San Diego cool coworking spots – do they work?

I got so little done, but I like the way I feel

Nic Roc and Stacy Keck run You Belong Here, a 1250 square-foot coworking space on El Cajon Boulevard.
  • Nic Roc and Stacy Keck run You Belong Here, a 1250 square-foot coworking space on El Cajon Boulevard.
  • Photograph by Matthew Suárez

“Being in our little silos of sole proprietorships is very isolating,” Stacy Keck (left) says. “We both felt drawn to having a place where we could openly share without being competitive and proprietary.”

“Being in our little silos of sole proprietorships is very isolating,” Stacy Keck (left) says. “We both felt drawn to having a place where we could openly share without being competitive and proprietary.”

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

A mile east of all the beer

Stacy Keck tells me she can’t function at 6 am. So we decide to meet instead at 8:30, and she gives me an access code so I can show up anytime I want to before then. It’s 8 am when I enter the code on the keypad and open the door of You Belong Here, a 1250 square-foot coworking space on El Cajon Boulevard.

You Belong Here

3619 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights

“It’s a mile east of all the beer,” Keck had said earlier. (It’s 3619 El Cajon Boulevard, midway between the 15 and 805 freeways.)

I’m the first person to arrive for the day, but the air is already set to a cozy 74 degrees, and groovy jazz plays on the overhead sound system. I choose a spot in the center of a spacious velour-tufted couch (purchased at Living Spaces) and arrange my computer and notebooks on the mid-century-looking coffee table in front of it. At the edge of the table, white half-inch letter and number stickers indicate the WiFi address and password. At 8:20, Keck comes in the back door, greets me with a “Good morning,” and starts making coffee in the kitchen.

“We’ve set up systems to automate the space as much as possible,” she says. This includes, lighting, air, music, and room reservations via Kindles set up outside the podcast and meeting rooms. “We have coworking insurance that covers us and our members, which is why everyone has to have an access code. They have to be in the system to be considered a member and to be covered by our insurance.”

“On Monday mornings, everyone is pretty focused,” says Union Cowork community manager Allison Fortuna.

“On Monday mornings, everyone is pretty focused,” says Union Cowork community manager Allison Fortuna.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

At 8:30, Keck’s partner Nic Roc arrives with her arms and hands full with bag, keys, and a laptop. Before she puts her things down, she informs me that the coffee table I’m hunched over can also be a desk. At the push of a button, I am able to straighten my spine and work upright.

After Keck puts a plate of cream cheese croissants, a carafe of water, and three mugs of coffee on the table in the middle of the room, I leave the comfy couch to join her and Roc and spread my things out beside them.

Roc, who runs The Rock Shop, a “badass partyware” company, met Keck, a professional photographer, in February 2018. The two had known of each other for years but had not met. Roc lives in the City Heights neighborhood and has a studio nearby, and she’d been keeping an eye on the empty storefront for years, thinking it might be a good place to keep the laser she uses for laser-cut goods.

Union Cowork in Encinitas has 14 private offices that range from 120 to 640 square feet for $1750 to $2500 per month; eight more flex-desks upstairs, plus two lounge areas, three conference rooms, and a kitchen (with free beer, kombucha, coffee, and tea).

Union Cowork in Encinitas has 14 private offices that range from 120 to 640 square feet for $1750 to $2500 per month; eight more flex-desks upstairs, plus two lounge areas, three conference rooms, and a kitchen (with free beer, kombucha, coffee, and tea).

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

She spoke with another artist friend who was looking for a place to work on her art. That friend said she knew a photographer who was shopping around for a photo studio. So Roc, Keck, and their mutual friend arranged to meet in front of the building where we sit now. The mutual friend never showed up. But Roc and Keck did, and three months later, after happy hours and listmaking and brainstorming sessions, they signed a two-year lease with an option to extend another two years.

“It was not turnkey,” Keck says, with her eyes wide to emphasize her trepidation at the outset.

“But it was affordable,” Roc adds.

“Yeah, and the windows,” Keck continues. “I could find a million great spaces, but the natural light was kind of what sold me.”

The building had been empty for years, and the amount of work that needed to be done daunted them. To cut costs, they did much of the work themselves and sprinkled their individual Instagram feeds with pictures of the process.

The project began with hiring an electrician, who tore down the walls, got everything up to code, and added outlets that would allow the space to function as a coworking facility. He left them with a outlets on the floors, walls, and tables — and a $13,000 bill. Once the walls were down, they decided to take the opportunity to insulate with rockwool to buffer the sounds coming from Soda Bar next door. After they rebuilt the walls, dry walled, sanded, and prepped for paint, they tackled the floors, a job that involved Hazmat suits, asbestos testing, and trips to the landfill. And then there was the restroom expansion they had to do themselves, because it was not Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant and the landlord refused to fix it. They added a kitchen, reoriented the room, and built out doors and walls to make the space suit their purposes.

“It was outside the realm of anything I had ever done with construction or hands-on manual labor,” Keck says. “Last summer did not exist.”

When I ask about the tools they used to get the work done, Keck and Roc exclaim in unison, “The Ripper Stripper!” and burst into laughter. Keck pulls out her phone to show me a picture of the Rip-R Stripper, which Roc explains is the machine they used to strip two layers of sticky linoleum from the floors. They also used a diamond blade buffer to get the thick layers of glue off the floor and a jackhammer to remove floor tiles and create channels in the floor for electrical work. They used sandblasters, staple guns, nail guns, and “lots of hammers,” Roc says. “Lots of paint.”

“I think people walk in here and think, ‘Oh, cute. They painted the walls and hung up some art work and got a cute sofa,” Keck says. “But it goes way beyond that. That’s not what I see.”

Aside from the construction, they were starting a new business entity, which meant meetings with lawyers and accountants, building a website, and creating a mission. And even though they knew what they wanted out of the space, Roc says creating the mission was the hardest part.

Sad but productive

The internet offers this definition of coworking: “the use of an office or other working environment by people who are self-employed or working for different employers, typically so as to share equipment, ideas, and knowledge.”

But exactly what that means has changed over the past few years. In a May 2017 article on QZ.com, author Sarah Kessler points out that the social experiment of coworking spaces (which began to pop up in the mid-aughts and focused on community and collaboration) has now shifted to a profit-driven industry that’s heavily focused on private office rental. “The Ultimate Coworking Space Data Report” published by DeskMag confirms that the revenue streams for the average coworking space are shifting. Where in 2016, desk rental accounted for 40 percent of the revenue, in 2018 it went down to 32 percent. During that time, private office rental increased from 17 to 27 percent.

NEST CoWork

1855 1st Avenue #100, Bankers Hill

At Nest CoWork in Bankers Hill, private offices start at $450 a month, come fully furnished with the option to personalize, and of the 34 spread around the company’s workspace on First Avenue between Elm and Fir, there are currently none available. But I learn during my tour on a Monday morning in mid-April that there are plenty of “floater” and “reserved desks,” the latter of which are distinguished by a pink sticker.

For some reason, in my mind, the idea of coworking conjures lots of natural light and chic modern minimalist décor, so Nest is a disappointment. The brown and tan interlocking rectangles on the aged industrial carpet in the hallway make me sad, as does the strange orange and green and purple corporate color scheme.

Jamie, my tour guide, wears yoga pants, sneakers, and long and red fingernails. I follow her through a small coffee shop (Grind Coffee) and the “Espresso Conference Room” next door, where three wooden throne-like dining chairs are set around a small table.

“There should be a fourth chair here,” Jamie says, straightening the chairs. “Use of this conference room is included in the price of all memberships, but it’s first-come-first-served.”

She then leads me past a kitchenette, through an open space with sit/stand tables, and down a few narrow hallways lined with closed doors, some bearing signs and logos, others blank. She points to each one as we pass, reciting the name of the company that occupies each private office and what fields they’re in: tech, cyber security, law, non-profit, health and wellness, marketing and communications. Here and there, red doors with red frames and black and white signs that read TELEPHONE lead to private British-inspired phone booths.

We pass through what feels like a maze of conference rooms and bathrooms and more kitchenettes before heading to the stairwell and ascending to the next floor.

On our way up, Jamie pulls her phone out of her pocket, apologizes, and tends to it momentarily. “People are sending their orders for lunch,” she tells me. “I take special orders as long as they text me by 10.”

Upstairs, a wall of windows looks out over the neighborhood and all the way to the bay, brightening up a large room carpeted much like the downstairs hallway but in the gray and black version. Around the edge of the open-plan room, glass doors and windows look into private offices. The rest is set up for coworking, each workspace defined by a desk surface and a black office chair. Approximately 20 of the desks are of the white, glass-topped, customizable sit/stand sort. Then there are two plain white and three dark brown standard table desks, an oval conference table for six, and two seating areas that consist of mismatched side-by side comfy chairs.

Members can hunker down at any available desk for $250 per month or reserve a dedicated desk for $350 per month.

Right now, the desks and chairs are empty except for a single desk facing away from the wall of windows and another one in the back of the room that faces toward it. Jamie greets the woman with her back to the windows.

This is where I plan to work. But first I need a badge. I follow Jamie back downstairs, where she photocopies my I.D., gives me a badge, and instructs me how to use it as I pass through every door.

Back upstairs, I post up at one of the desks near the front of the room so I can look out the windows toward the San Diego Bay. But just as I take in a deep breath to appreciate the quiet, the other woman in the room begins to talk on the phone in a good strong voice, describing at length to how to make the best use of the Salesforce software. When I pull out my headphones to drown her out, I realize they’re broken. So, I gather my belongings and find a desk as far away from her as I can get.

On the tour, Jamie had pointed out a glass-walled room with six desks at the back of this space, informing me that the plan is to put pink stickers on all of them. But since she hasn’t yet, and since I don’t see her anywhere, I spread out at one of them and settle in.

In addition to six desks, the room holds a rectangular conference table for six, two whiteboards and a TV monitor. One wall of windows looks out to a courtyard, and the other looks into the open workspace. For now, it’s all mine, and for two hours, I work in the quiet. A couple of people work alone at the reserved desks up front, but if they make any sounds at all, I can’t hear them from my little room all to myself. Every now and again, a plane flies overhead. Otherwise, all I hear is the hum of the air conditioner.

But then three people hold a meeting just feet from my desk, and even though we’re separated by glass, I lose my concentration to their discussion of wedding photos.

“We’ll just play it by ear,” the man says.

“No, we need a concrete plan because there’s babysitters involved,” the woman responds.

I start a to-do list in my notebook. Item one: buy new headphones.

At lunchtime, I heat my food in the microwave and eat (happily) alone in a kitchenette. A couple of people walk by on their way to the bathrooms. We don’t meet eyes or try to engage. I like it, and before I leave for home, I manage to write 1000 words.

Ginormous is not the goal

Google presents me with 44 coworking spaces spread all over the county. You Belong Here is not one of them. And there’s a reason for that. Even though the concept of coworking began as a way to “combine the freedom and independence of working for [oneself] along with the structure and community of working with others,” according to Brad Neuberg (the guy who claims to have started it all), Keck and Roc want something that puts more emphasis on the community.

“Being in our little silos of sole proprietorships is very isolating,” Keck says. “We both felt drawn to having a place where we could openly share without being competitive and proprietary.”

Roc says her less-than-ideal experience in a local coworking space led her to seek something more collaborative.

“There were a lot of people making great stuff, but there was no sense of community,” she says, going on to explain that the lack of community did the artists and creators in the space a disservice. “They didn’t know how to market their stuff, they didn’t know how to sell it or photograph it. And if they had just talked to each other, it could have made a difference. People need someone to talk to and share ideas with.”

In the early stages of creating You Belong Here, Roc and Keck sent out a survey to 100-plus people to get a feel for what their community of creative friends might need. One of the questions asked if participants had ever been members of a coworking space, and if so, what were the benefits and pitfalls. Of those who said they had, most listed community interaction as a benefit. Sloppy office mates, loud talkers, and corporate, “office-y” atmospheres were the biggest complaints. After reading through the survey results, Roc and Keck decided to rebrand their company and move away from the word “coworking” in order to give people a better understanding of what they’re going for.

“We realized people thought we were creating a traditional coworking space, with private offices and individual desks,” Keck says. “We rebranded to call ourselves a ‘collaborative work and event space’ so we could communicate that it’s not just, ‘Go sit at a quiet desk and drink free coffee.’ For that, go to WeWork.”

She’s referring to the $20 billion coworking behemoth that started in New York City in 2010 and, at the time of this writing, has 651 offices open in 115 cities all over the world, including San Diego, where it landed in late 2016 with 1700 workspaces. Today, the company occupies 54,000 square feet of office space in University City as well.

That is not the goal for You Belong Here.

“We don’t want it to be ginormous,” Roc says. “We want 15 solid people here. We want it to be more intimate. A lot of coworking spaces are really geared toward selling desks and making money. Community is our number one.”

Currently, they have four members. Six, if you count their husbands.

All the lonely people

The Harvard Business Review says people thrive in coworking spaces because they see their work as meaningful, they have more job control than people in traditional office environments, and they feel like part of a community. That seems to be as true in Encinitas as it is in City Heights, as true for photographers as it is for people in retail merchandising.

Union Cowork

111 C Street, Encinitas

On a drizzly morning in late April, I enter the small parking lot of Union Cowork in Encinitas and find all 19 spaces full. Fortunately, as I’m backing out of the alley to circle the block, a car pulls out of a space on C Street. After parking, I dart across the 100 yards or so to the building, past a loud talker pacing out front on his Bluetooth, and in through a set of glass doors.

I step into a wide open, brightly lit space with concrete floors, white walls, plants here and there, and exposed ductwork overhead. Just inside the door stands a reception desk where a wooden diffuser wafts out a patchouli-scented mist. Four desks (eight-seats each) are spread out evenly on either side of a 12-foot long bar set with four stools. Desks and bar are made of walnut and steel. Of those 20 “flex desk” spaces, 16 are currently occupied, but surprisingly, it sounds like a library. Lo-fi beats play quietly from Sonos speakers, and the few talkers speak in hushed voices.

“On Monday mornings, everyone is pretty focused,” community manager Allison Fortuna tells me. By the afternoon, though, it may get lively enough that she’ll have to hush the room, she says, laughing. “I’m thinking about getting a little bell.”

Shera the receptionist gives me a tour of the 6750-square-foot space, which, in addition to the coworking space downstairs, has 14 private offices that range from 120 to 640 square feet ($1750 to $2500 per month), eight more flex-desks upstairs, plus two lounge areas, three conference rooms, and a kitchen (with free beer, kombucha, coffee, and tea). All of the private offices and the two dedicated desks in a corner upstairs are occupied. Which is fine, because I’m here for the flex desk.

Since 2014, when Union CoWork opened its first location in North Park, they have opened an additional four around San Diego (North Park #2, Encinitas, East Village, and most recently, San Marcos), and another in Glendora (Los Angeles County). A seventh location in downtown Los Angeles is currently in the build-out phase and due to open in the fall.

After receiving the WiFi access code on a yellow post-it, I head upstairs to a bar-height steel desk (built, along with the staircase, all the steel-and-walnut desks, the 12-foot bar, and the window frames, by 25-year-old steel-worker Taylor Morgan). I spread my things out in my new workspace and piddle around on my computer for a good solid five minutes before I decide I’m hungry and need to eat.

The sun has come out, and the Union Coworks Encinitas website promises a pleasant neighborhood walk. So I order curry from Plum, the sister restaurant to Plumeria in University Heights. I walk down South Coast Highway 101, and my food is ready when I get there. When I return to Union 10 minutes later, I take my curry to a large wooden table in the shade. A young woman in an olive green t-shirt and jeans says, “You’re new here, right?” Most people who come here are regulars, so I stand out as the new girl. As much as I liked the anonymity at Nest, this is nice, too.

We get to chatting, and another woman, looking high-fashion in thick-rimmed glasses and red-and-black flannel, joins us with a bowl she’s just pulled from the microwave. Olive Green is in biotech, and she’s here because she was lonely working at home. Fashion Glasses works in retail and says what I’ve been thinking for years: working from home sounds better than it actually is. Fashion Glasses and Biotech Woman are regulars here, and both agree that the people are a big part of the reason they like it.

According to Fortuna, Union CoWorks Encinitas has 80 members, 40 percent of whom occupy private offices in teams ranging from 2 to 10 people each. Most members, she says, come four days a week, and stick around for an average of six months, though some have been around for two years.

“It’s like a family,” says Biotech Woman, who wishes to remain anonymous.

“Sometimes we help each other with design or give opinions. Or maybe help with an email,” says Fashion Glasses. Her real name is Kelley Bruemmer, and she’s the director of merchandising and design for Peepers, an eyeglass company with headquarters in Northwest Indiana. “But mostly there’s just a camaraderie.”

Case in point: our lunchtime chatter gets personal quickly. Biotech Woman tells us she’s frustrated with her boss, who undermines her and has been saying rude things about her behind her back. Bruemmer tells us about the uncomfortable experience of having to fire an employee recently. I offer opinions about my curry lunch and the traffic between here and Eastlake.

After 30 minutes, I head back to my desk feeling socially satisfied. Bruemmer and Biotech go back to theirs. Bruemmer’s in a private office upstairs with a big square window overlooking downtown Encinitas, so I don’t see her again for the rest of the afternoon. Biotech Woman occupies a flex desk that I can see from my upstairs perch. She spends the next hour chatting quietly with the guy at the desk next to her and holding his sleepy Aussiedoodle puppy in her lap. I manage to write a couple of paragraphs before I pack up and head out early to beat the traffic back to the South Bay.

Although my work isn’t exactly thriving today (250 words in 3 hours), I like the way I feel.

Yoga mats would be rad

Most coworking statistics I find online mention increased productivity. So far, I haven’t found that to be true for me. It could just be that I’m so starved for coworkers that I spend most of my time talking, or it could be that I still have yet to purchase a new set of headphones. I don’t have high hopes for my word count when I spend my second day at You Belong Here, but the large windows looking straight out onto the sidewalk of El Cajon Boulevard satisfy my craving for urban atmospheres, which has grown exponentially during the years I’ve lived in Eastlake.

I spread out on the table and attempt some editing work, which I manage for about a solid half hour. Side by side with Keck and Roc, we all pound away on our keyboards. And then Keck says, “I’ve got to stand up. This is not natural, sitting in one place for so long.”

She takes off her sweater and begins to stretch. Within moments, all three of us are standing against the blank white wall in the photo studio, performing a series of wall-supported stretches.

“I think getting some yoga mats would be rad,” Roc says.

And then it becomes part of the plan. A week later, the yoga mats will be available for anyone to use at any time.

As it gets busier in the workspace, my productivity decreases dramatically. At first, I’m distracted by the loud FaceTime conversation a wedding planner and a calligraphy artist are having with the bride-to-be about the invitations. But then I fall into my own conversation about smutty vampire fiction with another writer who comes in to work on her taxes, and then I lose even my pretense of focus when a photographer and her assistant begin dragging in props and equipment for a photo shoot for skincare products.

After awhile, Roc and I get to talking about some sexual assault awareness events she’s planning, and the collaborative spirit takes over. Next thing I know, I have a to-do list and giddy feelings of purpose and belonging. And zero words written.

At one point, a scruffily bearded man knocks on the glass door. Keck says, “Oh, a visitor,” and heads over to see what he needs. The man tries to push past her and into the room, but she remains in the doorway. It’s hard to hear what he says. After she manages to get rid of him, Keck reports that he wanted to come in and read our palms.

“If you want to come and have an event here and read people’s palms in a structured way, we can talk. But I’m not just letting a stranger read my palm,” she says.

“And that,” Roc says, “is why the doors remain locked at all times.”

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