Articles - 2nd July 2020

The coworking concept you can do from your bedroom

Words by Elly Earls
Illustration by Will Francis

I first heard of virtual coworking through an online community I’m a member of – Digital Nomad Girls. When she started travelling the world and working for herself at the same time, founder Jenny Lachs, started feeling increasingly lonely and missed having people around her to keep her accountable.

She decided to see if she could create what she was missing online. Initially this took the form of one virtual coworking session a week. Members of her community would log into a video conferencing room she’d set up on Zoom, introduce themselves and tell their colleagues what they’d be working on that day. Then it was time to knuckle down.

Lachs decided to structure the sessions using the Pomodoro technique, which means you work intensely for 25 minutes, have a five-minute chat break to update each other on progress, and repeat four times.

As more and more members tried out virtual coworking and offered to host sessions themselves, it’s grown to the point where members can drop into the DNG Zoom room at almost any time and have someone to cowork with. I once attended a session with 15 other women from all around the world, working on everything from marketing strategies to pitching magazine editors.

 

‘An anchor point in my week’

For the last two years, communications specialist Sophia Cheng has been hosting DNG’s Tuesday 9am session. And although she started virtually coworking when she was travelling, she’s since slowed down – she’s currently based in Bristol – and says it’s still an important part of her weekly routine.

“It’s an anchor point in my week and that routine and structure has made a massive difference to my freelance life. I thought I laughed in the face of routine only to learn that I actually desperately needed it,” she laughs.

“I love the fact that in the breaks, you can be a bit stuck mid-task and you can ask the group for help or feedback or ideas and within a five-minute slot you can get that input. You also get accountability if you’re doing extra annoying things. If you’re sat on your own, no-one’s going to check on you; it’s kind of that positive peer pressure.”

 

“An absolute game-changer”

It’s been a similar story for Martha Hopkins, a partner at publishing and design firm Terrace Partners in Texas, who isn’t part of DNG, but has been doing virtual coworking since 2017 on another platform.

Through Focusmate, freelancers can book 50-minute video sessions with a randomly assigned partner who also wants to get something done at that time. At the start of each session, each person shares their goal and when the bell goes off at the end, they report how it went for them.

She says it’s been an absolute game-changer. “Immediately I became so much more productive,” she tells me. “When I’m at home, I schedule an early session to make myself get up. I’ll often do two sessions first thing in the morning before breakfast. When you’re having trouble getting something done, I find it so helpful. It’s also a great experience to work with people all over the world every day.”

After a pretty long phase of working in various Starbucks, Focusmate founder Taylor Jacobson came up with the idea after brainstorming what his fantasy day as a freelancer would look like. “Living in New York City, I could take these really prime hours just after I’d woken up and was feeling about as good as I’m going to feel all day and parlay that into something really creative or productive, or I could get on the subway,” he says.

“Working from home does have challenges and they’re the ones we’re trying to address – the human connection, accountability and structure. But it also has huge upsides – the flexibility to construct your day exactly how it works for you. Coworking spaces are also prohibitively expensive for a lot of freelancers. When I was starting out, I couldn’t afford my rent, let alone a coworking space.”

Focusmate is free for three sessions a week or members can upgrade to unlimited for $5 a month, while membership of the DNG Inner Circle, which also includes many other features, costs around £15. Other virtual coworking options for freelancers include MyWorkHive and Ultraworking.

 

New friends and business connections

The benefits of virtual coworking go far beyond productivity. London-based Laura Amenta, founder of Palms Up Club, which offers web design services and online courses for wellness professionals and yoga teachers, started doing virtual coworking around six months ago and says it was one of the best things she’s ever done to improve her freelance life.

“It’s a bit like having colleagues or a team again, which I’ve been missing from time to time since going freelance. And the best part is that these people really get me, my work and the ups and downs of freelance life,” she explains. “I’ve already made some new friends and amazing business connections.”

Cheng agrees. Since she started virtual coworking, she’s given work to four freelancers she met through the group and pursued a workshop from one of her virtual coworking colleagues for her own business. She’s also made friends. “It was a slow build-up over a year but then we did the face to face bit and that’s really consolidated the friendship,” she says. “This week some of us are meeting up in Paris. We’re coming from Madrid, Munich, Leeds, Bristol and Brighton.”

Jacobson also plans to focus more on the community side of Focusmate in the months and years to come. “We’re building the ability to create a custom tribe, which is sort of like a social network,” he explains. “So you eventually have this Focusmate footprint where it’s exactly the right people you want to work with, you relate to and who have your back.”

Although the vast majority of people I speak to in the course of my freelance life haven’t heard of virtual coworking – I mention it a lot – Jacobson believes it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the norm.

“It’s not a thing yet. It’s only a thing for people to whom it’s a thing! And those people rave about it,” he says. “To put it in perspective, even Zoom, which is a $20 billion company still isn’t the norm; phone calls are. But there’s a huge wave there, it’s becoming the norm, and we’re riding in that wave. We’re just trying to serve the people that are ready for this. It’s a challenge and that’s OK with us.”

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