Trigaux: Are coworking spaces a millennial fad or a major workforce trend?

Tampa Bay WaVE in Tampa provides business incubator and coworking to those in need of temporary work space. ROBERT TRIGAUX   |   Times
Tampa Bay WaVE in Tampa provides business incubator and coworking to those in need of temporary work space. ROBERT TRIGAUX | Times
Published December 8 2016
Updated December 8 2016

We won't know for some time if coworking space is a passing fancy or becomes a cornerstone of a next-generation economy.

Global competition and the recent deep recession forced major social and business changes on many people who once might have worked a traditional, paternalistic 20th century 9-to-5 job for a single company until retirement.

With corporate loyalty fading fast and mass layoffs just part of another day at the office or plant, people trying to make a living find they are more on their own. Phrases like the "gig" economy, independent contractors, entrepreneurs and "encore" careers permeate a growing number of euphemisms of working for one's self.

Coworking is spreading fast across Tampa Bay.

Millennials coming of age amid the last great downturn clearly are more inclined to do their own thing in the workplace. Middle-age workers displaced by outdated skills and downsizing businesses are retraining to become more relevant in the 21st century. And plenty of baby boomers are still trying to reinvent themselves as workers — either to supplement a looming retirement that looks financially grim or to craft a part-time job or even a startup that plays to individual passions.

All these trends will feed the demand for coworking space.

Coworking space has existed for generations as individual workers first sought work space outside the house. It was called the public library.

Then came "business centers" that rented small offices to accountants and other professionals needing a desk, mailing address and an occasional conference room. Then came Starbucks, which added both Wi-Fi and overpriced caffeine.

Today's coworking spaces bring that and more — a community of independent workers sharing space, often quite cool and engaging space, with a similar sense of purpose and innovation.

Not all coworking spaces are equal.

"There are places that may call themselves coworking without really being coworking. And little places are sprouting up out of offices trying to make some extra cash," says Danielle Weitlauf Callahan, who's involved in area business incubators, accelerators and the weekly 1 Million Cups startup pitch each Wednesday in St. Petersburg. "Advantages with the better ones are 24/7 access, month-to-month terms, amenities, atmosphere, environment, culture and who else is working there."

A Tampa Bay Times review of more than a dozen coworking sites across this metro area reveals a range of options offering functional if uninspiring space and basic desks to ornate accommodations. Consider the tony Commerce Club at Tampa's Oxford Exchange that seems to whisper: "Pass the Grey Poupon."

Whatever the chosen ambiance, what's common to most coworking spots is the opportunity to be with others of like mind and, perhaps, entrepreneurial inclination.

Not everyone is a convert.

"I don't see coworking as replacing the traditional, contiguous, permanent office space that we've considered the norm," says Daniel James Scott, an entrepreneur, accelerator founder and now executive director of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. "That space is still essential for building teams, culture and cross-disciplinary integration."

Coworking can inspire under the best circumstances. And it probably beats the loneliness (if not the cost) of the kitchen table at home. The typical coworking member uses his or her space less than 20 hours a week.

Is it worth spending the money? Obviously to the thousands using it in this metro area, the answer seems to be yes. The typical 15 to 20 percent turnover of memberships at coworking spaces is much lower than the 50 percent at gyms.

Will it last? Here's one of the better descriptions I've run across for why coworking is big and getting bigger: "Part of what you're paying for is the privilege of aspiration."

Anything that helps fuel more grit and innovation in our workforce seems like a good idea to me.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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