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Monday, August 17, 2015
Freelance Toolbox Column

Productive co-working requires research

By Julie Walmsley

We freelancers live in our own world. So the concept of a shared office space, where individuals and small companies produce from one happy hub — working alongside one another but not necessarily with each other — seems ideal. It seems especially ideal to have access to an office at a discounted rate, with tools and equipment, and every journo’s lifeblood, endless coffee.

The “co-working space” model is building in major cities all around the world. Growth means solid product, right? Not so fast.

After over a year of co-working in different spaces in Los Angeles, I’ve discovered the advantages and disadvantages in general, and for journalists in particular.

Good co-working spaces have:

1. A trial period

Use it. It’s not until you’re in a bad co-working space that you understand why companies are so obsessed with their workplace culture. Go for a trial week or even a month to get a sense of the space’s management and other members before committing.

2. An efficient and friendly office manager, sometimes called a community manager

This person is available when there’s a printer snafu or a Wi-Fi problem. They’re nice people but not so chatty that they distract you from your work. It’s important that they monitor the space, with all the comings and goings. See No. 5.

3. An open but productive culture that includes an honest discussion of how unproductive a co-working space can actually be

The space’s website should have some ground rules, and some mention of the universal symbol for "do not disturb" (headphones). When you get to your contract, there should be rules against harassment, soliciting and multilevel marketing.

4. Individuals and small companies only

When a space gets too big, it’s not co-working anymore; it’s a mill of a shared office space. You’re one person sandwiched in between other companies whose cultures may be unpleasant.

5. Few events and shoots

One Los Angeles co-working space chain I left, after working for 10 months from two separate locations, expanded aggressively by renting out the space for events and film shoots. What that means in practical terms is a big group of people who’ve never worked together before, moving into a workspace they’ve never worked from before. They truck in equipment, have loud disagreements and seek you out to ask questions.

A negligent community manager will leave you to tell people where to find the restroom, how to use the Keurig, where to park, where to find a coffee cup. Imagine working in an office with a new employee almost every day. And because you’re working alone, not engaged in a meeting or a phone call, there’s an assumption that you’re available.

Advantages to journalists:

1. Compartmentalize

When you work outside the house, you separate work and personal, and you manage your time differently. I’ve found it feels good to watch my member dues post to my credit card each month. It feels like a worthwhile investment in myself.

2. Meeting space

You don’t work out of a paper’s bureau or a network’s studio, but you have meeting space so a source can come to you for a change.

3. Front-row seat to great innovation

You’ll find some fascinating trend pieces.

Disadvantages to journalists:

1. You’re “free” press

You’re surrounded by startups who need coverage and will seek it out.

2. You’re “scary” press

Journalists make people nervous. All of us have heard, when we tell people we’re journalists, “I’ll have to watch what I say.” If you’re working next to an unscrupulous company, your presence will produce some hostility.

I had the experience of working along side an Internet scam, likely attracted by a downtown office space whose address would not appear in public records. That is, they could operate from a bright and modern downtown Los Angeles office without ever being served by shafted customers in Florida and Georgia who wanted their money back. When one considers the opportunities that a co-working space presents for companies to work efficiently but invisibly, mine was likely not an isolated incident.

3. Great stories you can’t touch

This is the flip side of the third advantage above. You might find stories you shouldn’t cover, as you have unfair access, or you personally like the CEO of a startup and are biased toward the product.

Julie Walmsley is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist working for two local newspapers on general assignment and ramping up some data projects. A professional education junkie, she looks forward to building a list of the best of her professional development adventures of the past two years on The Independent Journalist blog. Share your own experiences and drop her some links @JWalmsleyJourno

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