A New Kind of Grind

Dec. 26, 2013
Within the next few years, close to half of America's workforce will have transitioned to independent labor, begging the question: Where will they all work?

As we noted in our May 2013 issue, the corporate structure that rose to dominance in the 1960s is slowly starting to crumble as a new generation takes the reigns of the modern workplace. And while corporate America itself certainly isn't crumbling, it is going in for some "elective surgery."

According to the Intuit 2020 report (with research led by Emergent Research, in close partnership with Intuit), "contractors, or contingent employees, have a greater say in when and how much they work, giving them a greater work-life balance. Today, roughly 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is contingent and more than 80 percent of large corporations plan to substantially increase their use of a flexible workforce in the coming years." Their research is also showing that small businesses will similarly develop their own collaborative networks of contingent workers, minimizing fixed labor costs and expanding the available talent pool.

As these independent workers begin to account for a large chunk of the American workforce, they're going to need a place to work that isn't Starbucks or their dining room table. Enter the co-working space.

Over the years, they've evolved from simple, open seating areas with a few outlets, to full floors providing all the amenities one could ask for (including the chance to further build out your network). Co-working isn't just for Silicon Valley start-ups or urbanite entrepreneurs anymore. They're for the everyman: the freelancers, the temp workers, the part-time hustlers, and anyone else trying to make ends meet in a job market that is consistently shedding traditional virtues.

"You have to look at this globally," says Michel-Claude Fiechter, partner at TPG Architecture, designers of the luxury co-working project Silver Suites, located on the 46th floor of 7 World Trade Center in New York City. "As companies begin to work more on a consultant basis that they put together to form projects, spaces like that become very important. You need spaces for them to meet and collaborate, but don't necessarily want to sign a 10-year lease somewhere."

In fact, we at I&S have been a largely remote team since 2005, producing this publication from home offices across the country, in addition to our headquarters in Iowa. And yes, in that time, we have dreamt of the benefits of an office space. Key among them is the collaborative community a co-working space provides. As Danial Brown, co-founder of the Midwest Sustainable Cities Symposium, succinctly summarizes in an article penned in 2012 ("At Co-working Spaces, Plenty of Coffee (Without the Cubicles)", bit.ly/officehub):

Co-working spaces create a new type of economy, one that more closely resembles an open-sourced knowledge bank rather than an information silo. Furthermore, and most importantly, the co-working economy is one based on collaboration rather than self-interested competition. On a purely psychological level, co-working spaces are healthier, more productive, and more in line with a healthy society than traditional work spaces.

We took a trip to Grind and Fueled Collective, two successful co-working office space brands with hubs in NYC, to learn exactly what it is that makes these places tick, and what that could mean for office design. PageBreak

lesson 1
Designing a successful office share is about designing a culture as much as a space.

Grind—a co-working facility now with two locations in NYC and one in Chicago—opened its first set of doors in 2011 after co-founder Benjamin Dyett grew tired of his nomad-like existence as an independent real estate lawyer constantly searching for a home base.

Grind's original location on Park Avenue was designed by architect Vince Bandy, while its Broadway and Chicago locations were designed by Mesh Architectures in Brooklyn.

"You're talking about a group of people who have been isolated and ignored, because as small entrepreneurs or solo entrepreneurs, they were working from their homes or working in coffee shops," explains Dyett of his clients. "Where was a nice place to have a professional meeting? Starbucks. Or they're working in friends' offices, freeloading off people. Now Grind, at least, treats them like grownups. Some people call us co-working for adults, because it gives them a highly designed professional workspace."

"It's designed to be seamless and frictionless. Our mission is to fit into our members' lifestyle, not our members to fit into ours," he adds.

"Everything is just so easy," agrees user Aisling Keogh, marketing and events director for Irishcentral.com, inhabitants of one of the team rooms at Grind on Broadway. Members walk in, tap their card and are automatically charged with whatever membership fee they have. They can sit down, work and not have to worry about the minutiae such as paper in the copier or where to get coffee. "They don't have to think about any of this stuff," says Dyett. "Everything we do, we do keeping in mind to not get in the way of our members focusing on their work."

And besides ultra-high speed internet service, members also gain access to Agora, Grind's own private social network of sorts that helps members connect. Everyone has a profile page that showcases their headshot, what they do, and if they're looking for a specific expertise at Grind. Members can search through the database and reach out to one another. When a user enters Grind every morning, they are also registered into that system; a screen next to the coffee bar displays everyone who has checked in.

"You might find that someone you want to speak to is sitting right next to you," says Dyett.

For Rameet Chawla, founder of Fueled Collective, it is not just about creating a work environment, but curating a lifestyle.

"Fashion brands do it really well," he says, "because they're designing for a certain lifestyle—not for a certain person or a certain vertical. I'm designing this business for a certain type of professional lifestyle, where you can work here, you can work there, you can add value no matter where you are, you don't have to be stuck to a certain location."

It is a lifestyle Chawla knows firsthand. Before Fueled Collective, there was simply Fueled, a tech-savvy service provider aimed at helping start-ups get their businesses off the ground. Fueled Collective came out of Chawla's own desire to find a space that fit his professional and personal ethos. Now the small network of office spaces has become a completely sustainable branch of his business, and most of his tenants are either current or future potential clients. PageBreak

lesson 2
Let your end-user be their own layout specialist.

Co-working spaces should be intrinsically collaborative communities. Grind's design promotes this with the complete disappearance of barriers of any kind. "We've gotten rid of all walls, all barriers, all partitions, all cubicles. We don't have any of that at Grind. That's the first and foremost thing you'll notice. Collaboration requires proximity," Dyett says. "We don't have any private offices and we don't have any dedicated seating. It's really important because it forces people to sit in a different place every day and sit next to someone new everyday. That encourages them to find out what everyone in the space is up to, what their expertise is, and then figure out how they can share expertise with them and collaborate."

Since there are no walls or barriers, Grind does with furniture what most people do with walls. "The thing about furniture is, you can move it," Dyett notes. "Believe it or not, sometimes our members move it for us. And we encourage them to do that. Make it work for you, especially if you're collaborating with one of our other members. We want you guys to do that."

"Everything works, and there's nothing that distracts," says Dan Dengrove, founder of Brewla and a Grind Broadway user since November 2013. Dengrove spends most of his time in the main area of open seating, which he says is great for his productivity for two reasons: one he calls the "gym membership theory" and the other being all the positive social influences in the people he's surrounded by on a daily basis.

"You can learn a lot from other experienced people if you are just given access to them," says Dyett, reinforcing this point. Dengrove will often invite colleagues back for meetings and "it's a great first impression. Even if we graduated from here, if we needed a central meeting spot we would still utilize it," he adds.

But for the members of IrishCentral.com, there is no turning back to a traditional office. They've taken advantage of every inch of Grind's Broadway location, from its team rooms and event space capabilities to the network of freelancers that it offers. This allows them to find exactly the type of professional they might need on short notice, from writers to graphic designers, helping them reach their goals of making their content as shareable as possible and doubling their audience each year.

Over at Fueled Collective, Chawla has created an environment that takes casual flexibility to the nth degree.

"As far as the space, one of the core concepts behind it is this whole idea that we don't really live in our living rooms anymore. We live in our offices. The goal of the office is to be more like your living room," he explains.

In the tech world Chawla and his tenants inhabit, there is no such thing as a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Design and development comes in constantly improving versions. The end-user does not expect a finished polish on every surface, or for state-of-the-art furnishings and lighting to be the norm. Incremental upgrades, based on lean build-ups and evolving needs, are fair game. This can be a challenge for the designer used to traditional project planning cycles, which leads to our last lesson.PageBreak

lesson 3
Designers be warned: the end-user is your new competition.

One of the hardest learned lessons about co-working spaces is that the business owners and end-users are sometimes the ones designing the space themselves. In a post-recession world, the workforce is a lean, mean, self-reliant machine.

For Chawla, designing the space at Fueled Collective was a process of designing for himself as an end-user, and delegating out the execution to his network of peers.

"A lot of people just kind of project manage. I'll give them the vision and then be like, 'OK, go source,'" he says. "And they'll just be cool people, so they'll understand what I'm looking for. I'll tell them all the cool shops and the techniques, and then they'll just start doing it. They'll go out, they'll send me photos, I'll approve it via my phone, and then they'll order it and bring it in."

For the first Fueled Collective space, Chawla found a go-to partner in Noa Santos, owner of a design business called Fifty for Fifty. For $50, Santos would rearrange the furniture in clients' apartments.

"I'm like, 'Listen, I'm doing this huge office. Why don't we just strike this deal where we pay you hourly and you can work with me and be my project manager on this office build-out?'" Chawla recalls. Now, Santos' business is renamed Home Polish and has expanded significantly in the years following his first office project. "He ended up blowing up. Now they have 150 designers that they just send out to clients and they're doing offices all over the place. He's capitalized on that better than anyone else has."

Like Santos, not only have Dyett and Chawla cashed in on an untapped marketplace, but more importantly, they aren't resting on their laurels. Both have taken what they've learned from their initial locations and plan to use that information to continue to improve the co-working experience as a whole. And with the market's growth potential being an exponential one, designers would do well to take future owners and developers by the hand to make it even better.

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