Cowork spaces are a growing model for office space

At desk one, you might find a startup entrepreneur.

Over at desk two is a self-employed person who worked from home until the lack of human interaction got to him.

Then at desk three is the employee of a large company located far away. She needed office amenities without the cost and hassle of establishing a satellite office.

And in a communal space in the same office, there could be some people who dropped by just this once because they wanted a professional setting to host a business meeting.

A growing number of cowork offices–settings that provide office spaces and services on a temporary basis–are meeting the needs of all these people. They offer a desk, phone, Wi-Fi and a bottomless coffee pot, and even a mailing address for a brand-new company that doesn’t have a physical location yet.

Whatever the level of service in a cowork business, a wave of providers is creating them, from municipalities to entrepreneurs to established real estate companies.  Two market leaders, WeWork and Regus, have hundreds of locations across the United States. Regus recently established an outpost in downtown Rochester.

Reporting from a commercial real estate conference in the fall, Ken Ashley, executive director of commercial real estate provider Cushman & Wakefield, said experts there predicted 25 percent of the office space market will be in cowork use in just five years. One reason? A company can more easily upsize or downsize its resources when it doesn’t have to renegotiate a lease (so old school) or buy a building (even older school).

Other predictions are more conservative. Commercial real estate magnate CBRE has announced its plans to get into the cowork business, too, offering its prediction that 10 percent of the office space market could be devoted cowork in a decade. Angelo Nole, managing director of the CBRE Rochester office, said the company has not yet rolled out the particulars for its regional offices, such as the one in Rochester.

Meanwhile, others are entering the market locally.

The facade of Metro CoWork on East Avenue. (Provided photo)
The facade of Metro CoWork on East Avenue. (Provided photo)

In November, local real estate developer Craig Webster of Webster Properties opened Metro CoWork at 350 East Ave., providing memberships in an office where you grab any available desk, have an assigned desk, or use a private office, depending on your price point.  Metro Cowork is just one part of a mixed use scheme for the building in the middle of the city’s arts and entertainment district.

Since Webster opened the business, he’s introduced other locations at High Falls, Brighton and Irondequoit.  His fifth cowork office is due to open this summer in the town of Webster.

Cowork settings take the burden of setting up an office off the shoulders of a worker or company. “You don’t have to turn on Time Warner, figure out the phone situation,” Webster said. “We have copiers. An added value is if you want to network.  Or if someone wants to have someone have a passing conversation at the watercooler.”

Nole praised Webster for the way he delivered on the cowork concept. “In our opinion, they did a nice job in capturing for Rochester some of the things we’re seeing in the larger cities.”

Webster said, “It’s more than plopping some desks and chairs in a room and making it cheap. That’s not really what people want. You’ve got to kind of have all those components and you’ve got to do them really well.”

Earlier efforts to colonize downtown with cowork options failed, he said, because they didn’t understand that people want more than an inexpensive place to land a laptop. They also want a community.

Maureen Ballatori is an old hand at coworking. Her 29 Design Studio was an original tenant of Port 100 at 100 Castle St., in Geneva. It started in 2016 with support from the city of Geneva. Now she also manages the place and also has another membership at Made on State, a shared space for artists north of downtown Rochester.

She has noticed members of a cowork begin to depend on each other, much as co-workers in a traditional office might. Several at Port 100 have been there since the space opened in 2016, forming a tight-knit community.

“It’s nice to have the guy sitting next to me who is a software expert. ‘Hey, do you know how to do this?’ You’ve got a resource right next to you,” Ballatori said.

Cowork participants can also ask each other for advice, such as “Should I start looking for another job?” without worrying about whether it will get around to the boss.

“There’s no conflict because everybody works for other companies,” Ballatori said. “You’re saying it to a neutral party who can truly give you good advice.”

Cowork members also tend to help each other solve problems, she said. When Real Eats used space at Port 100 before the meal preparation service had a kitchen in Geneva, the interim marketing manager was looking for a chef to make the concept fly. Ballatori happened to have one in the family and now her husband is running the kitchen at Real Eats.

An interior view of the Port 100 coworking space in Geneva.  (Provided photo)
An interior view of the Port 100 coworking space in Geneva. (Provided photo)

After three years of municipal support, the city of Geneva wants Port 100 to stand on its own. To do that successfully, Ballatori said, the business needs to fill six of its 12 desks with full-time members and perhaps gain sponsorships for the public events it holds at the space.

Ballatori said Port 100, one of the few cowork businesses in the Finger Lakes outside of Rochester and Ithaca, may be suffering from lack of awareness on the part of what she calls “digital nomads.”  These workers may still be finding it novel to work from home in their pajamas. They haven’t yet realized yet, she said, that a cowork situation could be the best of both worlds–working remotely and still having access to services and comrades.

To get the word out, Port 100 is lining up a series of workshops to draw in potential members. It also offers occasional open cowork days when people can try it for free.

“When we find the right people, who find this resource and start working here, they almost always stick around,” Ballatori said.

Most cowork spaces offer programming open to members and the public. There might be a seminar on using social networking, for instance, or outside groups may be invited to hold a networking event at the cowork.

“As we grow, we want to bring the rest of the community together in different ways,” Webster said.

Cowork businesses include a wide range of physical options, with some offering a full array and others sticking to one or two membership models. They might have a drop-in membership allowing several visits to work at an open desk for $50. Or they could have private offices renting for several hundred dollars a month.

Those with multiple locations have memberships that allow members to use whatever office they need at the time, much like a network of libraries or YMCA branches.

Webster predicted the cowork market will evolve in two directions. Owners of multiple locations will start to dominate, including the out-of-town giants.

“In 5 to 10 years you’re going to see the single entities kind of fall away,” he said.

Secondly, some cowork operations will become specialized, such as his Made on State for artists. Some could be for women only, for lawyers or tech workers, he said.

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