For Freelancers, Landing A Workspace Gets Harder

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The recession brought widespread unemployment across the U.S., but it also prompted a spike in the number of freelance or independent workers.

More than 30 percent of the nation's workers now work on their own, and the research firm IDC projects the number of nontraditional office workers — telecommuters, freelancers and contractors — will reach 1.3 billion worldwide by 2015.

Typically, freelancers get to choose when and where they work. Many opt to set up shop in "co-working" arrangements, where they can rent a cubicle and other office resources by the day or the month.

It was once a relatively simple process to sign up with a co-working site.

But now, more companies are adopting a selective approach known as "curated co-working." One such company, New York City's Grind, requires an application — and you have to be accepted to get started.

That means some would-be co-workers will find they don't make the cut.

"If you write two words and two sentences [on your application], you're probably not going to hear from me," says Benjamin Dyett, a Grind co-founder and the company's chief gatekeeper. "But if you write two pages about why you want to work at Grind, I will bring you in for an interview."

Creating A Community, Not Just An Office

Dyett says he and his partners make no bones about their selectivity.

"None of it is to be elitist and exclusive," he says. "It is to create a strong, cohesive community."

Meaning, besides providing a well-lit office space with dependable Wi-Fi, Grind is also offering a certain kind of collaborative workspace — where a Web designer can get legal advice or an event planner can team up with a food writer.

Dyett's basically "curating" the mix of people to ensure this happens at Grind. Think fewer male coders with their headphones on, and more women in faux fur vests doing PR work on their laptops.

It's easy for a visitor to imagine Grind's appeal. The site is outfitted with high-end furniture. Natural light streams in through floor-to-ceiling windows on Park Avenue. It boasts a coffee bar offering high-end coffee from one of Grind's strategic partners, Intelligentsia Coffee.

For an extra fee, members can reserve glass-walled conference rooms with LED screens.

But the real draw for "Grindists" is the plugged-in networking that introduces its members to each other.

All of this costs $35 a day or $500 a month — not cheap in a city where many co-working arrangements cost between $200 to $300 per month. Even so, 100 people are on Grind's waiting list.

A Changing Industry

Co-working pioneer Sanford Dickert says "co-working, in the beginning, was basically trying to bring in any revenue." But the Grind model, he says, reflects a shift in the industry.

Purists say co-working was — and still is — about self-selection and pooling resources. And, occasionally, someone disruptive turns up.

Dickert says Grind is trying to eliminate that possibility head on. And, he says, the market will decide if Grind's curated approach is too exclusive.

"Is that wrong? The wrongness or the rightness will be determined by the marketplace," Dickert says. "If they're not able to attract enough people into this space, it will close."

Campbell McKellar runs Loosecubes, an online listings agent for more than 1,800 co-working sites worldwide. Many of them are just offices with empty desks to fill. McKellar says the application and vetting process is here to stay.

"It's very similar to dating," McKellar says. "There could be 10 men in Brooklyn that have brown hair that are in my age range, but I really would only like one, for reasons that are very hard to describe. It's about chemistry."

In fact, Loosecubes is working on software to require people to provide photos and Facebook and LinkedIn profiles when they apply. A two-way rating system, she says, isn't far behind.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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