Shared workspaces aim to build community


 By Ann Meyer

The Writers WorkSpace on north Broadway is one of a growing number of collaborative workspaces in Chicago.
Amy Davis launched the Writers WorkSpace to offer a quiet but collegial working environment for the city's professional writers. Photo courtesy of Davis.

Writing might be a solo activity, but Chris Benevich craves the energy of working in the company of others when she cranks out her marketing and communications prose.

She’s found both quiet and collegial interaction at the Writers WorkSpace at 5443 N. Broadway on Chicago’s North Side, a for-profit collaborative workspace founded in 2006 by writer Amy Davis and supported by members who pay $125 a month for full-time access. “I find it enlivening   to be in a space where everyone is passionate about what they do,” Benevich said. “I really pick up on other people’s energy.”

The Writers WorkSpace is one of a growing number of collaborative workspaces that have sprung up throughout the Chicago area to serve the needs of sole proprietors and small businesses looking for an alternative to setting up shop in their homes. Illinois was home to about 900,000 sole proprietors in 2007, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. The number has likely increased as laid off workers frustrated by the tough job market hang out their own shingles to make a living, experts said.

The growth of mobile technology combined with “the decentralization of corporate America” is driving development of shared office space for remote workers and small businesses, said Marty Martin, associate professor of management at DePaul University.

What’s more, the slow economy has many workers desiring more social interaction. “During  a challenging economic time, it’s particularly important to surround ourselves with people who can help us achieve our goals and our dreams,” said Benevich, president of Panache Writing Inc. “On a daily basis, I’m inspired to do my best work because I’m surrounded by people who are alive doing what they most want to do, which is writing.”

Benevich’s experience is common, said Martin, who is also a psychologist. “Human beings are social beings. We’re wired to interact,” he said. “It really does boost your brain’s ability to be fully engaged.”

Collaborative workspaces come in many forms, from shared office space to business incubators. Some offer closed offices for complete privacy, while others, such as OfficePortChicago have open layouts, lounges and regular networking events designed to spur interaction and a sense of community.

In Evanston, the Technology Innovation Center, also called “the incubator,” holds Thursday evening social events, which often lead to collaborations among the 30 to 40 tenants, said Tim Lavengood, executive director.   Entrepreneur Richard Moy, who has run two companies from the incubator since 1986, likened it to a fraternity, where neighbors often share equipment and help out one another.

“By being here, you can at any time have a conversation with the next-door neighbor,” Moy said.  Neighbor Illumen Group, developers of interactive training and marketing, has partnered with Moy’s IT consulting firm, Taishan Works, to offer usability and web design work to Taishan’s clients.

For companies looking for more support than most incubators provide, Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkofsky’s Lightbank provides investment capital along with office space on Groupon’s premises and access to experienced entrepreneurs. The idea is to “fundamentally change the risk-reward” equation inherent in starting a business, Keywell said. “Ours is a commitment of time, expertise, resources and connectivity,” he said.

By providing key contacts and tactical advice from experienced entrepreneurs, “We should have a bigger impact,” Keywell said.

Joe Matthews, who started marketing  firm Poggled from his home, said being part of Lightbank has accelerated the company’s growth dramatically. The company, which offers consumers Groupon-like deals for nightlife as well as providing market intelligence on liquor brands,  hired dozens of workers last year to keep up with  demand, Matthews said.  

Without advice from Lightbank, Matthews said, “There are so many paths you can go down, it’s easy to get distracted.”

But other collaborative workspaces might prove more distracting than working alone because of their open environment, Martin said. As a result, some people don’t thrive in busy, noisy workspaces, he said.

That’s one reason Davis designed TheWritersWorkspace with a quiet room. “It’s a special place you go to and turn off your cellphone and don’t check your email,” said member Terra Brockman, an author.

WritersWorkspace also has separate rooms for making phone calls or holding meetings. And the kitchen acts as a central gathering space for community-building. “People find each other,” Davis said. “The community aspect of the space is very important.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune Sept. 27, 2011.