(photo by Margaret Roth)
When you ask someone why they love coworking, there’s a common list of the most-appreciated perks. Things like cool office space at a great price, not having to worry about taking out the trash or cleaning the bathroom yourself and friendly space managers that make sure the coffee’s always brewing and provide a much needed smile each and every morning.
Whether you have your own dedicated desk or opt for drop-in hours, coworking is a social activity, and beats maintaining a high-level of over-caffeination so that you can stay at the coffee shop all day long.
To find out about the dynamics and culture developing beyond these basic benefits, we dropped in on Spark Baltimore’s Inner Harbor space on August 9 for International Coworking Day, and spoke with four of their members.
The first thing you notice about Spark Baltimore is just how many different types of spaces there are for people to work in: Open desks, formal conference rooms, collaboration rooms known as fishbowls, single offices, shared offices, sliding doors, lounges, couches, and a kitchen bar.
Among those who appreciate this variety of space is Mike Lanciano, a senior engineer with Clarity Innovations. With over a decade of development experience at both massive companies like General Dynamics and small startups of 12 people, he finds that the biggest benefit of being in a coworking space is the flexibility to reorganize their physical space around projects.
“For example if we were going to add somebody new and do a new program we could use (our other room) for that opportunity,” he said. “It’s nice that there’s a lot of space that is designed to be a shared working space, so if I need to take a break from working (in our office), I can grab my laptop or take a phone call in a different room.”
Lanciano added that working in close proximity, while being around others, has improved their team’s communication. And it’s that culture of social communication and community that brings the most notable challenges and growth opportunities for members of the coworking space. Lanciano calls this “personality management.”
“You’re always dealing with that internally to your company, where everyone has different working styles and different working habits and different things that they like and different things they don’t like. That gets amplified in a space like this” he said. “If you have people that have a specific way that they’re used to working and it conflicts with yours, there’s not enough space for both to exist and that can be challenging.”
A big part of working through this is being proactive. Lanciano said that things have been really good at Spark because, “We’ve been trying to put in an effort to say ‘Hey this is who we are, this is what we do. If this is causing a problem for you please let us know.’ You have to manage your relationships with other people that you don’t work with day to day because you want to be a good neighbor.”
Jacqueline Johnson, a former Baltimore City Public School teacher, is now the founder and managing principal of ALCY Education Solutions, where she works to increase teacher efficacy while being a mommy, shares this experience. When asked what has been a challenge for her transitioning from a home office to a dedicated office space, she said, “I am a super people person, and the challenge for me is these are not actually your coworkers. You do not do the same thing, you’re not in the same business, sometimes you do not even flow in the same lane, and you’re not in the same industry.”
As Johnson grew accustomed to being in a pool of diverse organizations, she recognized the advantage that everyone from PR teams to printing companies were now her coworkers. “I have an environment of productivity; folks are around here getting it done, so let’s get it done. While I may not say everyone is friendly, I’m not here to look for friends,” she said. “I’m here to look for partnerships.”
When people make the transition from a large corporate culture to a smaller team that’s still building up, it’s that environment of hard work and professional connections that can be most appealing.
Shervonne Cherry, Director of Community and Partnerships at Spark Baltimore, said that while many of their members come into coworking knowing what to expect, it’s those that are new to the concept that experience the most growth. Often those members are shifting from a home office or the coffeeshop, and haven’t had to have a lot of consistency or be around new people in their routines. When they arrive at Spark, they’re surrounded by new connections; whether it’s because of talk at the nitro-coffee bar or going to get free bagels with others in the kitchen, it brings them into a healthy social rhythm.
To Cherry, “It’s the idea of having that connectivity and that community, that ‘I’m not by myself anymore, I’m not solo in my hustle, my venture, my business,’ it’s ‘Hey, so and so next door or down the hall or on the next floor, they’re doing something really similar to me, I can connect and bounce ideas off of them.’ That’s what community is all about.”
As Tracee Strum-Gilliam left her office of 160 people after 15 years, her big driver was social.
“I was looking for a space where I didn’t feel alone. Going from that much chatter and interaction to being a single person in a space while I worked to establish our office and hire people seemed overwhelming,” she said.
An environmental engineer and planner by training that specializes in public outreach in environmental justice analysis for transportation infrastructure projects, Strum-Gilliam is now the director of east coast business development at PRR and has grown her Baltimore-based team to 10, with four at Spark and six that work on-site for a client.
Even though she immediately appreciated the social community and ability to grow her network, she found it took some explanation to those unfamiliar with the coworking concept, especially as she was getting things established.
“I’ve had people ask me in a business setting, well are you a real business because you don’t have your own office? It’s no different than if I was living in an apartment versus a single-family home. I would still be the same person, I would still be a wife, a mother, raising my family. That’s kind of how I feel about being here at Spark. The business that we’re building is no different than any other business in terms of the services we provide our clients.”
And the network is growing. To Strum-Gilliam, another benefit has been that “as people grow and move on, your network grows and moves too because you don’t lose those connections when they move offices or go to another company.”
From the design of the space itself to the interactions that occur just by operating in a social, community-oriented environment, coworkers go through change and growth that they may not have expected.
No community member company may have experienced this reality more than Native American LifeLines, an urban Native American health program. After last losing their Clay Street headquarters to flooding and mold caused by last summer’s record rainfall, the team tried working remotely. But fiscal manager Jess McPherson said their communications suffered.
“We were no longer centralized and could no longer easily convey our questions or our needs. That stuff can become sort of muddled or pushed to the side or misinterpreted through email or text and it became necessary for us to have a space where we could do those things face-to-face.” Bringing their team to a coworking space not only helped them overcome these communication challenges, but set the stage for a cultural reset.
After 18 years in their previous office, her team had developed “unhealthy norms.” But now she sees that being in a community with shared common space makes her and her team more conscious of what those norms are. From keeping things more organized to increased conversations on having a healthy work-life balance and taking intentional breaks, she sees how they have shifted into new patterns.
“Before I would sit and work non-stop without a break and now I’m going to go walk down here instead of working at my desk all day, or maybe I’ll go socialize with people I don’t know, maybe network with new colleagues,” she said. “Here we can elevate each other, and help us understand that we’re not struggling alone. There’s lots of people trying to do awesome things and we can all celebrate that just by being together.”
It’s stories like this that get to the heart of the coworking movement. To Cherry, the coworking industry and spaces like Spark work for businesses because it takes the best of hospitality and customer service and brings it together in a communal space.
“We want to be connected to something or someone on some level,” Cherry said. “I think every human wants that; coworking sort of feeds that need around the globe of individuals or companies who want to be a part of something bigger — connected to individuals who they can trust, and bounce ideas off, and celebrate with. I think that’s just part of human nature.”
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