What a collaborative workspace looks like.

TRIAD NEXT: Room for collaboration

By Justin Catanoso TriadBusinessJournal

WINSTON-SALEM, NC — Mark Fisher is one of them. You know the type. You’ve seen them in Starbucks or Panera, the Green Bean in Greensboro or Kranky’s in Winston-Salem. There they are, tapping on their laptops, a briefcase at their feet, papers scattered on the table, gorging on free wifi.

Where most of us grab a cup of coffee and go, they linger. This is, in effect, their office.

“I needed to go somewhere,” says Fisher, 50, an advertising and marketing expert who struck out on his own after 15 years with Mullen in Winston-Salem. “I tried working from home, but found it’s too easy to become distracted.”

Fisher is not alone. In fact, he’s part of a huge crowd. According to a recent Gallup survey, about one-third of the U.S. employees operate outside the traditional confines of office towers, cubicles or factories. In other words, one in three American workers don’t have a traditional place to work.

For some, the spare bedroom suffices. For others, with a high tolerance for caffeine and wailing cappuccino makers, it’s the coffee house. But for many, like Fisher, those options are imperfect.

Enter the collaborative work space. Like HQ Raleigh. Or Bull City Co-working in Durham. Open floor plans with desks to rent by the hour, day or month. Access to conference rooms. Regular programs. Free coffee and wifi. Buzzy havens for freelancers and early-stage entrepreneurs to work and mingle.

The Triad is catching the wave. As I wrote in last month’s column on community workshops called maker spaces, we’re eager to build the infrastructure necessary to attract and retain young professionals and creative-class workers. We’re making progress.

Two collaborative work spaces are planned for downtown Greensboro. And Flywheel – 11,600 square feet of artfully designed shared space in the heart of the downtown Innovation Quarter – opened quietly in June and officially earlier this month.

“Having worked in ad agencies for 27 years, I’m used to funky spaces,” says Fisher in a glass-walled conference room at Flywheel. “I thought, ‘This is the right place for me.’ The monthly rent is reasonable. The parking is free. But my attraction here is not to be collaborative. I just need office space.”

Meeting the ideal

And there’s the rub, and the challenge. There is a greater good behind these collaborative work spaces beyond providing a more professional option for freelancers than coffee shops. Brad Bennett, co-owner of Flywheel, calls it “accelerated serendipity,” that thing leads to innovation and creation, maybe a new concept, maybe a new company, surely a new image for the city.

The idea is to have a roomful of extroverted creative types, like people in software design and product development, strategic planning and marketing. They chat at the bar in the back corner. Ideas emerge. Things happen. Perceptions change. That’s the goal.

But at this early stage, with its membership low and still building, Flywheel appears to be attracting more users like Fisher than Dominic Gray, 30, a software programmer and photographer who signed up “for the vibes and connections, so I can brush up against people in other industries.”

Look, Flywheel is not a nonprofit. It’s a business. Bennett, who runs the marketing agency Wildfire, and his partner Peter Marsh, who has the design firm Workplace Strategies, have invested plenty in the design and construction of Flywheel. Monthly renters enable them to cover their investment.

But if Flywheel is to truly succeed in helping to brand Winston-Salem as a place where creative types can thrive, it will need to meet the founders’ ideals of what it means to have a truly collaborative workspace. To that end, they are not relying solely on serendipity. They are being strategic.

Takes a while

That’s why they hired Monica Doss, who for 20 years led the Council for Entrepreneurial Development in the Triangle, one of the most successful groups of its kind in the country. Her title at Flywheel is chief knowledge officer. More aptly, she’s a pollinator – going from member to member, learning about their work, making introductions, planning programs that can help with funding or growth strategies.

“I saw this happen in Raleigh and Durham,” Doss says. “People were working together in spaces like this. But it takes a while to get there.”

There is some concern among Flywheel supporters that Winston-Salem doesn’t have the critical mass of freelancers and entrepreneurs yet to make the concept work. The Triad is not the Triangle.

But Bennett says he’s not worried, just focused. Membership is open now to all comers. But soon, access will become more selective. Bennett says early members may help decide who gets in later. Preference will go to extroverts eager to share their ideas and advice. You know, collaborate.

“Winston-Salem is our home,” Bennett says. “The city’s success begets success for us. And that success is built on singles and doubles. It’s about helping companies grow, and starting new ones. That’s our focus.”

Dominic Gray, among Flywheel’s youngest members thus far, hopes so: “I’m betting on making connections here. I’m eager to be a full participant. And if it doesn’t work, at least I’ll have a great place for vibes and free coffee and wifi.”

Justin Catanoso, former executive editor of the Triad Business Journal, is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. His column appears monthly in the newspaper at triad.bizjournals.com.