Go work in the coffee shop. That’s what everyone else does. If you can’t afford that, go work in the library. Welcome to the new job site search familiar to nomadic workers. Solutions that work in the big city don’t necessarily work in the small town. Our local coworks closed, and several of us are on a search for a solution. If convention doesn’t provide a solution, if need drives innovation, then we’re probably close to finding something new. Here’s the progress so far.
Whether as an independent entrepreneur, or as a displaced corporate employee told to work off-site, or as someone playing hooky from home and office, people are much more likely now to gather up their phones and laptops, buy some caffeine as a nominal table rent, and try to get work done. That works for some, especially if it’s temporary, but as a prolonged solution its appeal fades quickly. Welcome to the concept of the coworks, where office nomads collectively create an office by sharing space, utilities, supplies, and ideas. No one has to pay for the entire space. As needs change, the crowd changes, but the concept continues. Get the right mix of people and networking becomes powerful. Take the idea to a small town, though, and the reverse inefficiencies of scale arise. Each individual pays a higher share. The presence or absence of someone has a bigger influence. Regardless, solutions must be found.
Out of curiosity as much as need, I decided to try out a few of the usual places in my community. Being somewhat of an organized geek, I compiled a list, created some criteria, and built a spreadsheet of the possibilities. It isn’t exhaustive, but it might be informative, even for other small towns because some patterns emerge. Here’s what I was able to compile for the cost of a bit of gas, some time, and many cups of tea.
(For folks familiar with Whidbey, these are listed from south to north, but only as far as ‘North’ Freeland. The rest of Whidbey is outside my commute criteria, but go ahead and create a version from your options.)
The two main suspects are simple enough: coffee shops and libraries. A lot of folks use them because they’re there, no innovation required. South Whidbey is lucky enough to have other options, businesses that are providing work space as a way to draw in customers, or just to support the community. If all you need is wi-fi, a chance for a power outlet, and not being bothered, you have lots of options. That covers a lot of work, especially for folks who only communicate with computers, not with people. If you have to deal with people, that still may not be a problem, as long as you don’t need privacy. There are enough business deals happening over coffee that no one notices. If, however, the conversation is a phone call, or something that requires some discretion, well, you can pick a place and hope no one shows up.
My benchmarks are working from a conventional office, where everything is fine as long as I can afford the fee; the coworks, which was good, but could’ve been a bit more private; and working from home, which works for me, but not for all of my clients. Some people don’t want to work from another person’s kitchen table. Those three benchmarks highlighted what the coffee shops and libraries don’t have, 24 hour access and privacy. As simple as those two things are, they point out that working from most other places only works when work happens within the other place’s hours, and in the vicinity of who ever happens to be there. For some, that’s not an issue. For others, they are necessities.
After my survey, I am much more familiar with where to find good wi-fi (WiFire), good tea (Useless Bay Coffee and Kalakala), good equipment and support (Island Printing), good networking (South Whidbey Commons), good writers (Through the Reading Glass), good art and gluten-free cookies (Timbuktu – got a URL?), and undoubtedly I missed a few key benefits, but I do what I can with what I have. The best and cheapest solution may be the libraries. They’re free. They have copiers and printers. They’re increasingly set up for power and connectivity, and have computers available for short periods – and are excellent places for research because they have books (duh) and librarians (professionals who are overlooked and underutilized.)
There is some good news. I’m not the only one hunting for solutions. There’s talk of a coworks in Clinton, my mailing address. Some entrepreneurs are creating an excellent space for physical work, part of the Maker movement, where people can create small devices through conventional means or from 3-D printers. They might provide some space. A variety of offices are available, and the ones owned by non-profits may appeal to people who are working for other non-profits; especially, if the space is shared by enough people. If you’re interested in those specifics, contact me and we can talk about the possibilities.
I don’t expect a solution, even though I look for one. I understand both sides of the economy of scale and can see why the concept works in a city but maybe not in a town. This may be one of the prices of living somewhere quieter. I also know that what I’ve found is only one answer. Maybe this post will inspire someone to come up with a better sustainable idea. Maybe they already have it, but haven’t announced yet. For now, though, I provide this survey in case it is helpful to anyone else, on Whidbey or elsewhere. One thing that small towns are great at is creating community, and I suspect that this community can find an answer, maybe even one that’s never been considered before. Until then, it’s back to work at the kitchen table. At least I like the view, and the commute can’t be better.