Co-working. If we believe the hype, it’s the best thing for small business owners since, well – the internet! We often hear about the funky office spaces with all the mod-cons, well appointed meeting rooms and break out spaces, in-house cafés, gyms and basketball courts, and of course – the amazing networking opportunities!
While I have to agree that they sound pretty awesome (and often are), I’d like to propose an alternative…
After all, not all of us live in inner city areas where most of these cool co-working spaces are popping up. Out in the ‘burbs and regional areas, many of us run home-based businesses with shorter working days, making long commutes to the city impractical (school hours anyone?), are dealing with responsibilities beyond our paid work (no, the washing doesn’t do itself) and often running our businesses on shoestring budgets. Even when a co-working space membership is practical and affordable, it’s hard to justify the extra expense when you’ve gone to all the trouble of setting up a “proper” home office.
For example, we built a beautiful backyard studio in the Dandenong Ranges that looks out onto my garden and the forest beyond. It’s a great place to work – light, attractive, comfortable and quiet. Without the lure of household duties nearby or the interruptions from random doorknockers, I can be highly productive here, and most days, I am.
But (and it’s a big BUT), it can be a lonely life. I do love my chooks, but they’re not the best company day-in, day-out!
Isolation can be a real problem for soloists.
I know that I start second-guessing my decisions and losing confidence if I’m left alone for too long. I also know that as a creative, I work better when I have others to bounce ideas around with, providing alternative insights and pushing me out of my comfort-zone. It’s the one thing I miss most about working in a team.
So about three years ago, when I read a post in a local business community’s Facebook Group about starting a local “community-based” co-working group, I jumped at the chance – and have never looked back.
Each week, anywhere between three to ten of us meet at a local café. Most are fellow small business owners, but our outer-urban location also attracts a few telecommuters on their “work-at-home” days. Through this group I have formed not only a strong business network, but some great personal friendships. We pay our hosts (a local café) in coffees and lunches, and in return they provide decent WiFi, a regular reserved table and the amazing service that comes with being a “regular”.
As well as work benefits, our little group helps strengthen the community vibe in the local area. We share our experiences about local shops, restaurants and other businesses, and are often an important communication channel for the latest local news and events. We’ve even gotten involved in community discussions and campaigns.
So is it a productive use of my time? Absolutely, YES! Especially now that I have more realistic expectations about how much work I am going to get done. Taking along simple project or admin work that doesn’t require a lot of concentration (definitely not writing!) usually ensures I get through a reasonable number of tasks. Most days our group is fairly productive – working away quietly on our “thing”, with our time together occasionally interlaced with conversation. But there are definitely days when we’ve done more chatting than working! Often this has turned out for the best – problem-solving a tricky challenge, sharing our expertise without expectation of payment, or offloading the frustrations that only other business owners can understand.
But even though my time may not always be spent ticking things off my To Do list, I still rate co-working as THE most important factor in my business success. After all, as someone who spends a lot of time working on a computer, it is not unknown for me to go for 8-10 hours without speaking to a single soul. Without my co-working community I may have gone a little mad…
Sounds good? Here are a few tips for bringing community co-working to your local area or business group:
Find a work-friendly café
Not every café will appreciate you rocking up for hours on end for just the price of a few coffees and lunches, so you’ll need to get permission from the owner or manager before you start. Having access to a separate area, away from the main café business is ideal but not always possible, so ensure that background noise is not going to affect your ability to work productively. Choose a regular day to meet, preferably earlier in the week when they are less likely to be really busy and then get the word out! Our group used MeetUp and local community Facebook groups, while our local council’s Business Development Manager has also been very supportive.
Pop-up in a local co-working space
Another (mostly online) business network I am involved with organises semi-regular co-working days using actual co-working spaces. Many of these offer casual day rates, so we book an area for the day and pay their standard fees. Pop-up days have the benefit of building “in-person” relationships within our community, which then roll into our online interactions. It’s also a great way to try out different co-working spaces, knowing you’ll be in good company when you rock up. After all, turning up randomly to a new co-working space doesn’t always mean you’ll feel comfortable in the space, enjoy the vibe or make meaningful connections.
Gather around the dining table
If you have a trusted mastermind or business group, why not meet up at each other’s dining tables? We try so hard to delineate our work and home lives, but there’s no reason you can’t co-work at home with your BizBuddies? It’s actually a done thing in Europe! Ask everyone to bring some yummy food for a shared lunch, and ensure you arrange a roster, rather than relying on one member’s hospitality all the time.
While this can be a great arrangement for any small business owners, working in each other’s homes might offer the perfect solution for mums (or dads) in business who have little ones at home while they work. Consider hiring a babysitter for a few hours and share the cost. The kids will love having new playmates and you will all get some work done – or at least some much-needed adult connection!
There are many wonderful reasons to run a home-based business, but it’s so important to look after your wellbeing. Humans aren’t meant to spend long hours alone – no, not even the introverted ones! Could community co-working be the answer you’ve been looking for?