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Published: May 25, 2010
 / Summer 2010 / Issue 59

 
 

The Promise of the Cloud Workplace

Freelancers are turning to “co-working” environments for better workplace interaction. Companies could use them to boost productivity.

About 25 miles north of Atlanta, Ga., in a suburban village named Alpharetta, is an innovative private workspace club called Roam Atlanta. If you join, you can claim a desk, book conference rooms, share office equipment and services, and buy food from the café. But the main attraction might be the informal, sociable atmosphere. Cofounder Brian Kramer deliberately configured the space that way. Having worked for 11 years at IBM in home-office isolation, he was drawn to the idea of a more welcoming, community-oriented workspace.

The Roam Atlanta facility has several dozen members, most living within a six-mile (10-kilometer) radius. They include corporate employees, freelance entrepreneurs, and small-business proprietors. They may have come to the space originally for the desk or the high-quality telecommunications and shared clerical services, but they keep coming back for one another’s company — despite, and sometimes because of, the fact that they work for different employers.

Indeed, one group of regulars, the “Atlanta Jelly community,” work mostly at home, but convene at Roam to work alongside one another on Wednesdays. (The word jelly has become a generic name for such weekly gatherings of freelancers, named after the jellybeans that the convenors of the first one, in New York, were eating when they thought of the idea.) The Atlanta Jellies include another Brian from IBM — Brian Jones, a programmer assigned to a work group in Vermont, who kept his job, thanks to IBM’s flexible work policies, when he followed his wife to Atlanta after she enrolled in graduate school there. (Indeed, about 40 percent of the company’s employees have no fixed office space; it saves around US$100 million per year in real estate costs. IBMers used to joke that the company letters stood for “I’ve Been Moved”; now they’re more likely to say they stand for “I’m By Myself.”) Roam and Jelly bring Jones something he can’t get within his home office: regular face-to-face contact with other professionals and colleagues.

A Field Guide to Co-working

Roam provides a space for what is called “co-working.” A co-working facility is an open office environment shared by multiple freelancers and companies. Often much less expensive to rent and maintain than traditional office space (because of the flexibility), and closer to participants’ homes, co-working spaces are still in their infancy. There are only about 70 such locations in the world, sprinkled throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Latin America. But their potential contribution is greater than these numbers might suggest. Just as cloud computing represents a more nimble and spontaneous, multi-sourced data environment that may augur the next new thing in technology, sites like Roam are the seeds of a less restrained and possibly more creative “cloud office” environment of the future.

Co-working provides a single solution to multiple organizational problems: the space demands of flexible, multi-geographical workforces; the costs of permanent offices; the potential inconvenience of working at home (especially for employees with children); the inexperience that many employees have with alliances and joint ventures (which are natural outgrowths of shared space); the carbon footprint inherent in a commuting population; and the sheer waste of time, resources, human capability, and energy spent moving people back and forth across a metropolitan area, only to have them on the phone or reading e-mail most of the day.

For example, at the Hat Factory, a co-working space in San Francisco, two of the tenants are programmers working for Intalio, a business process management software company based 50 miles (80 kilometers) away in Palo Alto. These programmers commute to the Palo Alto office only a couple of days per week. They say their supervisor approves of the arrangement because they accomplish more work on their Hat Factory days than on days when they spend two and a half hours in the car.

 
 
 
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