claw its way back. Cranes would once again crowd skylines, busily erecting new monuments to the nine-to-five.
Nearly two decades on, though, the way and the place many of us work has changed. In 2008, nearly one in five working Canadians—evenly divided between employees and the self-employed—worked from home, Statistics Canada reports. And the momentum for so-called telework is growing.
In September, the City of Calgary, which has some of the highest office rents in the country, adopted an Alternative Workplace Strategies policy encouraging employees who can to work from home. A study commissioned by the city’s economic development authority estimated that the bottom-line benefits of telecommuting for employers, employees and communities across Canada could be as high as $53 billion a year.
Yet for a growing number of untethered workers, home isn’t the answer, either. So hybrid solutions are emerging—halfway houses of the working world with names like “virtual offices” and “co-working” spaces. While their formats vary widely, the common denominator is a desk and Wi-Fi access, often available on a drop-in basis and by the hour.
In 1995, Ralph Gregory took the concept of the hosted business centre—where you lease an office or room but share reception, office machines and additional amenities with others—a step further when he founded Intelligent Office in Boulder, Colo. Instead of renting office space per se, the company focused on helping entrepreneurs work at home without compromising their privacy or corporate image. That meant providing a mailing address, phone number and live reception service and, when needed, an office or meeting room.
Today, 10,000 subscribers paying $50 a month and up can rent an office for $20 an hour at any of Intelligent Office’s 20 Canadian locations, says Brian Monteith, who bought the national franchise in 2005. For small-business people who mostly work at home or on the road, office space “is now a variable cost instead of a fixed cost. They only pay for what they use,” he says. Each of the company’s locations has 18 to 20 workstations providing a desk, Internet access and a phone that, at the touch of a four-digit code, can be “hot-desked” to show your company identity on outgoing calls.
But even a phone is more than some independent workers need or are willing to pay for in this wireless age. Still others crave the energy of working around other people and the discipline that comes with leaving the house. For them, there is now the option of co-working.
The term was coined in 2005 by Brad Neuberg, a freelance computer programmer and one of the founding members of the Spiral Muse collective in San Francisco. Similar shared workspaces, both co-operative and for-profit, sprang up in other cities, as did a Google co-working group that defined the movement’s principles as collaboration, openness, community, accessibility and sustainability.
Today, there are dozens of co-working spaces across Canada, ranging from the high-profile Hive Vancouver (where a desk costs $4 to $7 an hour) and the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, to Thunder Bay, Ont., Charlottetown and Prince George, B.C. Co-working sites range from coffee shops with simple lines of desks to pricey designer rooms. Most let you try before you join, so you can find out for yourself if it’s too noisy or you feel funny talking on the phone next to strangers.
“The trick with co-working is putting people at the centre,” says Susan Evans, who co-founded Seattle co-working space Office Nomads in 2007. Evans concedes co-working isn’t for everyone—“some people need a silent, serene, private space to get their work done”—but it’s an option for people who feel isolated or less productive working at home all the time.
While offering workers choices, the emergence of drop-in workspace is also sending a message to employers, says Robyn Bews, who manages Calgary Economic Development’s WorkShift program, which promotes the use of technology to reduce commuting. According to research, she notes, 30% to 50% of cubicles or offices in traditional spaces are empty at any given time. “Where are these people? They’re working in other places”—boardrooms, coffee shops, a partner’s site, wherever they can be most productive. Providing dedicated space for every employee is not only anachronistic, she says. It’s a waste.