March 1, 2007 — -- Ever wonder who those muffin-filled, highly caffeinated people furiously typing away on their laptops, or staring off into space, at your local Starbucks are? And, furthermore, how do they ever get anything done?
In the last decade, as Starbucks and other such chains have cropped up all over the United States, the corner coffee shop has transformed from quiet and contemplative to bustling and frenetic. But, as these places are used like offices, libraries and conference rooms, they've become too noisy for some, leaving the self-employed to seek an alternative work space.
No longer satisfied with the impersonal nature of the local café, a new type of work environment is popping up across the country from New York City to Portland, Ore., and even in Copenhagen, Denmark.
It's called the alternative work space, and as ambiguous as it sounds, these locations provide freelance writers, free-agent programmers and small-business owners of all sorts with a desk, a phone, a fax machine, a copier and, what may be even more important to their daily routine, a sense of community.
"You can commiserate with people, and it also makes the job more real," said Brian Lutz, a tennis instructor who runs his own Web site and works in an alternative work space.
"The mission statement is to provide a flexible, appealing alternative work space for independent entrepreneurs who shy away from the typical corporate farms," said John McGann, founder of 116 West Houston, a co-working space in New York City's Soho district. "They want a space they can collaborate in, a space they can work out of that provides an alternative to coffee shops or their home, where they tend to find a lot of distraction and get stir crazy."
His business is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and provides a more professional sibling to the coffee shop. Surrounded by conference rooms, a shared kitchen and even a lounge, the central focus of 116 West Houston is its communal work space with desks, computers, printers, arm chairs and, yes, coffee.
Political consultant Joanne Wright started her own business last August and decided to rent space at 116 West Houston after realizing she didn't enjoy working from home.
"I thought working at home would be great and six months later I was completely depressed and unproductive," Wright said. "So, I started haunting coffee shops just to be around people and then that sort of got pathetic after awhile."
Like Wright, many alternative work space frequenters cite the social aspect of these spaces as the key to their success. "There is the social benefit of being around people who are intelligent, hardworking, socially active, intelligent people," McGann said.
And, the decision to share space may change some people's idea of what it means to be a freelancer, which Lutz said generally implies working from home.
"I think people were surprised that I had an office. I think most people think you just work at home and it would be great working in your pajamas, but … I'm invigorated when I wake up. I want to go to work," Lutz explained.
He also wanted a work space that was more professional than sitting amid crowds in a cafe. "To me, if you're working in a coffee shop, it reeks of amateurism."
While these work environments appeal to a wide variety of professionals, they're certainly not for every one. Membership fees, which range from $10 per day to $700 dollars a month, can take a toll on a freelancers budget, especially when compared to the free space and Internet access that comes with a beverage purchase in most coffee shops.
Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko points to a different reason to stick with a classic cafe, saying the alternative work spaces lack the energy and creativity of the coffee shop -- a place where many go to generate ideas and find inspiration.
"I consider the coffee shop my office. I have several coffee shops in my area where I work depending on my mood and the kind of work I need to do," Wodiczko explained. "What is good about a coffee shop is that I can think and work and focus on my future projects."
Despite its critics, the alternative work space is thriving across the country and heading north. Last month, a new one, called Indoor Playground, opened in Toronto, Canada.
Meanwhile, McGann is looking to improve his space. He recently began renovations which will triple the size of his building's public area, make room for a small conference room and a larger lounge area, and create space for a few hammocks, in case members need a quick power nap.