How new co-working trend is redefining workspace

“Co-working” is creative, collaborative and a growing trend in tech-oriented business hubs. And it's starting to make its way to the suburbs.

It's for people like John Blumberg of Naperville, a 58-year-old author who doesn't need an office of his own to run his speaking business but wants a workspace outside his home.

It's also for people like Rebeka Litfin of Aurora, a 37-year-old independent contractor in digital media who has seen how her business benefits when she works with other creative freelancers on large-scale projects.

Co-working centers give professionals like Blumberg and Litfin a place to rent a desk and work near others who might have complementary skill sets. Strangers can bond as co-workers in a dedicated space to develop their ideas and find new projects — all without having to shell out the cost of an entire office.

Co-working centers, the next big thing in working environments, offer the collaboration often found in office settings while allowing professionals to work from wherever they will be most productive on a given day, according to those behind the push to bring these facilities to the suburbs. Business incubators, which also are popping up in the area, provide the added benefits of education and support for people launching new ventures.

“The whole idea of people working from home was great for everyone at first,” said Mara Hauser, who plans to open an alternate workspace called Catalyst Co-working in Batavia, Geneva or St. Charles later this year. “In reality, it's really hard to separate work from home. Work/life balance is a major issue. What (co-workers are) also are looking for is just ... not being lonely and the socialization that comes with the workplace.”

Businesspeople, nonprofits and government agencies such as libraries are beginning to see the trend toward co-working and business incubators as more than a hip, young or exciting atmosphere. Experts say these facilities create a way to cut startup costs and help new businesses succeed, boosting local economies along with them.

“There certainly is a boom in startup culture. Many people are seeing the opportunity to start companies,” said Laura Frerichs, director of the Research Park at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, which has been home to a business incubator since 2003 and recently began offering co-working. “Governments are becoming more excited about growing their economies with startups.”

In several locations, plans are in the works for co-working and incubation facilities that will offer desks for rent, meeting rooms, cafes, office amenities like Wi-Fi and printers, and in some cases, mentorship, seminars and high-tech manufacturing equipment.

“Across the country, these co-working spaces become an alternate to working simply in a coffee shop or working from home,” Frerichs said. “It's interesting to see that really has spread beyond just large urban environments.”

'Burbs & co-working

Catalyst Coworking and an Aurora project called Gravity Building are leading the suburban push toward co-working. They're attracting a variety of workers to buy membership in a facility in exchange for a workspace and the potential to team up with others.

Beyond providing office basics such as flexible or long-term desk space and a mailing address, these co-working centers aim to cultivate a culture that Frerichs said has proved beneficial for startups in tech hubs like San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.

“We are a suburban model of co-working in the central business district. We will offer a workplace and space for freelancers, entrepreneurs and small business owners that currently may have a place where they go to work every day, but there's no collaboration,” Hauser said about Catalyst Coworking, which could open as soon as April once she chooses a downtown location in one of the Tri-Cities communities. “Our goal is to be able to provide those individuals options for working or meeting.”

More importantly, says Jimi Allen, who is launching Gravity Building in downtown Aurora, his space promises an environment that will spawn creative partnerships among workers in complementary fields. A dedicated desk costs $350 a month, a flexible option to use different workspaces each day is $250 a month and a 10-day pass costs $120.

“It would represent a large independent network of the creative class,” Allen said about his co-working center, which will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. “The byproduct that's most important for Gravity Building is that people will get better. People will get better at what they do because they will be around people that are ambitious.”

Twenty-five people, including Blumberg, the Naperville speaker and author, and Litfin, the Aurora digital media contractor, have signed up to be co-workers at Gravity Building when it opens, potentially later this year, in a three-story building at 56 S. LaSalle St.

“It quickly becomes a community of colleagues working together, kicking jobs to each other, pulling together,” Litfin said. “Co-working truly becomes a community with ongoing networking and synergy.”

While Allen and Hauser are private business owners — Allen in visual productions and marketing and Hauser in design management — they both are cultivating some government involvement in their co-working centers.

The University of Illinois' Frerichs says this type of partnership is critical to the success of co-working endeavors.

“It's best when it's not completely isolated and government-driven, but has some sort of an intersection with the private sector,” Frerichs said.

Hauser created an advisory board to guide Catalyst Coworking, and the center will offer classes for new business owners through partnerships with Elgin and Waubonsee community colleges. To join the community, people will pay a $250 annual fee. Desk rentals will be separate with one day for $35, 10-day passes for $325 and monthly rentals for different types of spaces from $250 to $500.

Allen is seeking funding from the city of Aurora to help with renovations to the 1907 building he is developing, which used to be an auto garage. He and Hauser aim to start with one location and eventually create a network.

“I would like to see Gravity Buildings in more than just Aurora,” Allen said. “I'd like to see them all over the suburban area.”

Library = BiblioTek

Before joining a co-working center, entrepreneurs need something to work on.

That's where the Naperville Public Library plans to enter the alternate workspaces game. Library leaders are realizing they can build on their status as a go-to spot for independent workers by starting programs that will help people launch businesses.

BiblioTek Centers for Innovation and Discovery will be a first step for patrons who have an idea but don't know what to do next, said Julie Rothenfluh, executive director.

The project is not exactly a co-working center, but more the library's take on a business incubator where would-be innovators can get support.

A variety of workers already use library space as offices, so BiblioTek plans to offer them not only a free desk and access to technology, but also mentorship and programming about topics such as intellectual property, website development and budgeting.

Naperville Development Partnership, which works on economic development in the city, is helping launch BiblioTek as an asset to attract young, innovative minds, said Christine Jeffries, the partnership's president.

While BiblioTek's physical space will not be as trendy as 1871, a well-known co-working center for digital startups inside the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, it aims to create a suburban version of the support system risk-takers need to succeed.

BiblioTek could open this spring. Ideally, Jeffries said, it won't become any entrepreneur's permanent address.

“If we get them to the point where they have a business plan, then they can sell their idea,” Jeffries said. “Then we want them to move out, join the chamber and rent space from private industry. We don't want to compete.”

DuPage incubator

In a world full of competition, another alternate workspace aims to give a leg up to DuPage County-area residents with new product ideas.

The county's economic development agency Choose DuPage is launching Rev3, a business incubation center that will offer 3-D printers, wood and metal shops, and production technology for people with manufacturing dreams. Co-working space will be available in the coming months when Rev3 establishes a location, but Nicholas Zito, business services director for Choose DuPage, said the technological focus is what makes Rev3 unique.

“Our niche is the emphasis on the incubator side,” Zito said. “Digital innovation technology will allow people and businesses to begin with lower startup costs because you're not investing right away in a huge manufacturing facility.”

Individuals or small businesses who use Rev3 would pay membership fees between about $150 and $350 a month depending on their needs for equipment and space.

While the incubator does not yet have a physical space, its digital launch took place in October. Entrepreneurs ranging from recent graduates with ideas for mobile apps to experienced engineers who want to design medical prototypes have attended seminars on topics including how to license technologies developed at universities or labs.

Incubators and co-working centers with a theme — like Rev3 and its focus on manufacturing — may be the wave of the future as alternate workspaces aim to concentrate innovators in similar industries together for economies of scale, Frerichs said.

When Rev3 gets up and running, it plans to reorganize as a nonprofit, focused on growing the area's economy one manufacturing idea at a time, Zito said.

“It's one thing to just provide space,” he said. “It's another to provide support with the goal of creating jobs and new viable businesses within the community.”

  Designs are in the works for Catalyst Coworking, an alternate workspace that will allow individual workers to rent desks and possibly form new collaborative partnerships. Mara Hauser of The Hauser Group in St. Charles is launching the co-working center later this year. Brian Hill/
  This 1907 former auto garage in downtown Aurora is the future home of Gravity Building, a co-working center in the works for creative professionals. It's one example of several alternate workspaces in development as worker mobility increases but the need for collaboration remains strong. Paul Michna/
  Jimi Allen of Aurora hopes to begin renovations this spring on Gravity Building, a creative co-working center in downtown Aurora. Allen said the space will offer desks for rent to freelancers in fields such as digital media or design. Paul Michna/
  Gravity Building in downtown Aurora is one of a handful of co-working centers and business incubators in development across the suburbs as worker mobility increases. Paul Michna/