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Have laptop will travel: coworking spaces are the new home offices in Toronto

There's a curious little dance that freelance workers do on a daily basis that a friend of mine has aptly coined "the laptop shuffle." While looking for the perfect place to work -- to make sure our butts stay in seats in front of the computer -- we shuffle from cafe to cafe until we find one or two that suit our needs (or that can tolerate our hours of lingering). Suiting my needs means reliable Wi-Fi, not too many moms and tots, the right kind of pleasant background music, yummy snacks, and above all else, good coffee.

Why can't I work at home? Too many distractions; dishes need washing, closets suddenly need cleaning, or the cat wants my attention. In a cafe or shared work space, I am more likely to buckle down to work. There's something about being around colleagues, and having witnesses. Paying rent equal to that of my apartment for a downtown office makes no sense either.

That's why I'm happy that Camaraderie, a new coworking space, has opened its doors to accommodate a few of the growing number of Toronto-based independent workers. Located at Church and Adelaide, near St. Lawrence Market, the south facing 2nd floor workspace has a nice view of one of Toronto's oldest landmarks, St. James Cathedral. With 1400 sq ft, Camaraderie has communal work tables, a rumpus/meeting room, a conference room, kitchen area, and a small closet-like room dubbed "the phone booth," for taking quiet or confidential phone calls. It can accommodate 20 to 35 workers, depending on the furniture configuration.

For $300 a month you receive a place at the communal table during regular office hours, internet access, use of the boardroom, your fill of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, use of a microwave, and access to office supplies like printer, scanner and shredder. Open only a couple of months, Camaraderie has recently started events such as business skills webcasts and yoga classes. They also plan to create and offer a benefits package for freelancers Ė an attractive addition to membership.

Rachel Young, who runs a communications and event planning business called Pumpkin Patch Productions and Wayne Lee, a software devolper, met when they were involved with the Toronto chapter of Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), a month-long writing challenge. They'd gather together a group of participants for creative sessions in a cafe.  Each discovered they were much more productive in these groups than on their own at home. Lee says, "I enjoy the feeling of belonging, not working in isolation." Young adds, "I love sharing ideas and hearing what people are working on." So, with their own capital, save for a small portion of raised money, they opened their own space.

It's an idea that's caught on in cities all over Europe, the US and parts of Canada. Lee had worked briefly at Indoor Playground, a coworking space on Richmond Street, open for a little over a year before a rent increase shut it down. His experience, plus their research on a coworking Google group helped them determine their business model; what they would offer and for how much, the amount of space needed, amenities, and an idea of how they might grow to accommodate their clients. Rachel says, "Our research shows it'll take awhile to start being comfortable so if we have to put a bit of money into it every month that's okay because we're in building mode."

Nestled above Starfish, a great little oyster bar in a building that dates back to the 1800s, Camaraderie is indeed a comfy space to get a little work done. When I visited there were a handful of people diligently working; the atmosphere was casual and friendly. It seems perfect for me, the only question is am I willing to splurge on $300 a month for unlimited usage? Am I more likely to fork out the $175 part-time rate, or drop in the odd time for $20 a day? Each membership includes a coworking visa, so members can use participating coworking facilities around the world.

In my past work life, I've had private offices, cubicles, shared desks, and even once got crammed into a closet sized storage area. Most often I've been windowless.  Until my experience at Camaraderie I gave scarce thought to why I seek out communion in coffee shops, but now I understand that I'm looking for some kind of accountability, or a manufactured deadline.

Mark Pavlidis, an iPhone developer and laptop shuffle cohort in my neighbourhood across town from Camaraderie says that while he likes the networking and collaborations inherent in coworking, he enjoys working in various places and uses Camaraderie as one of many options.

Jillian  Challenor, a life coach, says "Sometimes at home I look at the window and think 'when was the last time I was out with the three dimensional people?" She's tried coworking at the Centre for Social Innovation and feels such places have a palpable energy. "Meeting new people is refreshing and energizing, and makes me feel more productive."

A recent StatsCan report says self-owned businesses are on the rise, with, 34,500 more of us laptop shufflers over the last year. That's a niche that needs to be served, which could be why we're seeing coffee shops like Cloud Free Agent Espresso Bar on Queen West, which has a collaboration/coworking space for rent downstairs. When I tally up what I spend in coffee, lunch and snacks at cafes just to avoid feeling funny about lingering there, it amounts to more or less the cost of a Camaraderie membership, so for me, it makes sense. Now I just need to convince Rachel and Wayne to expand into my neighbourhood!

Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto-based writer and television producer.

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