The first time Jonathan Tzou entered a coworking space was back in 2006, when he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania helping build a biomedical device prototype. “Workspaces like this were not super common at the time," says Tzou, who now works on product and growth initiatives at a new task-completion app called Complete. But he loved it: “Building resources were ample, and mentorship was always within arm's reach," he says. "Without [that environment], I don't think our team would have been able to file our provisional patent.”
Nearly 10 years later, coworking spaces have exploded, thanks in part to an economy that relies increasingly on freelancers and other independent contractors. Indeed, a recent study by the Freelancer’s Union found that 53 million Americans — or about 34 percent of the workforce — have gone solo. And tech start-ups Wix and Officevibe predict that by 2020, 40 percent of workers will be freelance.
It’s not only independent workers who gravitate toward coworking spaces, either. More and more start-ups are opting to launch their businesses in these shares offices too — both for their low cost and for the environment of creativity and teamwork they inspire.
“People are looking for this very convenient, compartmentalized way to do work in a non-lonely environment,” says Tzou. “[A coworking space] is cost-effective and allows you to be around people who are generally trying to be productive, so it’s motivating.”
But, if you’re used to a working in a cubicle, shifting to one of these frequently open, frequently bustling spaces can be rather jarring. We asked Tzou for his tips on how to maximize productivity and get the most out of the new shared office environment.
The wonderful thing about sharing a space with all these self-starters, freelancers and independent contractors is that — unlike in a corporate office — everyone actually wants to be there. “You’re surrounded by people who are generally aligned with you on either putting something out or creating something or getting something done,” says Tzou. And he says you should take advantage of that.
“The beautiful thing about co-working spaces is it’s where serendipity happens,” he adds. “An engineer will be walking by another team that’s struggling with their own engineering problem, and he’ll be like, ‘Oh I can help you out with that.’ The wonderful thing about being in a place where there’s a high concentration of people working on their own collective problems is that oftentimes these problems share common roadblocks, and it’s really really great to have all the resources show up at your doorstep.”
The more you reach out to your neighbors and offer an ear or some advice, the more they’ll want to help you. “It’s a fundamental component of what it is to be human,” says Tzou. “When people are real with each other — that’s what builds trust, connection and that’s what creates open dialogue for exchange of info. But it really takes one person to take initiative and open up that channel. ... And 99 times out of 100, it’s provided some level of karmic value.”
If you’re shy about going up to a complete stranger who might have a lot to do herself, many coworking spaces will host events, like talks or mixers where members can network, mingle and get helpful career tips. “It’s an opportunity to open up connections with other entrepreneurs and others who might have that lead for that next investor or that next company you can partner with to really change the game for you,” says Tzou.
With all the socializing and throwing ideas around and brainstorming, it can be hard to, well, actually get any work done. “It’s really important to find a way to not let the moving parts around you distract you,” says Tzou. “For some people, that means going into a corner, facing said corner and removing all visual distractions. For others, it’s about getting either ear plugs or noise-canceling headphone.” Many coworking spaces have private areas, as well, where people can work without worrying about people bothering them.
Still, others opt to leave the coworking space when push comes to shove. “They go to a local coffee shop, or they work outside,” says Tzou. “But if you’re operating within the coworking space, first identify the things that generally pull your attention away and then minimize your exposure to them.”