As "work from home" loses its luster, Ann Arbor coworking grows

After 12 years of working from home, Sarah Zettel was sick of it.
 
"When you are in a creative field, you need to recharge your brain," says the Ann Arbor resident, who is a full-time author. "You need fresh input and you need social interaction. That was what I wasn't getting, and my productivity was just sinking into the floor."
 
Zettel recalls reading a national magazine article in the late 2000s about the then-foreign concept of coworking, where freelancers and telecommuters would gather to recreate the traditional community spirit of an office environment.
 
"I was thinking at the time, 'That sounds so perfect,'" Zettel says. "'That sounds like just what I would need.' But there was no place [in Ann Arbor]."
 
Zettel's wish for local coworking came true when she happened to walk by the then-new downtown Ann Arbor coworking space Workantile, which opened in 2009. She's remained a member of the space ever since, and she's one of many locals who've taken advantage of a growing number of Ann Arbor coworking spaces. Along with Workantile, Ann Arbor's other coworking spaces now include the Brickyard, Tech Brewery, and MI-HQ.
 
That growth has been driven largely by the increasing number of people who are freelancing, working on a contingent basis, or simply telecommuting to traditional full-time jobs. According to an oft-cited study by the software company Intuit, the first two groups alone will represent 40 percent of the American workforce by 2020. But Workantile co-owner Dave Nelson says that, like Zettel, many of those people still prefer sharing a physical workspace with other humans to the much-ballyhooed "home office."
 
"We still have 50,000 years of evolution as these social animals," Nelson says. "It's interesting to me that in a U.S. prison we will use isolating someone as punishment, but in an office situation we somehow act like isolating you in your home is a special gift we're giving you as your employer. It's still social isolation, and for most people that is going to map a decrease in mood."
 
Differing approaches
Ann Arbor coworking spaces differ distinctly in the way they go about creating their workspaces and the philosophies behind them. When Duo Security CEO Dug Song and realtor Doug Smith founded Tech Brewery in 2009, they set out to tweak what Song describes as the more "bureaucratic" methodology behind many academic or government-supported business incubators.
 
"Traditional incubators … have always had a notion of offering services, like, 'We're going to teach you how to be an entrepreneur or find financing,'" Song says. "The reality is, if it were that easy, there'd be lots more companies and everyone would be doing it. The reality is actually the earliest days of building a company is much more like street fighting."
 
And in those early days when a company consists of just a handful of people – or even just one person – Song says the most important resource is networking.
 
"It's not really about the facility or the programs or the services," he says. "It's about the people, connecting the people, finding ways in which you build the social environment for serendipity to happen."
 
That social environment plays out in a few different ways at Tech Brewery. The striking North Side brick building, which still contains huge metal framework from the steel foundry that occupied it after its early 1880s use as an actual brewery, rents both desk space in communal areas and more traditional offices and office suites.
 
But even if you're not sitting at one of the large tables in the common areas, there's still ample opportunity for collaboration. Jeremy Peters, director of music publishing for the record label Ghostly International, says he chose to rent a Tech Brewery office about five years ago because of the space's shared entrepreneurial spirit.
 
"We kind of have our own little office space, which can be quieter when we need it to be, but we can throw open the door and participate in the wider community," Peters says. "It's just nice to be part of a space like that that's not sterile."
 
Sense of purpose
By contrast, Workantile has found its niche over the past four years by embracing a model quite different from Tech Brewery's startup-focused, incubator-inspired style. In the early years, Nelson says, "Workantile didn't know what it was for." The high-ceilinged Main Street building offers ample desk space and a few small, enclosed rooms for meetings or conference calls, but it didn't really have office space to offer startups.
 
"We were getting a lot of male programmer types who were attracted to this type of thing, which makes sense," says co-owner Steve Kemsley. "But we wanted to broaden the membership base and make it clear that more than just that type of person is welcome here."
 
Through marketing efforts and discussions with new and old tenants, Workantile's co-owners transitioned the space to focus more on individual freelancers from a broader range of career paths. Zettel says Workantile has become "a lot more dynamic" and "more of a community" as a result, with a diverse group of coworkers collaborating and often participating in social events in and outside the space.
 
"Part of it was ceasing to think about it as a workable space," Nelson says. "It was more, 'What makes this a workable community? Let's foster that community and make sure they have a space to be in.'"
 
Ann Arbor's newest coworking space splits the difference between the Workantile and Tech Brewery approaches. Over the past year, Mark Smith has been thoroughly renovating a 90,000-square-foot West Side industrial complex as the startup incubator and coworking space MI-HQ. Smith brought 10 companies over from a previous smaller incubator he ran, adding 20 more in the new space with three more on the way.
 
The lion's share of MI-HQ is currently devoted to more traditional incubator office space, but Smith says he designed the facility to encourage collaboration among tenants. Smaller companies share office space and laboratory facilities in many areas of the building. MI-HQ also includes a small coworking area with desks arranged in an open floor plan. Only three individual tenants currently utilize that space, largely because Smith says he's been focused on moving in larger tenants. But he's planning to add another 3,000 square feet of coworking space to the project soon, asserting that coworking is "the kind of community we want to create here."
 
"The economy is shifting," Smith says. "In the sharing economy, whatever you want to call it, the whole collaboration model becomes a force multiplier. As a small company, I can't possibly afford to hire all the expertise I need. When I've got it across the hall, it's easy for me to over coffee talk to somebody, have some conversation, and solve problems."
 
Patrick Dunn is the interim managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
 
All photos by Doug Coombe.
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