Redefining the workspace

November 15, 2011
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Laura Peeherski, sales and marketing director at Zipments, uses space in The Factory along with other business professionals.

The American work force looks a lot different now than it did 10 years ago, and so does the workplace. In a global, technology-driven market that values flexibility, the co-working phenomenon is not a trend but a shift in many companies’ business plans.

Each co-working space is unique to fit the needs of its members, but the general concept starts with a shared environment where people can work if they are members. The movement largely began as a way of giving isolated freelancers, independent contractors and the self-employed — a demographic that makes up about 30 percent of the U.S. work force — a place to conduct business.

Entrepreneurs and businesses large and small also are taking advantage of these work environments. For some, the appeal is both in reducing their carbon footprint and their overhead.

For Bill Oechsler, president of Oklahoma City-based filmmaking company Ethnographic Media, co-working was a way of assembling the best possible team without the costs and inconvenience of relocating new employees who are already well established in their respective areas.

“Companies are reducing their work force, and that turns a lot of very experienced people into free agents,” said Oechsler. “You have a much more experienced talent pool to choose from.”

Oechsler works remotely from 654 Croswell SE, a “work cottage” in East Grand Rapids that emphasizes the integration of art, work and life, and often sponsors community cultural events as a way of giving back. The space was originally created as a kind of market research project for Steelcase. The company hoped to tap into the growing co-working space market by learning what type of furniture would best facilitate the environment.

Lisa Mead of Steelcase Multimedia Services said that the research found versatility to be the key factor in creating a co-working space that relies heavily on being able to quickly reconfigure from facilitating private discussions to large meetings or events. Co-working spaces are seamlessly transitioning with their members, some adding Skype rooms and permanent work area options.

The Factory is a co-working space in downtown Grand Rapids that is largely geared toward the tech community and entrepreneurs. Factory founder Aaron Schaap began a similar endeavor in Zeeland in 2007 out of necessity when he realized the difficulty of conducting business out of coffee shops and homes.

When the co-working phenomenon really started to pick up, Schaap brought a space to Grand Rapids, and what began as a home for independent workers began attracting businesses that needed to find a productive environment to send employees who are not able to be innovative inside their own companies. This process is called “out-working.”

Schaap said that the best way to create a community is to give people a space for increased serendipity. The rest will occur naturally.

Jon Pichot of Rapid Development Group was drawn to The Factory because it offered the professionalism of an office and the flexibility of home. The web development industry, like many information industries, has a broad spectrum of people who may choose to work anywhere from 20 to80 hours per week.

Independent workers are able to define the way they want their work life to be. “This is just another option, one which many people crave because of the personal interaction,” said Pichot.

The evolutionary process of the corporate business model has moved from agrarian to manufacturing to the information age, creating a niche for a work environment that can facilitate versatile, tech-savvy workers from around the globe, he said.

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