The tricky etiquette of co-working spaces
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NEW YORK, Nov 7 — In the future, will we be kind?
Shortly after I had checked in with Sasha, the friendly young manager of the Union Square co-working space where I was renting desk space, she led me to a table where five other freelancers steadfastly pored over their laptops as if immured in iron lungs.
The one chair at the table that was devoid of a human occupant was filled instead by an overcoat and scarf, which Sasha moved to the side of the table as she beckoned me to sit.
“OK,” I said unsurely. “But if that person comes back, I’m going to sic him on you.”
Sasha’s eyes flickered with intrigue and curiosity, as if I had invited her to look at a severed head in a jar. She told me, “I’m here for that kind of awkwardness.”
To get a glimpse of what manners will be like in the office of the future, it behooves us to look at co-working spaces, those offices peopled by freelancers or by workers who have different employers. Many sources predict that by 2020, half the workforce will be freelance.
One theory of etiquette holds that manners are best in communities with fixed populations: If you know that you’ll see Tina again tomorrow (and Tuesday and Wednesday), you’re less likely to surreptitiously scarf down the rest of the half-eaten boysenberry yogurt she left in the office fridge, because daily exposure to her yogurt-based wistfulness will start to gnaw at you, and ultimately turn you into a Munch painting.
The best manners, according to this theory, would be found on a remote island (Robinson Crusoe giving Friday the gift of Christianity: adorable). The worst manners would be found any place where there are a lot of transients: train stations, Las Vegas, a co-working space?
Eager to find out, I joined Croissant, a new app that hopes to become the Uber of rentable desk space. My US$99 payment got me 40 hours of access to any of New York City’s 31 locations and free Wi-Fi. Scanning the list, I noticed a few trends and themes.
Many of the locations offer glamorous amenities like a nap room or a cafe. Only two of the locations are open 24/7. Most of the locations’ names — Ensemble, Joynture, Rough Draft, Fuelled Collective — sound like the names of college a cappella groups.
I had been parked at a table for only 20 minutes at the Farm — a rustically decorated loft space in SoHo, complete with barn doors and 20 10-foot-long, roughly hewed wooden tables — when an attractive woman in her 30s seated near me looked at the chair in between us and asked: “Do you mind if I put my foot up on the chair? I broke my foot.”
I said, “Oh, God, no, why do you even ask?” She replied, “Some people hate feet.”
Up went her bare foot on the seat — the podiatric equivalent of the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Such sensitivity on her part augured well. Indeed, on the whole, I would give the prevailing manners of the eight co-working spaces I visited over the course of a week a grade of B or B+. The resting of broken limbs on nearby seats is infrequent and pre-advertised; the volume of both the ambient music and the workers’ conversations is low, but not the kind of whispery low that begs for eavesdropping.
That said, there were times when even the minute-long tour of their fief that most of the spaces’ managers give a newcomer left this newcomer with questions.
I found myself asking the tall, rugged-looking manager of Input Lofts: “I brought a salad with a very garlicky dressing. Should I just mouth-breathe it over my desk mates?” He hunched his shoulders vigorously as if to say “Whatevs,” and then advised: “Enjoy. Sit where you like.”
At Bar Works — a sunshiny, street-level, glass-and-brick terrarium in the West Village that looks like the set of every 1980s sitcom if they were put in a centrifuge and then came out bearing the title “Three On the Of” — I told the sly, deadpan manager, “I’m tempted to wear my sunglasses in here, but I wouldn’t want people to think I’m trying to look fabulous or blind.” (Manager: “We form opinions here, but we don’t share them.”)
At Workville in Midtown, I confided to the 20-something manager with saucerlike, sympathetic eyes, “I may need to make a slightly distraught phone call, and I wouldn’t want to infect the office with emotional Ebola.”
“We have phone booths!” she exclaimed.
“Great,” I said. “Because sometimes a weepy phone call is just as distracting in an office setting as tuna salad or goat curry.”
She pointed out the location of the phone booths, not mentioning the wraparound terrace cradling this 21st-floor aerie.
I mention her passivity here because that is the very quantity that, in the end, keeps me from endorsing the otherwise highly salubrious co-working experience with full breathlessness.
Item: It’s entirely possible, as happened to me at Workville, to receive zero reaction to walking around the office for two minutes while displaying the universal “I’m looking for a wastebasket” gesture. (Hold dripping tea bag 2 inches over mug. Dart eyes at all low-lying areas as if in search of errant lizard.)
What I’d like to see more of in the workplace of the future is what I call proactive good manners. Manners that go above and beyond. Accordingly, I spent the waning hours of my Croissant membership trying to act in a manner that exhibited initiative and foresight.
On witnessing the wide breadth of free snacks in the kitchen of the financial district co-working space Joynture, I trained my vision away from the single bag of Cheetos, whose wanton allure had more or less frozen me in my tracks, and opted instead to take one of the three Nature Valley bars on display, because to do so was to leave the door open to other potential visitors to the Valley.
Then, an hour later, when my uneaten Nature Valley bar and I showed up at the nearby space Primary, where sugary treats were scarcer, I chose not to enter the Valley brazenly in front of my deskmate and her abject kombucha, but opted instead to place and unwrap my candy bar under my coat, and then to furtively nibble with an eye to maximum discretion.
Similarly, when a man and a woman in their late 30s sat across from me at Workville and started a lengthy and unfascinating conversation about sponsored ads, I did not, as I wanted to, assail them with a mock bumper ad by holding up an index card that read, “Have you considered oral surgery and its promise of temporary silence?” Rather, I waited two minutes and then moved to a distant table.
Finally, I rewarded the one manager I came across who exhibited proactive good manners (Noah, at Bar Works, who will, unbidden, fill your water glass with water, or ask you how your day is going) by giving him a dollar tip.
“That’s the first that anyone’s done that,” he said.
Well, don’t come to expect it, I told him. I may have no overhead, but I have a million potential mouths to feed. — The New York Times