SAN FRANCISCO -- I'm sitting in a 89-year-old building, and through the large windows that surround me I can see just the top of the San Francisco Federal Building, an 18-story metal and glass monolith in the deconstructivist architectural style. I can also see two run-down, single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, a bank, a nightclub. Inside, along a mix of modular tables, Herman Miller office chairs surround me. Roughly half of them are occupied by my coworkers. Except, they're not really my coworkers. These people are my "co-workers."
This is the Hub, a co-working space in the city's South of Market neighborhood that occupies two floors and 20,000 square feet of the building, which is also home to the San Francisco Chronicle. In front of my perch, three men are gathered around a rolling whiteboard, working out a flow chart. Behind them, a techy duo are sitting in a soundproof privacy booth (think of those quiet study cubes in your local library). One is arguing his point, his arms flailing around for punctuation as a laptop teeters on his cubemate's lap.
There is a low buzz in the room, as casually-dressed professionals — mostly white, mostly in their 30s, though evenly split between genders — mill around, talking in hushed tones with each other and on their phones.
The noise level is not as distracting as I'd expected, and nothing I would not be able to drown out with my headphones. But Megan McFadden, who handles communication for the Hub Bay Area (which includes this location and one in Berkeley), later tells me it's actually a pretty mellow day. "Sometimes this place is just pulsing," she says.
Aside from noise, there are some other things I consider downsides. For one thing, my pants are soaking wet from my walk in the pouring rain from my house, to the subway, and to the Hub. I cannot change into sweat pants, as I would in my normal office (my house). I cannot blast Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend" and dance around the room, as I occasionally do when I need a mental and physical break from writing. And now, some guy five feet away is watching a Web video — without his headphones — and that is something I find very irksome. Of course, all these things would be true if I had any kind of office job, but in that case I would lack the flexibility to opt for working at home, which of course Hub members can do if they want.
In terms of perks, the Hub offers a kitchen, coffee, printers, meeting rooms, couches for casual confabs, all at my disposal. Over the lunch hour, Sprouts Cooking Club, a cooking school for kids, made a pot-luck-style lunch for Hub members, a weekly event. If I were here on a Friday, I could enjoy the "wine down" at 5 PM. If I needed a software coder, an illustrator, a lawyer, a social investing expert, a human rights advocate, a carbon tracker or a venture capitalist, I could probably find one by just walking around and asking.
Indeed, it's the connections that the Hub helps members make that appear to be its biggest draw.
The Hub was founded in London in 2004 as a non-profit, which still serves as an umbrella and branding clearinghouse for all 50 (and counting) Hub co-working spaces around the globe. There are around 6,000 Hub members worldwide, but the Bay Area Hubs are especially large, with more than 1,000 members combined. Each Hub is individually owned and Hub Bay Area is actually a for-profit firm started in 2009 by Mission Hub LLC, which is a partnership between Hub Cities, a consulting arm that helps launch other Hubs around North America, and SoCap, a social investing conference company.
The Hub is so focused on attracting socially conscious businesses that "Where Change Goes to Work" serves as its tagline. As I head to the kitchen for coffee, I run into an acquaintance who rents a small dedicated office — called a Hublet — inside the Hub, from which he runs a small firm that links grant-makers with grant-seekers for projects that address human rights, health care and violence against women around the world.
Later, I pop in to visit former colleagues who run Triple Pundit, a sustainable business media company. They also rent out a Hublet.
"It feels like Facebook or any social media network, except that it's real life and you have an idea of what the people around you are working on," says the company's editor-in-chief, Jen Boynton. Through the years (Triple Pundit has worked from the Hub since it opened in 2009) she has found many subjects for articles among her Hub co-workers — and has been pitched stories by many, as well.
Plus, Boynton adds, bringing clients and partners to the Hub for a meeting is far more professional than, say, meeting at a Starbucks.
The Hub isn't the only option, of course. Companies offering co-working spaces are cropping up in cities around the world.
Are these enterprises sustainable? If one looks strictly at the mercurial rise and sudden demise of the shared office space provider Loosecubes, the answer would be, apparently, no.
But what sets the Hub apart from generic co-working spaces is its focus on attracting members whose work focuses on environmental and social issues. If you work outside those fields, it's certainly not a barrier to entry, but McFadden says, "People self-select."
Most of the time, though, Hub members are busy and aren't necessarily sure how to approach other members and begin networking. "People come for the community, but when they're at work they've got their heads down. It's such a wealth of people here but [members] don’t know when or how to engage with each other," says McFadden.
For that, the Hub Bay Area runs an event series that focuses on connecting members and helping them with skills development or networking advice. At occasional "town hall meetings" members are asked to play an active role in shaping the Hub's future and its programming.
Another event series called the Workbench allows members to attend tutorials about topics like fundraising, public speaking or design.
This focus on shared interests and skills-sharing seems to have turned Hub members into Hub cheerleaders.
A similar sense of community has arisen behind 3rd Ward, a workspace in Philadelphia that's designed for crafty people to ply their crafts — or learn new vocations, such as fixing bikes or designing dresses or doing graphic design. In that respect, Tech Shop (whose SF location is just around the corner from the Hub) could also be considered a co-working space — it just happens to have laser cutters and 3D printers instead of white boards. In Boston, artisans and industrial designers are finding a happy working home at a co-working space called Headquarters Boston (the website is still a work in progress, but the owners ensure me that the physical place is open and running).
But for entrepreneurs who just need a quiet place to gather research and plot their next moves, in the long run the co-working industry might have a tough time competing against its very established, tax-funded competitor: the public library.
Images: Courtesy of Hub Bay Area