Shared office spaces have gone from a novelty in Detroit to a growing trend in the past five years as more freelancers and small businesses have begun renting desks by the month in communal settings featuring camaraderie, Wi-Fi, free coffee and sometimes beer.
Nearly a dozen so-called coworking spaces have popped up in the city, as have numerous others in Detroit’s suburbs. Nationwide, coworking sites also have been multiplying in number, growing from 283 in 2010 to a projected 5,026 by year’s end, according to industry-watchers.
The newest coworking spaces in Detroit feature stylish designs and numerous amenities for their members, including snack stations, game rooms and free beer on tap. Even with their growing popularity, most coworking spaces are still relatively quiet during the workday with members strongly encouraged to take loud conversations or phone calls to private rooms.
Some coworking sites such as WeWork and Bamboo Detroit have repurposed traditional office spaces that were once vacant.
Another model is Hunt Street Station, 2200 Hunt St., whose owners transformed the 122-year-old Detroit Police station into a 15,000-square-foot modern workspace, retaining unique details such as metal bars from old holding cells.
Many of the larger coworking sites feature not only communal tables for laptop-glued millennials and “solopreneurs,” but also private conference rooms where members can meet clients and entire floors of private offices for businesses to rent.
Driving the coworking space trend is an apparent rise in freelance work in Detroit, including by those who at first tried working from home, but found it too isolating or distracting and didn’t want to camp out all day in coffee shops.
Rising prices for standard commercial space in downtown has also contributed to coworking’s popularity. More national employers are turning to shared office sites to house their local satellite office employees, according to interviews with coworking space owners and members.
Better than home
Alok Sharma, 38, founding partner of Sharma Analytics, a small technology strategy consulting firm, once worked out of his Midtown home before joining TechTown Detroit’s 24-hour coworking space in 2016. The decision was definitely worth it, he said.
“For me, I’m dramatically more productive when I get out of the house. Having a place to go really disincentives you to procrastinate,” Sharma said. “If you’re at home, you will always find something else to do. But when you come here, the setting really kind of changes your mindset.”
Sharma said he is actually saving money by having a coworking membership because he can use TechTown’s conference rooms to meet with his clients. Previously, when he still worked from home, he needed to take clients out for a meal or coffee — and pick up their tab.
“Which meant in a week I would spend as much as I do on a coworking membership,” Sharma said.
Several coworking site owners told the Free Press that they are at or nearing capacity and looking to expand into bigger locations. They didn’t see any signs of coworking space saturation.
“I’m not worried about saturation at this point,” said Matthew Morin, 41, co-owner with his brother, Kevin Morin, 39, of Hunt Street Station. “There are changes happening to the way people work that are making growth in this space more likely even.
“You have more and more people who are working as freelancers, holding three or four different sort of jobs. We also have people in the building who work for bigger companies, but they work here in Detroit, and those companies are in Texas or Virginia.”
Even so, as the number of coworking spaces in Detroit have multiplied, some have focused on niche markets such as architecture and building professionals, female entrepreneurs or those seeking noncorporate environments.
There are now at least two female-focused workspaces in Detroit. The newest, Room Project, 6513 Woodward Avenue near New Center, generally limits its membership to women and transgender individuals who are engaged in creative or artistic endeavors. It also hosts regular workshops and enrichment programs.
“We are living in a time of extraordinary sexism and misogyny — a real resurgence of that,” said Room Project founder Christin Lee, “and I felt really good about creating a space where women could work with each other, feel comfortable, and also create networks of power.”
Membership rates at metro Detroit coworking spaces for what is known as a “hot desk,” or an unassigned desk that anyone can use, range from as low as $50 per month to $300 per month. Rents can exceed $1,000 per month at some sites for large private offices.
At the high end is WeWork, a fast-growing New York-based workspace company that is in 99 cities around the globe. WeWork opened its first Detroit site in 2016 and now has two locations — 1001 Woodward and 19 Clifford St. — totaling over 85,000 square feet.
WeWork does have hot desks, although the majority of its nearly 1,500 Detroit members rent private offices, starting at $550 per month, according to Kyle Steiner, WeWork’s Detroit Community Director.
In Detroit, WeWork is often seen as the coworking site to which all others are compared.
Meagan Ward, 28, founder of Femology Detroit, another female-focused coworking space, said many of her members initially checked out WeWork and liked what they saw. But prices there can be high for those just starting out.
“We get women who have toured WeWork. And we love WeWork. But they say, ‘Hey, I couldn’t afford it,’ ” she said. “And we hear them and understand.”
Ward opened Femology in 2017 in the historic Beaubien House at 553 East Jefferson in downtown. She said her inspiration to start it followed a disastrous experience that she had when attempting to meet a client of her marketing and branding business inside a crowded Panera Bread in Northville.
“I remember it (Panera)being packed and not having a space to sit. And my client saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to reschedule,’ ” she recalled. “I felt terrible. I felt really unprofessional. And I started thinking, ‘What if I had a space? And what if I also had a space that could bring together women entrepreneurs?’ “
Ward recently capped membership at 35 women because of space constraints and is exploring a possible move into bigger space later this year. Membership rates at Femology are $79 to $129 per month.
“Right now if we have 10 women working in our space at the same time, it gets a little crowded,” said Ward, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Belleville.
One of the city’s first coworking spaces was Bamboo Detroit, which opened in August 2013 on Brush Street. It outgrew that original 2,500-square-foot location and moved two years ago into the Julian C. Madison Building at 1420 Washington Blvd., also in downtown.
Since then, Bamboo has further grown to 20,000-square-feet and nearly 450 members, co-founder Amanda Lewan said.
Bamboo’s members hail from a wide variety of professions, including law, real estate, accounting, IT consulting and the nonprofit world. And they regularly help each other out, Lewan said.
“You meet a lot of different people and there is a lot of collaboration that happens — a lot of it happens organically,” she said. “A lawyer might be able to help out a real estate company, or the accountant that is here might do the taxes for another company.”
Kalamazoo-based Newmind Group, an IT services consultant, rents a private office in Bamboo for its four-person local team.
Dean Simmer, an engineer at Newmind, said that if not for the coworking space option, the company’s Detroit employees would likely be working out of their homes because leasing rates for office space near downtown are no longer cheap.
“With the way commercial real estate has gone downtown, there is no way that we would be able to have a four-person office anywhere downtown,” Simmer said. “We’d likely be a 30-minute drive away to be able to afford that.”
Another coworking space with a niche focus is Spacelab Detroit, which is geared for professionals in the architecture and building-related trades. It occupies one and a half floors of 607 Shelby St., near Cobo Center, and features numerous communal and private offices, as well as a glass-walled conference room and a library filled with material and design samples.
It is owned by husband and wife Bobby Burton and Karen Burton, herself an architect.
“This is the type of space that I wanted when I was freelancing,” Karen Burton said.