With retail sales in decline, office supplies store Staples announced something unorthodox last month: The company was jumping onto the co-working bandwagon. With the help of co-working provider Workbar, Staples began a pilot test of three communal work spaces in its Boston-area locations.
It’s not hard to see the thought process. Staples has a lot of space, and co-working is proving to be a lucrative business venture. WeWork, the largest of the new co-working companies, was recently valued at $16 billion. Meanwhile, a wide variety of co-working spaces—from the traditional to the wildly eccentric—are attempting to persuade freelancers and other small businesses to leave the coffee shops and home offices for a desk at a co-working space.
But if you’re among the many hearing the call of co-working, you may be finding it’s not that easy to find the right space. I’ve personally tried out memberships at three different co-working spaces. The pricing structures and atmospheres were wildly different—something I’ve found to be consistent across the co-working landscape. That can make it difficult to provide one-size-fits-all advice for freelancers interested in joining one.
However, there are still some basic questions to ask before you join a co-working space.
1. How much does it cost?
This is the big kahuna. It’s a simple question, but if the space doesn’t make sense for your budget, then nothing else matters.
Costs can vary significantly depending on whether you’re getting a dedicated desk with a 24-hour access or a hot desk only available certain hours. WeWork, for example, prices its hot desks at $220 a month, while its private offices are $450 a month. Figure out what arrangement makes sense for your budget, and don’t be afraid to experiment—most spaces make it relatively easy to cancel your membership. WeWork, for example, runs on a month-to-month system.
And while it’s true that a co-working membership could be used as a tax deduction, remember that the tax deduction will only offset part of the cost.
2. What amenities are included?
When evaluating cost, it’s important to consider what’s included in the co-working membership and whether the amenities will allow you to cut back in other areas. I belonged to one space that offered unlimited printing and photocopying to its members, and another that hosted a lunchtime yoga class every Wednesday. I used both of those perks—which helped save me money—but I didn’t benefit from all the free amenities. Unlimited beverage privileges weren’t useful to me since I don’t drink coffee or beer.
The space itself can vary in what it offers as well. Do you need conference rooms, phone booths, or a kitchen? Not all co-working spaces have the rooms you need or want. But remember that oftentimes these things are flexible: One space I worked at included a set number of conference-room hours each month, and since I didn’t have a need for in-person meetings, I’d book the room for longer phone calls.
Don’t fall into the trap of gunning for the space that has the flashiest perks. Instead, figure out which places have the kind of amenities that you’ll actually use to save money and time.
3. What’s the commitment?
Many co-working providers let you try out the space for a day or week to make sure it’s a good fit before you join. Still, you’ll want to know the minimum commitment (One month? Three months? A full year?) and how much notice you must give before canceling.
Even if you love the space now, circumstances can change and a gig working at a client’s office or a move to a new city could require you to cancel. If your co-working space isn’t flexible, you may end up eating unnecessary fees.
4. How often will I use it?
Like a gym membership, a cheap co-working membership isn’t a deal if you never use it. Realistically consider how many days per week and for how long you will use the space. If you have childcare obligations or an aversion to getting dressed and going to an office, definitely take that into account. And if you travel a lot, find out if the co-working space has locations in other cities. If you’ll only use it sparingly, consider getting a day pass rather than committing to a long-term membership.
5. What’s the noise level?
Whether you work best in library silence or with a little background buzz, noise can make a huge impact on how much you get out of a co-working space.
“We tend to play music, we tend to chat a little bit,” said Christy Karras, a freelance writer who co-founded Monkey Barrel Media, a collaborative workspace in Seattle. “We try to bring in responsible yet easygoing people.”
I conduct multiple phone interviews most days, so having a quiet space for phone calls is important to me. Some co-working spaces have that, some don’t. Examining noise level is one of the big benefits of free trials: If it’s too distracting or too quiet, you’ll only get more frustrated the longer you’re there.
6. How’s the lighting?
Some people crave natural sunlight; others prefer to work in a darker, cave-like setting. If you’re someone who works best at either extreme or has light sensitivity, try to find a co-working space that matches your preference.
Like noise level, this factor is easily overlooked until it’s too late, so take care to acknowledge how the lighting in the space could affect your productivity.
7. Does it meet my ergonomic needs?
Test out the ergonomics at the co-working space you intend to join or ask about customizing your desk to your needs. A bad chair or desk can make an otherwise great space seem like a nightmare.
Luckily most providers are considerate when it comes to seating. One space I joined allowed hot-desk members to alternate between regular desks, standing desks, and even a bicycle desk.
8. What’s the vibe?
Some co-working spaces are super social—I even belonged to one that was dog-friendly—while others have more of a nose-to-the-grindstone mindset.
Freelancer Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau has belonged to a New York City writer’s space since 2013 and enjoys the social atmosphere. “I’ve made friends there, so we tend to eat lunch at the same time, we chat about work a lot but also our personal lives,” she said. “There are regular events too, [like] roundtables with agents or other industry pros, readings at a nearby bar with writers from the space, and once or twice a month they’ll have bagels for breakfast.”
But not everyone wants to socialize. Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist Dahna M. Chandler is a self-described introvert who canceled her co-working membership after a few months when she decided her space focused too much on the social aspects rather than the work.
“Writers considering that option should consider if it really fits their personality,” she said.
9. Who are the other members?
Don’t forget to look around or ask who else belongs to the space. “It’s nice to be surrounded by other writers and share war stories,” Jouhanneau said.
Even if you’re a writer and the space isn’t made up solely of writers, you may still find value in networking with other creative professionals. Good co-working spaces give you opportunities like teaming up with a photographer to cover an event or getting client referrals from the project manager at the next desk. But if you’re the only female writer in a room full of male coders, you might feel like the odd woman out.
Remember that you’ll be around these people many times a week. Feeling comfortable around them should near the top of your priority list.
10. How’s the commute?
Commute time was a major factor in Chandler’s decision to leave her co-working space (not to mention the extra money she spent on food and commute costs). “The commute was fifteen to twenty minutes by public transit each way, plus about a ten-minute walk,” she said. “Usually in the afternoon, the bus was late or off schedule so that increased commuting time. And standing out in the cold or heat waiting for the bus was no fun.”
Karras said the commute can be a deal-breaker for her members too. After all, many freelancers leave the corporate grind to avoid long drives or subway rides to an office. If your co-working space adds that element back into your life, it may not be worth the money.
That’s the thing about co-working: It can start to feel a lot like an office. So if you became a freelancer to avoid corporate life, use these questions to make sure it’s worth it.