116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — For most of his career, J.J. Breen worked in a traditional office environment. When he took a job with a St. Louis-based software company in 2020, however, he didn’t relocate — he worked remotely for the first time.
However, Breen didn’t want to work from home.
“I wanted to be able to leave my house, create a separation between home and work, and feel like I had a place to go,” he says.
Breen had previously visited the Vault Coworking and thought it might be a solution. So he got his new employer to agree to cover the cost.
He’s been a member of the co-working community at the Vault ever since.
“I really feel like it makes me happier as an employee,” he said. “There’s more stability in terms of the space itself, and it helps my ability to focus.
“But also I feel more engaged and connected because I’m not at home. And I get to see people every day, and not feel like I’m on my own.”
Lessons from the pandemic
Breen isn’t alone. Two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to adapt to remote employees, an increasing number of workers are looking for alternatives.
“There are a lot of people who don’t particularly care for working from home, and feel like they need to figure something out,” said John Foster, community manager for the Vault.
“Maybe they’re looking for an office, or maybe they just need to be around people and be part of a community.”
Geoff Wood, the founder and president of Gravitate Coworking, said the demand for co-working spaces is quickly growing. Wood’s company has now expanded to co-working locations in Des Moines, Windsor Heights, Jefferson and Cedar Falls.
“We’ve just opened our third Des Moines space,” he said. “That tells me that people really want this style of work.”
Wood said arrangements such as Breen’s — in which employers cover the membership cost — are not unusual.
“Employers aren’t just competing against the other companies in their town any more,” he said. “They’re competing with employers everywhere because we’ve learned that you can do a lot of jobs remotely, without living in that city.
“But you still want those employees to feel valued, you want them to be productive, and you want them to have social interaction. Co-working is a happy niche that provides all of those things.”
Jordan Bergren is a Cedar Rapids-based freelance animator and designer. His primary clients are in TV and film. He said four years ago, those opportunities didn’t exist for someone based in Iowa.
“The pandemic changed all of that,” he said. “It’s really a sign of the times we live in that more and more industries are realizing that there’s a huge potential upside to being open to a worldwide talent pool, once you figure out workflows on the production side.”
However, Bergren said he struggled with productivity in the early months of the pandemic, when he was forced to work from home.
“I’d still get the same amount of work done, but I didn’t feel as efficient,” he said. “I’d still get eight hours of work in, but over 12 or 13 hours.
“So I was ready to get back to the office as quickly as possible. It comes down to a personality trait. I know a ton of people who love working from home. It’s just not how I do it.”
Co-working has changed
The managers of co-working spaces say that they’ve adapted those spaces in the wake of the pandemic. They report an increased demand for individual offices, and Gravitate has installed dividers between workspaces to help with sound as well as create a greater sense of privacy and security.
It is installing more “phone booths,” allowing workers to take private calls without having to leave the space.
While those measures create more separation, there still is a strong desire for community events and interaction, Wood said.
““People are starting to tell us, ‘I really miss the potlucks, the events, things like that.’ So we’re looking at what that looks like, to bring those community pieces back,” Wood said.
“Because that’s why people stay. They join because they’re looking for a space. They stay because they like the community.”
Foster agreed, saying that community is a huge perk at the Vault.
“One thing I always wish I could express to people, is that it’s not scary or disruptive,” Foster said. “People imagine that working in the same space as a lot of other people, it will be tough to concentrate.
“But it really is a great working environment, with a lot of opportunities for collaboration.”
James Welbes, manager of the Space Coworking, echoed the benefits of community and collaboration he sees happening among members.
“Co-working is more about a bunch of people sharing the same space and getting work done even though they work in completely different industries,” he said. “There’s a big collaborative element to it.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come through my space, meet people from other industries and start working together on projects.”
With remote employment becoming a permanent fixture in the workplace, Welbes encouraged those employees to visit a local co-working space to see if it’s a good fit.
“You might surprise yourself,” he said.
Rob Merritt is director of communication for NewBoCo.