Editor's Note: This article is the first of a two-part feature on 'coworking,' a new model of collaborative working based upon the idea that people of different disciplines can benefit from sharing a common work space. For Part II, click here.
Collingswood is a community that likes to share.
The borough is home to a bike share, car share, and drop-off locations for food co-ops. Its government last year set up a framework for shared-service agreements with nearby municipalities for everything from capital equipment to code officials.
Its school district shares a superintendent, business administrator, and custodial services with that of Oaklyn. Even its Fire and EMS services pull extra duty on mutual aid calls to nearby towns as needed.
Yes, in an age of cooperation, collaboration, and consolidation, Collingswood leaders and residents are finding ways to do more—and more, and more—with less.
But with dozens of burgeoning cottage industries in a town of some 14,000 people, is Collingswood ready to crest on the next wave of sharing?
It’s called coworking—and for freelancers, entrepreneurs, skilled professionals or those who are just plain done with the cubicle life, it represents a new way to make ends meet that might also save your soul.
What is coworking?
When Rae-Ann Ruszkowski’s daughter was accepted to USC, she decided to tag along to California to see what it was like. And there, steeped in the glitz of Orange County, she discovered an idea worth bringing back home.
Whether it was the perennial sunshine or the fluidity of start-up culture, the local networks of freelancers, developers and other mobile professionals in the O.C. were all doing their things separately—yet together—in a collaborative work environment.
“It’s like this whole other world,” she said.
Instead of whiling away the hours glaring at strangers and leeching WiFi in the cushy corners of some anonymous Starbucks, the folks Ruszkowski met had organized themselves in a variety of shared physical spaces.
They plied their various trades along parallel tracks—a writer here, a programmer there—but more than that, they were sharing ideas, expertise, knowledge and encouragement while they did.
This close proximity engendered “a mini-ecosystem” of different skill sets that saw professionals doing everything from bartering their services to launching small start-ups, Ruszkowski said. It allowed people to bounce ideas off one another before they took them public, while also fostering a supportive environment for criticism.
“Everybody’s starting to live this project-based life,” Ruszkowski said. “We’re all headed in that same direction. They send the execs off-campus to create, why can’t they do that for everybody else?”
The structure of a traditional corporate environment is rife with interpersonal conflict, Ruszkowski said, in which people who are ostensibly on the same team climb over one another to give themselves "importance and meaning and learning.”
It's a place where even if you have a good idea, “the boss is going to try to get it to be their opinion or their idea or coax you into their thing.
“As soon as you walk into a space like that, you feel the pressure," she said. Between the drama, nobody’s really on the same page.”
Conversely, Ruszkowski said, a coworking environment can be liberating even when the ideas it produces fail, because “there’s an opportunity for you to fail…and in failing make it better.
“Now you’ve got this whole other way to make it work,” she said. “Now you’ve got this sense of confidence and empowerment that you didn’t have before.”
“I keep calling it ‘renaissance-après,’ but that’s what’s going on,” she said.
In the early days of American entrepreneurism, Ruszkowski argues, “we were this cottage industry thing that did things to feed the family and feed our soul."
Even if the American worker no longer spends his days at the farm or the forge, she said, as a nation, we are at least one generation far, far removed from a career path that ends at 30 years with a gold watch and a buffet dinner.
That impermanence can be disheartening, she said, but it can also provide enough motivation to design a better system.
“When kids that have been growing up through these generations see their parents getting fired and laid off again and again, what does that do?” Ruszkowski said.
Although coworking has caught on enough in California to become somewhat commonplace, it’s taking a bit to lay the groundwork back east, Ruszkowski said. She runs a Thursday coworking meet-up (10 a.m. to 9 p.m.) at the Wegmans food court that she’s tying in with “Worldwide Jellyweek”—the name given to an international coworking promotion—and is inviting interested parties to come check it out.
So far, it’s been slow going.
“I thought this would be a really interesting thing to see if people would loosen up enough to understand the value of what it does,” Ruszkowski said. “I would come in and see people every day with their laptops and invite them over, and they still like to sit by themselves and do their work.”
And then there are the cultural differences between SoCal and South Jersey, she said.
“Here, the experts want to be the experts and dog everybody else,” Ruszkowski said. “Just because you’re sitting there and working, it doesn’t mean someone is going to steal your idea.
“Or people are [coworking], but they don’t want people to know,” she said. She hears a lot of “When I tell my sister or my husband or my brother or my family, they don’t get it.”
“We get so stuck in our community that we don’t want to branch out,” she said. “There’s such good talent and companies and other things that are over here, why do we always have to go to Philly?”
But Ruszkowski is also finding out that she’s not the only one in the area to get behind this idea in force.
Click here for Part II of our coworking story, in which we visit some local businesses that are creating new, non-traditional work environments.