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Workers United 

Coworking: where 'do-it-yourself' becomes 'do-it-together'

click to enlarge MICHAEL AMSLER

It's a bright morning in September, and WORK, a new coworking space in downtown Petaluma, bustles with members busy on projects and tasks. At one desk, a book editor combs through his latest batch of manuscripts. At a large white table nearby, an event planner maps out details for a client. Everybody here works under the same roof, yet they're performing seemingly unrelated jobs, with no apparent job supervisor.

It's all in a day's work in the sunny and spacious former law office, decorated in midcentury modern décor, where Stereolab plays in the lobby and tall windows look out to the world beyond.

Like many a good idea, WORK was born of necessity. After struggling to find alternatives to the traditional office, which can be expensive to rent and maintain individually, Natasha Juliana—who owns the space with her husband, Matt Moller—thought the time was right to implement coworking in her hometown.

"I first heard about coworking on NPR a couple of years ago," says Juliana, as we talk over pastries and coffee at a communal table in the cheery main room. "I started doing some research and saw how booming and popular cowork spaces were in the Bay Area. I looked at the demographic of the people we knew in Petaluma, and there were a lot of ex–San Franciscans, people who were commuting or working from home or starting their own businesses."

click to enlarge GROUP HOME Matt Moller, co-owner of WORK in Petaluma, mixes it up in the 'unoffice.' - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • GROUP HOME Matt Moller, co-owner of WORK in Petaluma, mixes it up in the 'unoffice.'

But what exactly is coworking? According to online magazine Deskmag, coworking is the use of a shared workspace by independent entrepreneurs, freelancers and creative and tech professionals as their place of business. In other words, it's a way to get out of the house and into an environment that can be more productive, for reasons including access to a wider community and an environment focused on getting things done.

The cost for a coworking space ranges from $100 to $400 a month, depending on the choice of membership level. That's a price that usually includes Wi-Fi, coffee, copies, fax, mailing services, designated desk space and, last but not least, companionship with other workers, even if they aren't in the same business.

"If you're looking for a community of fellow entrepreneurs to be around, coworking spaces are ideal places to work," says Genevieve DeGuzman, co-author of Working in the 'UnOffice': A Guide to Coworking for Indie Workers, Small Businesses, and Nonprofits. "It's the camaraderie that sets it apart from other remote work locations. You're no longer just getting that startup or freelance career off in your lonely little bubble. Now you have a tribe—people to be around without the office politics."

Coworking is a trend that's only growing, in part attributed to the fact that more people in the new century are either working for themselves or telecommuting to their jobs. Environmental consciousness and economic realities have led many people on the path to commuting less and using time once spent in the car to work more efficiently. According to the Second Annual Global Coworking Survey, in 2006 there were only 30 coworking spaces in operation in the world. As of 2012, there are now 1,779 around the globe.

Considering its history of innovative, creative and technological thought experiments—the type of thinking that leads to Facebook, Google and Twitter, all headquartered in the Bay—it's no surprise that coworking has taken off in San Francisco. The origin myth credits Brad Neuberg, a computer programmer who now works for Google, as the first to coin the word "cowork" when he initiated the Spiral Muse CoWorking Group in 2005. The group offered eight desks, meditation classes, group lunches and yoga. San Francisco now has more than 20 active coworking spaces, with names like Citizen Space, Sandbox Suites and the Hatchery.

As coworking takes off in urban centers, is the more suburban and spread-out North Bay ready to get in on the action? Sonoma County is currently home to four official cowork spaces, so signs point to yes, though two earlier attempts, SoCo Depot in Penngrove and Bzhive in Marin, closed within two years of opening.

Anthony Tusler, a 65-year-old Penngrove resident, was one of the founders of SoCo Dept, which closed its doors in 2009. Tusler says that the space fell victim to a bad economy, but he still believes that the coworking model is effective.

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