Skip to main content
the future of work

Co-working spaces such as the Centre for Social Innovation’s spot on Spadina Avenue in Toronto are popular with freelancers, independents, entrepreneurs, startups, professionals, artists, creatives, consultants or people who just want to escape the isolation of their home office.Chris Luckhardt Photography

When Adil Dhalla first looked at the co-working space at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) in downtown Toronto, he was instantly hooked by the energy in the room.

After working in corporate environments, the 30-year-old co-founder of My City Lives, a startup technology company focused on maps, found it unlike any other workplace he had seen. So he told his business partner they were going to sign a lease and move into CSI's new building in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood.

They did, but the funny thing is, the rent was $1,200 a month and they were making only about $1,300. But Mr. Dhalla was convinced being in the space would actually accelerate their work enough to make the gamble pay off. Two years later, they're still there – with a bigger business and a even bigger space.

"A lot of people think co-working space is just a bunch of people who work together in a communal office to share costs and learn from one another – and that's undeniable – but the secret sauce of co-working space is community," Mr. Dhalla says. "You feel like you belong, that you're part of something that's a movement. That's a really powerful thing."

Many different kinds of co-working spaces can be found in major cities across Canada and in urban settings almost anywhere on the globe – from Berlin to London to San Francisco, where co-working spaces around Silicon Valley have boomed since 2005. Some are grouped around a common industry or idea so that networking and collaboration happen organically.

CSI, a non-profit organization, curates its tenants based on whether they have a social purpose to their work – everyone there is out to make the world a better place, whether for profit or non-profit – but other themes include technology, business and design.

A lot of co-sharing places just offer an open invitation to anyone looking for temporary flexible office space with shared overhead. Online bank ING Direct created a co-working space called Network Orange at its Toronto headquarters where entrepreneurs and business owners can rent a "desker package" for $100 a month or at a drop-in rate of $20 a day – with all proceeds donated to charity.

Co-working space is popular with freelancers, independents, entrepreneurs, startups, professionals, artists, creatives, consultants or people who just want to escape the isolation of their home office. Others may have an office in another city and just come for the social aspect, to make business connections or because they need a desk away from home. What they get varies from a bare bones office with second-hand printers to stunningly beautiful spaces with natural light, comfy lounges and unlimited organic coffee in the communal kitchen.

CSI offers members extras such as workplace yoga, indoor bike racks, learning seminars and a weekly Salad Club, where people mingle while noshing on mixed greens.

People can typically choose to rent a private lockable office, a dedicated private desk or a hot desk that's available by the hour. What's shared is common space for socializing and brainstorming, conference rooms, Internet, phone, photocopier – all of the background services so people don't have to worry about administration. Some even have cafés on the premises.

"We're trying to change the way people work, to free up their time so they can focus more on their mission and personal lives, maybe go down to a four-day work week," says Dave Kranenburg, director of programs at CSI in Toronto. "We're also seeing a growth in the hot desk space. Nine years ago when CSI first opened, it was all about private offices and private desks, but that was before mobile enabled people to be much more fluid in where they work. Often people need to work out of different locations so they like the flexibility of a hot desk."

While many big organizations such as banks and large corporations are downsizing not only workers but office square footage (and setting up their own internal versions of shared spaces for their employees), co-working spaces are expanding. When CSI opened its first location in 2004, it had about 5,000 square feet and 200 people, according to Tonya Surman, co-founder of CSI and one of the first to introduce co-working to Canada. Now CSI has nearly 1,000 members in three Toronto locations with a fourth – a 24,000-square-foot spot in New York – due to open in April.

"The way we work is changing as people see the value of networking and collaboration more than ever," Ms. Surman says. "What co-working does is enable different work styles to exist in a shared model. It gives people a platform to build their own practices without the overhead or high costs of a startup. Co-working is about building new power structures which undermine the top-down hierarchical model. It's a building block for the future knowledge economy."

Ian Graham, president of The Code Factory, a co-working space in Ottawa centred around business and technology, is also experiencing growth, although he says co-working is much harder to make work in a small city compared with a bigger one, especially in the capital, which has such a large government presence. But still, he's moving soon to a new, larger space within a few blocks of his current downtown location.

He says revenue at his for-profit site has increased between 20 to 40 per cent every year since he opened in 2008. Although people of every age use co-shared space, he sees more of the demand coming from the younger generation.

"Gen Y and the Millennials like to travel so what you're seeing is a nomadic work force," Mr. Graham says. "They can carry their office with them on a laptop or work from their mobile, so co-working is ideal for them."

Vlad Glebov, a 28-year-old member of Gen Y and president at solar energy company GreenLife Co-operative Inc., is enthusiastic about the space he rents in CSI's building on Spadina Avenue in Toronto, but says you have to be okay with being social to get the most out of it.

"If you need a lawyer, go down the hall and there's bound to be a lawyer; if you need advice on renewable energy, there's a team of people; if you need a website designer, there's tons," Mr. Glebov says. "You walk around, say hello, drink some coffee, go to the fridge – there's usually some free food – or go up on the rooftop. Obviously, there's some work involved, but it doesn't feel like work to me."

A few good spaces

Co-Work, 703 Bloor St. W., Toronto. Big windows, exposed brick, wood beams, polished concrete.

Foundery, 376 Bathurst St., Toronto. Newly renovated, open concept

Centre for Social Innovation, Toronto. Three locations: 720 Bathurst St., 215 Spadina Ave, Suite 400, Regent Park: 585 Dundas St. E., Suite 300. In New York: 601 West 26th Street, Suite 325.

The Code Factory, 100 Gloucester St., Ottawa

The Office 320, 309 West Cordova St., Vancouver. Gastown district. Original 1800s oak flooring, vaulted ceiling.

The Hub, 1673 Barrington St., Halifax. Natural light, historic character, central location.