Seeking space: The Born Freelancer’s tips on finding an out-of-home office

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

In a previous post I discussed the various benefits of having your own office separate from your living space. In this post I will talk about the nitty-gritty of how to get one.

Where to look

Location location location.

To start, I’d suggest looking within a brisk half hour’s walk from your home. Why add to your expenses unnecessarily with a car or parking or public transit? Getting the walking exercise will do your health good too. Of course this may not be practical for everyone, but it is definitely where I would begin the quest for my ideal office location.

You won’t need a storefront. Ours is usually a business that can be well away from the main street. We’re not looking for walk-in business, although I have occasionally fantasized about renting a large storefront with a huge display window and setting myself up inside it at a single table and chair under a sign “Freelancer for hire.” The novelty factor alone would surely get some initial walk in business…

What you will need

(Your mileage may vary.)

A window
I get a trapped-inside feeling too easily if I don’t have a window. I find it invaluable to stare out of during times of constricted mental activity. So, OK, it helps pass the time… and it’s cheaper than cable.

You may be fine with a nearby wifi hotspot, but don’t take it for granted. If you’re using a laptop make sure its internet connection works. If you’re going to be using a wired-in desktop computer, make sure the necessary connections, routers, access, etc. are all in place or ready to go.

Access to a restroom
This could be a dedicated facility just for you or a shared one down the hall. Worst case it might be a public one downstairs on the main floor in the building’s cafe or coffee bar. Know what you have to work with and make sure it is compatible with your own personal needs. Just don’t let it come as a shock to you the week you have to work through a very bad case of stomach flu and need to take a break every 10 minutes.

Heating and A/C
Again, everyone has different requirements. Assuming you will be working 12 months of the year in your new office, will it accommodate the temperature fluctuations? If not, can you fit in a portable A/C unit if one is not already there? Can you bring in an added electrical heater if the old-fashioned steam heating is not up to snuff? You need to know before you start to work.

Smoke free (or not)
Most offices you choose will be yours to smoke in or not as you wish. But if you choose not to smoke, be aware of secondhand smoke issues from nearby spaces. If you are directly above the smoking area of a private cigar club you might have some issues.

24/7 access/security
You will most likely need 24/7 access to your office. Your deadlines will be unlike those of traditional 9-to-5ers and the ability to work around the clock is usually going to be absolutely necessary. Not all office buildings will/can allow for this—you will need to find out early on in the investigation. You will also want to ensure your computer etc. is safe and secure. Does the building have adequate security? Does your office? Can you add your own security system/locks/etc. if you feel you need to do so? Some folk have a security cam inexpensively rigged up so that they can check on line from home 24/7. Others have the reverse so they can keep an eye on their home from work. Whatever turns your security-conscious crank.

A fridge, a microwave
Or at least enough room to put them in. You’re going to be there a lot of the time. You need to make sure your basic human needs are catered to—literally.

Mailing address/parcel drop-offs
Since you will be spending a lot of time in your office you will most likely need to receive physical parcels as well as snail mail addressed to your business. Some buildings provide a concierge service to take care of this for you (although you pay extra, of course). With some other buildings, you are more or less on your own. If this is an area of concern, consider also renting a post office box nearby to handle all your snail-mail requirements.

A written agreement
Even kindly ol’ mom and pop can turn ugly if their beloved offspring decides to move back home from abroad and they suddenly need your office space above their shop. Make sure you have what you need to have in a written contract. It may also be necessary in order to buy insurance to cover your business equipment.

Types of buildings to consider

Temporary offices
There are such places to facilitate short-term needs. If you want to meet a client and need an office for a day or a week or so, you can rent a space that is ready to go. They tend to be very modern and give you access to a centralized office area including a receptionist, photocopying, and internet.

A more modern version of this concept is a shared workspace for freelancers, such as Workplace One in Toronto, which was discussed last year on BlogTO. It certainly looks like an attractive, possibly more affordable option, but it won’t be for everyone. You will need to research these kinds of spaces in person.

I like to have a fortress of solitude when I work these days, so such an environment would be counterproductive for me (although I have also worked in busy newsroom-like environments). But I can think of one journalist colleague who hates working on her own. It almost makes her physically ill to be separated from humanity for too long. This open-style, shared type of facility would be a dream come true for her and others like her.

Speaking of dreams, I recall a young radio producer sharing his dream of a salon-like cooperative space that would facilitate writers, actors, musicians, and artists. This was many years ago and I’m afraid most of us thought he was several years too late for such an enterprise to succeed. Perhaps he was just several years too early? If you live in a town or municipality without any kind of cooperative work space you might consider setting up your own.

Professional buildings
So-called professional buildings seem to be full of empty offices these days. It may be possible for you to get a short-term lease, for example, from month to month. Because vacancies are so high you may be able to negotiate a much lower lease based upon the understanding that if a client willing to pay full price comes in, you will move. Since most freelancers have fairly basic requirements, this should not be a big hardship.

Room above retail space
This is a golden opportunity often overlooked by many freelancers. Many mom-and-pop shops also own or rent the space above their stores. Frequently these spaces are underused or never used at all except for storage. They are often grateful for the added revenue and you have a convenience store below you whenever you get the munchies. Caveat: I’d be careful if you are looking for an office above a restaurant—the secondhand smells late at night can either be intoxicating or disgusting depending upon your level of hunger; above a dry cleaner—the odors can be toxic (I personally would look elsewhere); above a bar—the convivial late-night sounds can be rather tempting to join; and above a coin laundry—the noises at night can be a bit distracting—although I suppose it could be very handy if you need to test out a new idea on a semiconscious human being at 3 a.m. before an extra-early morning deadline.

Rooms in language schools, IT schools, etc.
This is another often overlooked possibility. Many private schools lease office space with multiple classrooms. These days many of these classrooms may be underutilized. They may be willing to lease you a classroom/office for a very reasonable rate. It may be on the basis of it is yours until class sizes return to normal. You will need to negotiate this and, of course, get everything in writing. This kind of situation may mirror the much more expensive temporary professional offices. That is they will often have a central receptionist (whose services you should be able to include in your negotiations), internet access, telephone, and so on. The drawback may be the inability to personalize your space quite as much as you might like, but that should be offset by its price and convenience.

I once sublet a small classroom from an ESL school that had seen better days. It was great. It had all the amenities I wanted—including access to a fully stocked kitchenette and a centralized downtown address. Its only real downside was that I found myself frequently listening to the classroom activity next door and getting caught up in whatever discussion was going on. Of course, I never thought of it as procrastination—more as research for some future ESL school–based sitcom! In the end I only left because the amount and the nature of the work I was doing that had made the office necessary in the first place had come to an end.

I hope this post offers you the practical advice you need in order to go out and begin the search for your ideal office space. If you want it, it’s out there somewhere. Of course, if you need to get out of your home to work and can’t afford an office space of any description, don’t forget that there’s always your local public library or community centre or favourite franchised coffee outlet nearby…

Posted on February 3, 2012 at 9:39 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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