Avoid isolation by setting up a shared office space
by Ethan Watters
Humans are social creatures. While freelancers seldom miss the constraints of office life -- the unnecessary meetings, the petty politics, the wretched busywork -- they often long for the companionship that traditional offices provide. When you're all alone in a home office day after day, you can spend whole afternoons staring into refrigerators or examining suspicious skin discolorations. Isolation breeds inertia, and some freelancers experience a sudden loss of creativity or productivity, as if their abilities were somehow tied to the social expectations of working with a team. By joining forces with several like-minded independent professionals to get a shared office space, you can create a sense of camaraderie without compromising the goals or vision of your own work. It's actually much simpler to do than you might think.
What You Need to Know
Nine years ago, I teamed up with novelists Po Bronson and Ethan Canin to co-found a workspace for writers. Today, The San Francisco Writer's Grotto (as we call it) is still going strong. We now have nine writers sharing space in a loft-style building in an industrial part of town. Entertainment Weekly recently called us "One of the few solid literary communities outside the media centers of New York and LA." Here's what we've learned along the way.
Cons and Pros
Setting up a shared office space is a great way to keep your career moving, but it's not a panacea. Signing an office lease will add a few hundred bucks to your monthly expenses, and it requires active management of people and resources. Small conflicts between officemates have to be resolved, the place has to be maintained, and people who move on have to be replaced. These demands add up. Judged over time, however, the advantages of a shared office space can far out weigh the costs in time and money. These include:
—An increased sense of professionalism -- When I tell some of my mother's friends that I'm a freelancer, they hear, "unemployed." Having an office -- especially one with other well-known writers -- has allowed me to take my work more seriously and present a more professional face to the world.
—Getting more work done -- Everyone at the Grotto has described the same sensation upon hearing the clickity-click of someone else's fingers on the keyboard. It is not a feeling of competitiveness, really, but a small reminder that says, "Sit down and get some work done you lazy bastard."
—Shared work, referrals, and advice -- One of the most tangible benefits of working in a shared office space is having officemates who pass along assignments when they're too busy. Over the years, I can safely say that I've covered at least half of my office rent through such overflow work. I've also profited from having a stable of writing pros on hand to pick up my slack, critique first drafts, and give me advice.
As anyone with experience in the working world knows: Some offices are like a happy, healthy clan, and some become as bitter and torn as Woody Allen's home. Think "diversity" when creating a group. At the Grotto, we have a 50-50 spit between men and women, a range of ages, and a whole spectrum of interests and specialties. No two people cover the same beat or write in the same style. The personality types are equally diverse. A whole office of laid-back people would lack energy, would be a bunch of type-A over-achievers is enough drive anyone crazy. Mix it up.
Be as fair and as clear about money as possible. At the Grotto, everyone pays roughly the same, even though some have been here longer, have signed the lease, and have spent more time improving the space. This is not exactly fair to those veterans, who could make a legitimate case for paying less. But the payback has been substantial: We have never had a falling out with anyone over money.
Hyper-competitiveness can be avoided by encouraging a sense of team spirit. We have parties to celebrate successes and a bulletin board to post press clippings and good reviews. You can also encourage officemates to share work or take on projects together. Be patient. Work partnerships must develop organically, and they take time to develop.
What You Need to Do
Get a core group of three or four people together and agree upon the purposes and goals of your office space. Ask yourselves these questions: How much are you going to collaborate? What happens if someone leaves the space early? How much can you afford each month? What is the total number of people you want to have in the office? It is best to keep the core group small at first, even if you intend to get a larger space and add more people down the road. You'll have a lot of decisions to make in the beginning, and if you need approval from a large group of people, the process will grind to a halt.
Find a space
Hunt far and wide. Don't create too specific an idea about the type of office you want until you've seen a range of different facilities. When we started, we looked at downtown spaces, warehouses, lofts, flats, and even single-family homes. We had a good deal of fun, divvying-up spaces and drawing up mock blueprints. You can find space via classified ads or a realtor, but both times we looked for office spaces, we scored by spotting a "For Rent" sign in a window.
Be aggressive. Once you start looking, keep looking -- otherwise the whole idea is likely to lose steam. You can cover a lot more ground if you split up and bring the group together only when someone has found a place with serious potential.
Signing the Lease
Office spaces, unlike apartments, are usually leased for a minimum of three years. (Realtors get paid based on the length and price of the lease they sell, so don't be surprised if they try to stick you with a five year lease.) Signing for this amount of time can feel a little disconcerting -- you have to be fairly sure that you are not going to jump back into a full-time job during the period. On the other hand, long-term commitments bring many advantages. Office space rents are rarely rent-controlled, so a three- or five-year lease guarantees your rent for that amount of time (usually with a clause that allows for a small cost of living increase each year).
Signing on for a number of years also makes it worthwhile to invest in capital investments. We spent two months and $6,000 building about 150 feet of walls into our 1,700 square foot. loft. We then raised the cost of the office space in order to pay for these improvements over the course of the lease. Over three years the renovation cost only $22 per month, per person. If you do any major construction, remember this rule: It always costs twice as much as you expect and takes twice as long as you estimate.
When choosing between open spaces and individually-enclosed offices, I'd recommend closed. We have a quasi-cubicle layout at the Grotto, and noise has been one of the most contentious issues in our office. Everyone has adopted headphones and earplugs to compensate. We also have a "Barton Fink Flag" that we use to indicate when someone is under deadline pressure. When the Fink flag is flying, everyone knows to be extra quiet. Of course, noise tolerance depends on what you do. If you're all stock brokers who are on the phone all day, noise is probably not going to matter. If you are a writerly type, you probably want silence. Either way, be sure to set aside some open, common areas for meetings, chats, and parties.
Have only the core group of three or four sign the lease. Again, there may be some difficult decisions down the road (kicking someone out of the office, for instance, or deciding to scrap the project and sublease the building). Having a small group makes it easier to arrive at a consensus.
Finding and Choosing Your Officemates
The larger the space you get, the better the deal you get per square foot. We've had two different offices for the Grotto, and both times we took on much more space than would be required for three writers. We didn't have a pre-conceived idea of the ultimate number of people we wanted -- instead, we let the space we loved dictate the number of people we could bring on board.
Being in San Francisco, we knew that we could fill the offices with other writers. However, you should gauge interest in your community for the sort of space you're offering, at the price you want to charge. To begin filling spaces, you can throw a party -- this allows people to see the office, and it gives you an opportunity to socialize in a non-interview-like atmosphere. You can also spread the word via email. After that, take potential candidates to lunch -- or even a series of lunches -- until you are pretty sure that you are going to like sharing space with them for the long haul. It's impossible to over-emphasize the care you should take in choosing the people with whom you will spend so much time. Trust your gut. Take note of any small annoyance and multiply exponentially to get a sense of how things might go in the future.
I f you make a mistake and end up with a troublemaker in your office, you must remove that person with the careful aggressiveness of a surgeon removing a tumor. An annoying roommate is one thing, but if someone is keeping you from earning your living, you've got to deal with the problem quickly.
Split Resources and Delegate Responsibilities
Everyone should have his or her own phone line. The copy machine, fax, printers, high-speed modem lines, and microwave can be shared. Most maintenance tasks will fall into three distinct areas: money, physical plant, and people management. Money is the most difficult and time-consuming. Collecting rent, splitting up expenses and utilities, and writing checks should go to an organized, patient, and clear-headed person. (That nixed me.) Whoever takes the job should get a free ride on most other responsibilities. Physical plant can be everything from building walls, to arranging for cleaning and trash pickup, to replacing light bulbs. The people manager takes complaints and suggestions, negotiates conflicts, and leads the search to find new candidates for vacated spaces. To ensure that specialized expertise develops over time, one person should take charge of each of these areas throughout the course of the lease. This doesn't mean that only one person does all the actual work, but rather that he or she is responsible for seeing that a task gets done.
Maximize your Investment
Use the space for more than just work. Leverage it as a way to build a larger community. Hold meetings, seminars, and classes. At the Grotto, we regularly bring other writers and editors by for lunch. Our holiday party has become a major local shindig, and we routinely celebrate milestones such as book releases. While these events are not explicitly designed to be schmoozing opportunities, they have nevertheless increased the stature of the Grotto in the community and enhanced the reputation of those who work here.
The Naming Thing
Don't give your office a silly name like "Accountant's Hutch," "Designers Chateau" or "Writer's Grotto." It may sound like a hoot at the beginning, but later on, people may think you were being terribly pretentious. (We never meant for our name to stick.) Irony is dead, okay? Go with something straightforward and innocuous that you can live with for a long time.