Coworking spaces have gained popularity in recent years as an alternative to traditional office spaces for small businesses, entrepreneurs, and remote workers. The concept involves a shared workspace where individuals from different professions and industries can work independently or collaboratively. Coworking spaces provide more than just a desk and a chair. They offer a community of like-minded individuals who are committed to supporting and encouraging one another. In this blog post, we'll take a closer look at the benefits of coworking spaces, as exemplified by this Q&A with Emily Vanest and Tina Aalsma from Switchboard, our "home" in Indy.
A: How does being part of a coworking space benefit small businesses and entrepreneurs, especially those just starting out?
S: The two biggest things that coworking spaces give their members are:
1) Low-cost access to resources needed to work or to launch your business. We have great high-speed wifi, printing and scanning, professional spaces for meetings, and a community of other workers who could be good connections for you as you grow. As your business expands, you can move to a desk or a private office. You don't need the capital to buy your own building or even fit out a home office. You can have 24/7 access to a shared space for around $100/month.
2) A community. Even before the pandemic, many people had already realized that working from home in isolation wasn't good for them. Mental health suffered, work/life balance suffered, and productivity suffered. Getting out of your house, interacting with other humans, and even working alongside other people who are also working tends to really boost all of those things.
A: In addition to providing workspace, what kinds of community-building activities and events does Switchboard offer its members?
S: Some of the community events that we have done: Happy hour, member lunch, Switchboard anniversary parties, treat breaks, walking tours, clothing exchange, lunch and learn, Plugged In (breakfast and a speaker). We bring our own lunches and eat together on Thursdays.
A: How does Switchboard help support and connect with the broader community beyond its membership, such as through partnerships or charitable initiatives?
S (Emily): I personally feel very committed to women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses. We donate our space for events that allow these groups to launch or flourish their businesses. We discount memberships for nonprofits and local students. I'm personally involved in my neighborhood association and am on the board of the community development corporation that oversees this neighborhood. Our space is located in the heart of a growing commercial district filled with independently owned small businesses. We are part of the local merchants' association, encourage our members to shop local, and purchase from local vendors for our events and daily needs whenever possible. When we designed our building, we had a lot of our furniture built by neighborhood furniture designers and purchased our art from neighborhood professional artists.
(Tina): One of the reasons that Switchboard does not have an on-site coffee shop or restaurant is because we want to encourage our members to visit the wealth of local businesses within walking distance. We have filled our space with local artists' work. We purchase handmade cards from local artists and provide them (with stamped envelopes) for our members at times like Mother's Day and Father's Day, or just because.
A: In your experience, what are some examples of businesses or organizations that have benefited from being part of the Switchboard Coworking community, and how?
S: Two of my favorite stories: Richard and Nate Walsh joined Switchboard in 2017 as software developers with some ideas. Their business grew and expanded, but pivoted dramatically during the pandemic when they began creating a system for HIV patients in rural communities to get access to medical care and support. Their hardware and software have been purchased and invested in by the Indiana State Department of Health and are being sold to other states. Their business expanded to an office, then 2, and they are adding 2 more offices in our new building. But better than that, they met David and Elise here. David was starting his own real estate investing app and had just hired his assistant Elise. They shared a desk, where they became friends with Richard and Nate. Eventually, they all bought houses in the neighborhood and became friends outside of work. Their neighborhood community helped carry them through the pandemic. Davis now has over 40 employees and 3 offices at Switchboard. That little app earned him #1 on Forbes Magazines' top 8 real estate companies to watch in 2019.
Other Switchboard members include architects, lawyers, data analysts, financial advisors, Executive Directors of nonprofits, real estate agents, filmmakers, therapists, students, and more.
A: How has Switchboard Coworking adapted to meet the needs of its members during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what lessons have you learned about the importance of flexible and adaptive workspace solutions?
S (Tina): After the pandemic, many of us have a harder time showing up for things that are not very convenient. But we need connection more than ever. We try to build in opportunities to connect while still respecting our members' needs to do their work. Since we all need to eat, free lunch is a beautiful way to connect.
About half of our members were classified as essential workers. They continued to work out of space throughout the pandemic. We followed all directives and recommendations but didn't have to adapt too much. We always have members who are immunocompromised in our space and care very much about cleaning and sanitizing appropriately. We wore masks and distanced and protected each other. We have a really great community and have always prioritized caring for each other and thinking about the needs of others. People working through the pandemic needed community more than ever. . . needed to talk, to see other people's eyes, needed to get out of their houses. And we were able to do that safely. We never had anyone contract or spread COVID at Switchboard, which is really amazing.
Also important, our members believed in us and were willing to continue supporting us throughout the pandemic. Many people who could not come into the space still chose to pay their memberships and their office leases. Because of that, we were able to stay open and fiscally solvent (even thriving) during a time when many businesses (including many coworking spaces) had to close.
Personal note: As someone who underwent cancer treatment last year, I found that going to a coworking space, even if it was just once a week or once a month, was a great way to distract my mind and get work done in a safe and clean environment that was beneficial for my physical and mental health. Switchboard proved to be an incredible partner during those grueling 8 months, and I will always be grateful for the support they provided me.