Workers surround Andy Hieb at his office five days a week—but he never sees his actual colleagues. In fact, his partners in a small web development company live in Colorado and Brooklyn. So who are these people around him, typing and talking on the phone all day?
They call themselves nomads.
Sharing a work space on the western slope of Capitol Hill, about 80 people who need a productive place to work file into Office Nomads every morning and then pour out at night (sometimes to a group happy hour). In between, they crank through the workday aided by the psychic momentum of an office—and the collective levity of a group work environment—that many people who have otherwise solitary employment can't find anywhere else.
"I've had a pseudo home office," says Hieb. "It is really isolating. I'm not the kind of guy who likes to be in my pajamas all day." The typical alternatives for staking out a space with a laptop (the silent library or the cacophonous coffee shop) can be even worse, he says. "I am trying to run a business. I'm trying to meet with clients."
Office Nomads caters to people like Hieb, and more broadly it caters to the new less-tethered work force. Across many sectors of the economy, employees are finding themselves without face-to-face colleagues; the "office" they require is simply a cell phone and a laptop. But where to go? The kitchen table, the library, and the cafe leave a lot of people wanting... something more.
"We're not in the desk-rental business," says Office Nomads cofounder and former software programmer Jacob Sayles.
Office Nomads is one cog in an international coworking movement, supplying a generation of freed-up workers with a proverbial water cooler—people to share ideas with and the sense of community that comes with congregation. The coworking movement's genesis was in 2005, widely credited to a programmer named Brad Neuberg. He nixed the hyphen in "co-working" and opened the Hat Factory in San Francisco. Since then, the template has proliferated across several continents.
"It's ultimately about the community," Hieb says. "I've worked with three people from the office who I otherwise would never have met."
People even have the chance to strike up more intimate relationships. "We've had a lot of people get pregnant," says Sayles. "But not at the office."
Cofounder Susan Evans, formerly an environmental consultant, jumps into a conversation about Office Nomads inside one of the conference rooms: "When people walk through and feel comfortable, it's not because our desks are really badass. They're just Ikea desks."
In all fairness, the desks are totally respectable (I sat at one of them to see what Office Nomads was all about and got sucked into a wormhole of productivity for three hours). And while it's "not about the stuff," as both Sayles and Evans often repeat, the stuff is great, too. For instance: 41 different types of tea. Forty-one! Coffee's always on. A giant corkboard features labeled photos of everyone there for people like me who forget names instantly. And there's all the equipment you need to do your thing: printers, Wi-Fi, conference rooms, a fax machine.
Sayles and Evans met when a mutual friend heard each of them talking about the same idea for a shared workspace and introduced them. They opened Office Nomads, located near the corner of Boylston Avenue and East Pine Street, in November 2007. Most of the members live within three miles; many commute on foot or bicycle. The formula has been so successful, in fact, that Office Nomads plans to open a second coworking space; a poll of would-be nomads found there was demand for a second spot in North Seattle. They're holding a planning meeting in Fremont later this month.
Nomads can join the hive for as little as three days a month for $50 or work full-time for $475 (www.officenomads.com). You can leave your stuff in the office and even bring in your dog—assuming it's quiet and clean.