We Need a New Word for Coworking

One night in the summer of 2007, a group of freelancers and entrepreneurs met in a brick-walled coffee shop on

New Work City

One night in the summer of 2007, a group of freelancers and entrepreneurs met in a brick-walled coffee shop on St. Marks to toast their untethering. It was the grand opening of CooperBricolage, one of the first coworking collectives in New York City, and everyone in the room was flush-faced and smiling like idiots. Tony Bacigalupo, then 25, stood and addressed the group like a new kid at school who had finally found a lunch table to sit at in the cafeteria. “At the beginning of this year, I knew nobody in New York City,” he said. “I project-managed for a tiny little design company out in Long Island and I was sitting at home one day on a cold winter day, working, thinking, ‘there’s got to be other people who are sitting at home like me.’”

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It wasn’t the Gettysburg Address, but it captured the essence of coworking: There’s got to be other people like me. A growing percentage of the workforce no longer needs a traditional office for equipment or credibility, but damnit, we’re lonely. Luckily New York now offers a range of options for every personality of independent tech worker. Are you chatty and beautiful? General Assembly. Subversive? NYC Resistor. Sweet? New Work City. Just want to listen to techno on your headphones and get some fucking work done? Projective Space. Poor? Wix Lounge.

It wasn’t always that easy. When CooperBricolage first launched, the concept of coworking was nascent. The term was used for a while in 1999 to describe web workers and start-up work life in Silicon Valley. But after the dot-com crash, start-ups and virtual workers were considered radioactive and their style of freewheeling, open-air workspaces now symbolized recklessness. The permanent, cubicle-based office was re-established as the respectable way to work.

But the growth of the internet and the spread of laptops have been chipping away at the assumptions that used to justify paying rent for a permanent address. In 2005 a San Francisco-based software consultant, Brad Neuberg, dusted off the word “coworking” and launched The Hat Factory, an open loft where  freelancers and remote workers could enjoy the company of other humans while getting work done without having to give up their freedom. And with the recent wave of incredibly sophisticated mobile devices, the internet-as-office trend has reached a tipping point. “We’re just facilitating something that’s inevitable, that’s happening on its own,” Mr. Bacigalupo told the assembly at CooperBricolage. That was four years ago.

It turned out that, as natural as it might seem, a café was not a practical place for a dedicated coworking space, and CooperBricolage’s founders, Mr. Bacigalupo and Sanford Dickert, had to walk the concept through many iterations. But the movement had momentum! What had been a few germs of an idea scattered throughout the city—Nate Westheimer’s “Cafe Bricolage” manifesto; the Jelly NYC work parties; and Williamsburg Coworking, a small group working out of an art gallery—was becoming an articulated movement, a sort of city-wide start-up collectively iterating to solve a problem.

Now, coworking is exploding. New spaces pop up in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn every month, according to the press releases in my inbox. Mr. Bacigalupo and some of the other CooperBricolage members opened New Work City, which was funded through Kickstarter and built by volunteers who ripped the guts out of the walls on a neglected floor in SoHo and wired the place to the nines. NWC opened in September 2010, almost exactly three years after the launch of CooperBricolage; Brooklyn’s The Makery opened around the same time. In December, General Assembly opened its glass doors on a flashier kind of coworking, stocked with New York’s most darling start-ups and several of its best-known founders. Designer Sara Bacon opened a modest but beautiful space, Greenpoint Coworking, in January. The year-old SoHo Haven just relaunched as Projective Spaces under new manager James Wahba.

You can certainly make money renting desk space in New York if you own a building, jam a whole lot of people into it and keep it reasonably full. Neuberg-style coworking spaces are more precarious. It’s tough to make coworking pay simply because even the loneliest freelancers and entrepreneurs won’t pay much more than $400 a month. Renting a desk in a coworking space is a luxury if you can do the same work at home or in a coffee shop. NWC, Greenpoint Coworking, The Makery and probably others also keep some non-dedicated desk space for drop-ins, which some consider an essential feature of Neubergian coworking. The drop-in policy adds variety to the space but forfeits some cash.

So if the margins are thin, why are so many new spaces opening up? One reason is that the coworking movement is full of hippies. Mr. Bacigalupo and Ms. Bacon believe coworking is a cultural revolution and money is just a necessary complication. Makery founder Matt Langer is only slightly less gooey about it—he’s losing a few hundred dollars a month on the space, but daydreams about becoming independently wealthy so he can let the start-ups work there for free.

But the opportunists are not far behind. Office rental spaces that serve the same clientele have started to riff on elements of the coworking movement, or have outright co-opted the term. (The Neubergian coworkers are still struggling with what to call this, but liken it to greenwashing.)

Sunshine Suites, which has two locations in downtown Manhattan and is opening a third in the Bronx, is a colorfully-decorated filing cabinet of a space, each floor maximally-packed with cubicles that have lockable doors and roofs. The company offers a “coworking solution,” in which entrepreneurs work at one of the bare tables tucked off to the side for $275 a month plus a $99 set-up fee.

What Sunshine Suites offers sounds less like an evolution of the way we work and more like a more affordable approximation of what it’s like to work in the beehive of an eight-story corporation, and their coworking solution is a cheap knockoff compared to the lovingly stitched together communities at the Neubergian coworking spaces. Still, “co-working”–people working together–describes the product pretty well. The word’s surge in popularity is in part due to the coworking movement, sure, but it was also heavily encouraged by the recession. Proponents of coworking, the movement, may not like it–but both styles have equal claim to the word. SoHo-based WeWork, a start-up friendly office rental company that secured a small mountain of financing in order to set up a stack of chic offices at 34th and 5th Ave., in the Meatpacking District and San Francisco, has elements of Neubergian coworking and its corporate cousin. WeWork is big, for one thing–the SoHo location has 250 offices–and offices have walls and doors. But the company just launched WeWork Labs, a floor dedicated to single workers that aims to achieve the camaraderie of a coworking space.

In the beginning, the biggest problem with finding people like me was scarcity; now it’s the opposite. A young start-up Googling around for office space has to sift through a long list of very different work situations that all call themselves “coworking.”

One solution is for coworking spaces to trade on their own brands instead of the word “coworking.” Another would be for the coworking purists to come up with a new way to describe what it is they do so they don’t get lumped in with the rent-a-cubes. Another solution, of course, would be to wait for the tech and coworking bubbles to pop, and we can all go back to the original coworking solution in New York: Starbucks.

We Need a New Word for Coworking