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Finding the right workspace is like dating — the Internet has made it a lot more complex. In essence, this means more options.
Whereas the traditional office once served as the default choice for effective communication and collaboration between coworkers, today’s businesses can be just as productive by collaborating on the web, with as little as $10 and a Google account. Entrepreneurs operate from coffee shops, kitchen tables, and coworking spaces in addition to the traditional office.
We asked three entrepreneurs with drastically different office strategies for their advice on choosing a workspace. Read on for their tips and add your own in the comments below.
What Kind of Office is Best to Start In?
“When you’re starting out, you should absolutely not be spending money on rent,” says Jason Fried, the founder of web-based software company 37signals. “It’s a huge waste of money.”
After Fried started 37signals, he and the other two employees working for the company at the time shared a room with another business. “Basically we had a corner of a desk,” he jokes. Assuming you can find another company that is willing to share, teaming up on a space saves cash while still providing a place to work away from the distractions of home.
Others see value in setting up their own offices from the get-go. After a brief stint at the virtual office, Anthony Franco chose a house in Denver to set up his company, EffectiveUI. It wasn’t an ideal workspace, but he got a deal on the rent. New employees were often greeted on their first day with an Allen wrench, to be used for assembling their own desks.
“We started at home, but if we were going to handle demand, we needed to have a place where we could come and work,” Franco said. He added that the extra value of being able to work as a team (in person) more than made up for the cost of an office.
While the lease route worked out well for EffectiveUI, there’s a certain amount of risk involved with jumping into your own space too soon.
“Most commercial leases are for three to four years, and so if you’re small and you’re starting out and you’ve got a couple people, you’re making way too much of a commitment,” Fried argues. “You don’t know where you’re going to be in three years.”
Is Coworking Right for Your Business?
One modern compromise between working completely virtually and committing to a lease is working at a coworking space. These office spaces provide a work environment and an alternative to coffee shops for independent workers.
Campbell McKellar discovered the value of coworking spaces when the company she worked for left their expensive traditional office and started working virtually. The move allowed her to work from anywhere, and she chose Maine. “I was trying to do work in a cottage with family members and dogs running around,” she said. “I loved being fully mobile and independent, but I also wanted to have a platform to do my work.”
LooseCubes, the company McKellar founded in May, runs a website that matches independent workers with coworking spaces and spare desks in other companies. Quite appropriately, it’s currently being run out of a coworking space. McKellar says that working from the space has helped her launch.
“Especially if you’re in a creative business, the best way to get ideas is to meet new people,” she says. “You can get stale by talking to the same five people every day.”
Coworking allows McKellar to “unintentionally network” with the other people in the space, to seek advice from other entrepreneurs, and to host meetings and work with her team at a place that isn’t her living room.
On the other hand, coworking has its challenges and might not be a great fit for every company. Coworking spaces can be distracting, and most of them are set up in a way that requires people making phone calls to seek silence in the hallway.
“For us, quiet and privacy is very important,” Fried says. “So, coworking spaces and coffee shops don’t work for us.”
McKellar admits that on days when she’s “under the gun,” she chooses to work at home. And there is a point at which a company outgrows a coworking space. LooseCubes, for instance, plans to move to its own office space sometime in the next three months.
When Should a Company Transition to a Traditional Office?
“We need to be in a room with a whiteboard that isn’t erased every day, where we can have a conference call in an open environment,” McKellar says of her hopes for transitioning to an office space. Before she commits, however, she wants to wait to see how her site’s public launch goes. In the meantime, she’s renting a room at a Manhattan coworking space called New Work City.
All companies should do something along these lines before committing to a lease, Fried says. “You don’t know if you’re going to be successful,” he says. “And if you are, you might need more space than you have right now…You don’t want to lock yourself into anything when you’re getting started. You want to be as flexible as you possibly can.”
For some people, this means staying virtual for as long as possible. For others like McKellar, it means launching from a coworking space. For Fried’s 37signals, which is based in Chicago but has employees in 11 cities, it meant working from a variety of shared office spaces for about ten years before finally opting for an office of its own in August.
But how do you know when it’s time to make the switch?
One obvious factor is space: “We were only able to rent five or six desks in our last office,” Fried says. “We had nine people in Chicago. We were out of desks at six. So everyone couldn’t come in at the same time, and that was problem.”
Another factor is work environment. If the space you are working in is interfering with your work, it might also be time to opt for an environment you can control. “We work very quietly,” explains Fried. “So our whole thing is be as quiet as possible, don’t talk throughout the day, just have a very quiet setting like a library…You can’t impose those kinds of rules on another company, especially if it’s the other company’s space.”
What are the Benefits of a Traditional Office?
For EffectiveUI, the traditional office was always a great fit. Having grown from a couple of founders to 100 employees since 2005, the company long ago left its house-office behind. They now work from a 12,000-square-foot office space.
But both spaces fulfilled the same requirements: “Whiteboarding, talking with each other and eating lunch together: It’s part of the team culture,” Franco says.
The more traditional office, however, has given him some additional perks. “We have clients come to visit us. We’re able to brand the building and the space, and when people come they can see we’re a real business,” he says.
A lot of people associate traditional offices with being trapped in a cubicle, but Franco maintains that it doesn’t have to be that way. “Just get creative and make it fun, but also give everyone a place to go,” he says.
Can I Have an Untraditional Traditional Office?
Fried thinks of his new office as more of a home base than a traditional office. Employees are free to work at home whenever they want, and half of the company still works in other cities.
“We feel that a combination of both is the best route,” Fried says. “Because we all do want to get together occasionally, and sometimes small teams of five or six people want to get together for a while.”
The home base strategy combines the benefits of virtual and traditional workspaces. When people want to work from another city or find they work better in their pajamas, they can stay home. When they need to collaborate or want to get out of the house, they have a great place to work.
“Our office is highly customized for the way we work,” says Fried. For instance, it has soundproof walls, phone booths for people to make uninterrupted calls, and rooms for small teams.
Most employees who work from Chicago come into the new office about three or four days a week. “We want people to work wherever they work best,” Fried says.
What are your tips for choosing a workspace? Add them in the comments below.
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