How Freelancers Can Network Better at Coworking Space

Credit: Charleston's TheDigitel on Flickr

Freelancers have long been drawn to coworking spaces because of the opportunities to network and work alongside others from different or complementary industries and creative fields, sharing the working space and resources. However, what sets coworking apart from mere shared office space is its focus on building community and collaboration.

One of coworking’s selling points is the wealth of knowledge that you can get working among a diverse group of people with different skill sets, backgrounds, and experiences

One of coworking’s selling points is the wealth of knowledge that you can get working among a diverse group of people with different skill sets, backgrounds, and experiences. Whether it’s making sense of your website’s HTML, hammering out a killer proposal, or even just making a barista-worthy pot of coffee in the kitchen, you’re bound to encounter someone who can help you.

It’s what makes the coworking community so valuable and such an attractive option for freelancers and small businesses—it provides daily learning experiences. A member makes a mistake, learns from it, and shares it with members directly or through the coworking space’s built-in forums, and everyone benefits.

The New Kid on the Block

So once you’re a member of a space, how do you recalibrate your freelance business to make the most of the community you’ve joined?

Just like the first day of school, expect some awkwardness as you meet your coworkers and learn the unspoken rules and quirks of your new coworking space. Don’t expect to be working productively or getting completely plugged into your community on your first day in, or even after your first week.

The hello-what-do-you-do here’s-my-business-card routines and other introductions will most likely take place in your first few days (coworkers are almost always eager to meet and make newcomers feel welcome). You’ll also probably take a few days to get into the groove with the vibe of the place.

What’s next? It’s time to settle in. Here are some things you can do to make the transition to your new space smoother:

1. Break the ice smoothly.

Prepare a short introductory spiel— your name, and what you’re working on. Don’t forget the niceties: a warm smile, a firm (and dry— bring a hankie if your hands get clammy) handshake, appropriate eye contact (not shifty or blatantly staring), and proper enunciation. First impressions do matter. If you’re the shy type, a bag of cookies or a box of doughnuts can also be a great ice breaker.

Many coworking spaces, like San Francisco’s pariSoma Innovation Loft, introduce new members regularly at meetings to make sure newbies don’t get missed in the shuffle and that the right connections are made. “We do a Town Hall meeting every month to introduce new coworkers so they can meet people,” public relations rep Julian Nachtigal explains in an interview in new book ‘Working in the UnOffice: A Guide to Coworking‘ (Night Owls Press).

We want everyone to know who the new faces are. We do a big effort to introduce new coworkers when they join and find out about what they’re doing to connect them to other people who either are doing similar things or complementary things.

2. Let socialization happen naturally.

Parker Whitney of video game development company FlyClops (in an interview with Working in the UnOffice authors) says, “Yes, there is a communal space, but members there are still doing their own thing.”

If someone walked through the door tomorrow and had never been to Indy Hall, if they try to forcefully assimilate into the community by going up to people when they have their headphones on and introducing themselves, people are not going to be receptive to that.

Parker proposes saving most of your socialization for outside events. “Attend the happy hour events. These events are great times to meet people. You don’t need to pull their headphones off during the day and tell them your life story.”

“Basically, patience and serendipity are the two themes for successful membership. Let serendipity take hold without forcing your way into conversations with someone,” Parker continues. “That doesn’t mean avoiding introducing yourself if you see someone at the water cooler. People who come in and start walking alongside of the pack, instead of charging their way into the middle of it, will get picked up by the community faster.”

3. Master the art of the polite deflection.

For those who disdain too much social schmoozing at work, it may take some time to set your boundaries and get to know people. Mike Muldoon (of gaming community Infrno.net) says that his first months at NextSpace were hectic.

[It’s] going to be less productive than you hope, because you literally can’t go to the bathroom without collecting a business card. Once you’ve got a solid social footing, your workflow is less interrupted by all the hellos.

Mike also advocates polite defensive maneuverings, “You need to have a sincere, concise, ‘Nice to meet you, but I can’t talk right now’ speech at the ready. Some people— God bless their enthusiasm— will talk your ears off, and you need to be able to set boundaries with them.”

4. Mingle, mingle, mingle.

Coworking isn’t about propping up or handholding freelancers. Coworking works best with self-starters who actively seek out others for conversation and collaboration.

The sooner you get to know your coworkers, the sooner you can start building the relationships that can lead to collaboration. Join them at the proverbial water cooler or in the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

While small talk may not seem like productive behavior, the ten minutes here and there with your fellow members can warm them up to you. If they have a congenial relationship with you, they’ll be more likely to discuss “work-related” matters later when you have questions or need help.

Greg Roth, who runs communications consulting firm The Percy Group out of Affinity Lab, says in an interview for Working in the UnOffice that his coworking space helped him streamline his business processes.

The Lab has provided me crucial conversations about my value proposition, as well as answered basic questions of how to work for oneself. Without the Lab, I would have even more reading to do on a daily basis in order to survive, which would cut into my actual time spent developing my business.

5. Get the lay of the land to master the open floor plan.

Ask for a tour of the coworking space. Check out where the printer, scanner, copier, and other equipment and supplies are kept. Ask about the neighborhood— recommended restaurants, suppliers, transit lines, and the best place to grab a beer.

Usually, a coworking space host or office manager will give you an orientation and introduce you to others, but just in case your space doesn’t have these tours, be sure to ask your fellow members. Also, learn the rules. Are pets allowed? Each coworking space has its own set of house rules. Familiarize yourself with them so you don’t commit any faux pas. If you’re unsure, ask.

If you’ve been slaving away in the cubes or working in isolation in your home office, then the open expanse of a coworking space— with the accompanying bustle of other coworkers— may take some time to get used to.

6. Get with the program.

Make sure you have the network name and password. Sign up for the group mailing list. Be careful of what you pass around: don’t spam your mailing list or forward messages and the like. Check out the calendar of events and notices, usually posted on the bulletin board. Again, the coworking space host will usually handle this, but feel free to ask in case you aren’t in the loop yet.

7. Be generous about lending a hand.

It won’t take too long before you feel comfortable giving your opinion on someone’s new logo, or offer suggestions on someone’s new web page. It also doesn’t hurt to dedicate a few minutes of your time to help others work out a problem in your area of expertise. Your coworkers will be grateful and will soon return the favor.

Ignition Alley member Alan Pinstein tells how a coworker, who was experienced in graphics layout/user experience, overheard him talking about a project for his real estate software company Neybor, and offered to help.

We ended up using him on the side to help us do graphics every once in a while and to put together graphic layout stuff. That’s a good example of someone whom we otherwise wouldn’t have met, but because we had a rapport with him from being in the space and going out to lunch, we were able to turn it into something productive.

8. Organize events.

Or suggest events that you would like to have. Perhaps you know someone who could give a talk on how to use blogging as a marketing tool, or you can show others how to create their own CSS for their websites. It doesn’t even have to be work-related; coworkers also appreciate classes such as yoga, organic cooking, and off-road biking.

Member Johnny Bilotta says in an interview for Working in the UnOffice that crowdsourced events are a regular thing at Indy Hall, with members taking the initiative to start their own Meetups and events. “We call this a ‘Do-ocracy’,” Johnny says in the book. “Many of our established members are certainly a driving force for events, but for the most part, the casual members also drive programming.”

Setting up a live-streaming event at CoCo helped citizen-driven media organization The UpTake engage space members with each other and with the wider nonprofit community across Minnesota. The UpTake founder Jason Barnett describes the experience below.

We helped organize [an event] in association with an organization called GiveMN.org. GiveMN helps nonprofits engage with online fundraising and it holds an annual event to raise money for all the nonprofits in Minnesota. Last November, during their ‘Give to the Max Day’, we live-streamed interviews with more than 80 nonprofits, and GiveMN helped raise over $10 million for these organizations in one day. Our daylong “Give-a-thon” was a key innovation factor that GiveMN cites as a new and exciting way to engage donors.

9. Finally, collaborate.

One of the amazing things about coworking is finding other people to bring fresh insight, skills and connections that you may not have to a project that you’re working on. So don’t hesitate to ask for help, or to ask others what they’re up to.

Maximum Impact Design owner Judi Oyama recounts in Working in the UnOffice how her connections at NextSpace enabled her to get national publicity for her graphic design work.

Santa Cruz mayor, Ryan Coonerty, is one of the coworking space founders. Because of access to NextSpace and its network I was able to have a surfboard built with custom illustrations in less than ten days for James Durbin, the American Idol 4th place finisher, for his welcome home day. Ryan gave him the board in front of 30,000 people at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

In the spirit of the new sharing economy credo, try exchanging services and products for professional advice from other members. Tap the person next to you and ask if he or she would be willing to revamp your website in exchange for a press release for their new app. Bartering is perfect for the times when you aren’t liquid or are in between billing cycles.
Coworking is opportunistic—in a good way.

NextSpace member Mike Muldoon describes the resources at the space that make it easy to find the tools you need for your project through a little give-and-take.

Need a cable for a ten-minute project? Somebody’s got it, and you don’t have to burn half a day spending $40 at OfficeMax for a part you’ll never use again. WordPress/Drupal/you name it, whatever your problem is, there is probably somebody with help to give. Beyond the tech-specific help stories, this sense of pitching in exists among the legal, marketing, and every other field of expertise you’ll find here.

Working in the UnOffice

The quotes in this article are based on excerpts from ‘Working in the UnOffice: A Guide to Coworking for Indie Workers, Small Businesses, and Nonprofits‘ (Night Owls Press, August 2011), one of the first all-around guidebooks on the concept of coworking in the U.S.

This info-packed guide helps freelancers find and select the perfect space and learn the ropes to adjusting to collaborative environments. Includes interviews of 19 coworking space founders and 33 freelancers and small businesses who shared their insights and tips on getting out of the work rut. Grab a copy at: CoworkingGuide.com..

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Charleston’s TheDigitel.

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