A mobile journalist's endorsement of shared office space
A small, noisy machine revs into action in the middle of Pat Helmers' sales call. He takes it in stride.
"I work in a makerspace," he explains to a client. "They're making something over there."
Helmers reconsiders that. "I think they're actually breaking something," he jokes, grabbing his laptop and leaving his communal workbench at Fox.Build in St. Charles for a quiet room to wrap up his call.
Helmers is one of my co-workers for a day as I experiment with the growing office trend called co-working that targets workers just like me -- namely anyone with a cellphone and a laptop who can work remotely.
For Helmers, working at home in Plano wasn't terribly productive, nor was it very enjoyable.
"I got lonely," Helmers said, putting in simple terms the lack of human connection many mobile employees feel.
Instead of wallowing in that loneliness, Helmers chose to work among the computers, laser cutters, high-tech tools and 3-D printers of Fox.Build's self-described "makerspace and hackerspace." His sales gig doesn't quite match the jobs of those around him, but that's OK.
The occasional noisy interruption is only a minor distraction, maybe even a welcome one, he says. "I like that people are inventing things, making things. I believe in the power of a makerspace."
As a mobile journalist in my late 20s, I match the target market for the co-working movement that is beginning to build steam across the suburbs, with roughly 15 of these shared work centers scattered across the region.
There are people like Helmers here, and barely noticeable background noises that signify people working. Tapping keyboards, ringing phones, humming heaters, even sighs and sneezes are welcome sounds to someone who simply doesn't like to be alone. The co-workers I'm joining agree.
"I had to overcome isolation and find a professional space," says David Jakes of Naperville, an educational consultant who tells me that he works out of 25N in Geneva when he's not traveling. "It fulfills a component of being part of a community."
Inside the walls of his work community, Jakes has plenty of work to do, so I turn back to my laptop a few chairs away from him and leave him be. There are 13 things on my to-do list. So I dive in.
I instantly notice the Wi-Fi is faster than my internet at home, a product of the economies of scale of co-working centers -- more workers paying into the overhead costs for one shared space means better services for all. My computer revs in appreciation.
I'm offered a cup of coffee and I take it, decaf. Sometimes, it's the little things.
The co-working facilities I tried both have plenty of little things and creature comforts: fancy coffee machines, a restaurant-style refrigerator and a dishwasher operated by staff members at 25N; a regular coffee maker, regular fridge stocked with plenty of water bottles and all kinds of pop, and a table with munchies such as popcorn and candies at Fox.Build. All included for members. All part of what makes these places workspaces instead of empty spaces.
"I like it because it's cozy, and I can find nooks and crannies," Sybil Ege of Elburn says about her spot at 25N, where she works as a small business planning consultant. She says the music is just right, the location is convenient and she's able to focus in an inviting space. "It's attractive."
As I work on stories about things like a meteor dazzling night owls as it streaked across the sky, I'm aware of conversations going on around me.
An architect is puzzled about why his client doesn't want a more interestingly designed apartment building for only a slightly higher price. A recent graduate who wants to go into music production is trying to find the best way to begin his career. A salesman wants to know what a software developer is working on, which turns out to be designing a farming and gardening robot.
"People are finding the aesthetic here kind of neat," says Sally Gradle, a WordPress developer from St. Charles who works among other technologists at Fox.Build. "A lot of networking happens here. There aren't two people who do the same thing. There's a lot of 'I know a guy who does this or that.'"
I take stock of the people around me, their varied professions and skills, as I wrap up my co-working days.
Most of them have cleared out when I finish about 6 p.m. But there's always the one holdout, carrying work from day into night, doing exactly what my favorite poster in Fox.Build says, and what could become the motto and rallying cry for all co-working centers as they find a foothold in the suburbs:
"Get excited and make things."