Inside new construction on the corner of Yale Avenue North and Republican Street, builders are busy.
Seattle entrepreneurs are sporting hard hats to tour three dusty floors of 500 Yale Ave. N., and the crews have fewer than three weeks to turn its skeleton of wood, glass and metal into the largest, most ambitious coworking space Seattle has seen.
When it opens Feb. 1, the WeWork space in South Lake Union will show how neighborly work habits have become.
The 55,000-square-foot space will fit more than 800 workers — 57 at long, shared tables on the first floor and the rest in glass-walled rooms housing from one person to 18.
But what will make this assembly of desks a “coworking” space won’t be proximity. it will be pingpong tables. Unplanned happy hours. Regular talks and mixers on the first floor. It will be the free coffee and free beer (yes, beer), the décor fit for some hip young magazine and, if activities at any of the 15 spaces the New York-based company currently operates spread, crazy things like Mario Kart tournaments.
What will make those three stories in South Lake Union a “coworking” space, in other words, will be the airy, glassy, proactive space where people who are not colleagues will be encouraged to act as if they are, exchanging ideas and energy in increments that, over time, can build their businesses.
That — and not a desk with Internet — is what coworkers pay for, and what more people than ever could probably use.
At least, that’s the assertion of coworking evangelists like Jacob Sayles. Sayles opened the now 150-member Office Nomads in Capitol Hill in 2007, when only one other coworking space existed in Seattle, the short-lived My Day Office on Elliott Avenue. Today the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance, an organization Sayles co-founded to unite the city’s coworking spaces, has 25 to 30 members, each with its own vibe.
“Even if Seattle had 50 coworking spaces, we wouldn’t be anywhere near capacity,” Sayles told me last week.
What’s capacity? In Sayles’ view, everyone who works at home, but would work better — and be happier — around other people. Not the anonymous crowds of a library or coffee shop, but the like-minded co-conspirators you get to know at whatever coworking space might suit your style.
Coworking is not for everyone. Working at home is free, for starters, and some work, or at least some personalities, call for stillness and control, or anonymity. I prefer to work in a mix of various coffee shops, with shifts on our upstairs sofa.
Still, a few things make me think Seattle’s coworking capacity is growing.
1. The excitement, at least in urban spaces and especially among the young, around follow-your-vision entrepreneurship. Mark Zuckerberg is a genius, Steve Jobs is a god, and people who quit their jobs to build something new all on their own don’t have to explain it quite so much.
2. The rise of working from home, or just not working at a big office. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of all workers who worked exclusively from home rose nationwide from 4.8 percent in 1997 to 6.6 percent in 2010. That’s not a huge jump, but consider that home-based work in computer, engineering and science rose 69 percent from 2000 to 2010. Seattle has a bit of that.
3. The blurring of lines between our personal and professional identities. Social media play a part in that, as does the way we’re answering work email at the dinner table.
4. The lack of any consistent formula for how to nurture an idea or grow a business. Changes in technology and communication have changed everything and, despite our living in the 24/7 Information Age, the best way to stay on top of it all is just to talk with each other.
WeWork’s interest in Seattle is its own sign of what’s to come. One of a handful of shared-work-space companies that has cropped up in the last few years, WeWork operates buildings in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles that accommodate 500 to 1,500 people each. It plans to open 20 more buildings this year.
The company is so confident it will fill its first Seattle space that West Coast director Chia O’Keefe told me she’s hopeful WeWork can eventually run three or four here.
None of that bothers Sayles. The way sees it, Seattle’s collection of coworking spaces compete more with prospective entrepreneurs’ living rooms than with each other — and there’s work to do. Gina Phillips, a force in the local tech events scene whom WeWork hired in December to manage its Seattle presence, joined Sayles’ collaborative space alliance.
Phillips’ fingerprints are on the South Lake Union space. Between breathless tours with startup CEOs and eager entrepreneurs, many of whom she was already connected to, she’s booking February events for organizations like Women in Tech, Hack the People and Startup Weekend, scheduling optional free member office hours with WeWork’s law and human-resources partners, managing partnerships with early residents like Microsoft Ventures, and asking people on Facebook to sound off on Seattle’s favorite coffee.
A New York vendor supplies WeWork’s coffee in other cities, but that didn’t seem right for Seattle.
When community comes built in to work, a local flavor is always better.
Pretty soon, she’ll be asking about the beer.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.