SEATTLE — When Robyn Welch followed her husband from New York to Seattle, her job as an urban planner followed her. She telecommuted from home for three months before she decided to quit — her home. Instead of being liberated from a daily routine of congested traffic and stuffy office buildings, Welch felt isolated and stifled working alone in her apartment.
"Everyone thinks that working at home is ideal, until you do it," Welch said. "I was going crazy not having anyone to communicate with."
Her solution was only a block away. Walking through her Seattle neighborhood among narrowly packed residences and eclectic small businesses, Welch stumbled upon the Office Nomads sandwich board, and after a brief look inside decided to move in.
Office Nomads is one of Seattle's first "co-working" businesses that rents office space to freelancers and telecommuters.
"I don't know that I'd even still be with my company if I had to work from home," Welch said after more than two years of membership. "I wish that there were more of these kind of places out there for people."
This business model, branded "co-working" by San Francisco software engineer Brad Neuberg in 2005, is growing in the postindustrial economy, where the viability of telecommuting grows alongside the development and spread of mobile telecommunication technologies. When a laptop or smart phone can make a multifunctional office out of your living room, car or closet, environment becomes a choice.
"It's a question of: 'Does it make sense to go in an office? Does it make sense to sit at home and work? Does it make sense to do it at a coffee shop?' " said Matt Westervelt, the owner of Metrix Create: Space, a co-working company on Capitol Hill that caters to artists, techies and tinkerers.
"I think there will continue to be more co-working spaces; it's the future," said Westervelt, who recently expanded his business.
On Oct. 14, Office Nomads celebrated its third anniversary and owners Jacob Sayles and Susan Evans announced their plan to open another Seattle area site in the near future.
Office Nomads provides the staples: desks, chairs, printers, fax machines, conference rooms, a kitchen and WiFi. And there's also a shower and a lounging area with a TV, couches and board and video games. Local art lines the walls, and indie music plays softly overhead.
Office Nomads has 75 members, and on any given day 30 or so can be seen at their desks. Different membership levels have different rates. "Residents" like Welch are given an electronic key card, assigned a fixed office space and afforded complete access to the site, any day at any time, for which they pay $475 a month. Without a membership, a space at a desk and use of the facility will run $25 a day.
Many of the occupations of Office Nomads' co-workers are those newly created in the information age, such as bloggers, software programmers, Web designers and graphic designers.
Others have just been set free by the advances in information technology, which include an ornithologist, urban planner and private investigator, as well as copy writers, magazine writers and publishers.
A common question for Sayles and Evans is how they handle intraoffice conflicts. They answer that it hasn't been an issue.
"It's not like a coffee shop where you have to lock down your stuff before you go to the bathroom," Evans said. "There's sort of this agreement that happens when people walk through the door, and there's also an agreement they sign to be respectful of others, that kind of gets rid of that concern."
Co-working companies like Office Nomads profit by getting a better rate for taking a larger space and charging members a premium. The tenants in turn benefit from rent that is lower than if they had to pay separately, flexibility, good management and a community, said Adam Simon, president of Real Assets Property Services, which leases the space to Office Nomads.
Sayles and Evans have created a website called CoworkingSeattle.org for users and businesses to network. "A lot of people don't understand how much of their community needs were being met at the company until they've lost the company and realized those conversations over the water cooler were important to their well-being," Sayles said.