The concept of “coworking” as we now know it was spurred by the rise of startups, the gig economy, and companies like WeWork, which offers individuals and small businesses flexible options for renting and sharing desk space, meeting rooms and other amenities. But Dez Melenka and camera operator Mike Tighe felt that the environment at CTV Edmonton, where they both worked for over a decade, was practically coworking before it was familiar.
“A newsroom is very much like coworking. You all work in a wide-open space, there are no offices, you bounce ideas off of everybody, you collaborate, and you’re off-site a lot,” Tighe says.
When they were out filming “On Your Street” segments, Melenka and Tighe got to see the effects of community coming together, sharing their expertise, and creating something good. “The segment really opened our eyes to what a community can do,” Tighe says. “Now we want to spread community and help people out and build people up.”
When the two of them were looking for spaces in which they could run their own production company, they found an unassuming mechanical warehouse in West Edmonton and were offered more space than they needed. Inspired by the sense of community they had developed and been inspired by at CTV, they decided to significantly renovate the space and turn it into The Creative Hive, a coworking space for creative professionals with amenities like a green screen, Instagrammable walls, a photography area and plenty of natural light. Likewise, when Tegan Martin-Drysdale, founder of RedBrick Real Estate Services, needed office space, she decided to take on more space than she actually needed so she could support and collaborate with other entrepreneurs. One of her real estate projects, the historic Alberta Block building on Jasper Avenue, now houses Homestead, a coworking environment with private offices, dedicated desks, a shared-but-bookable boardroom and meeting spaces, and plenty of tablespace for drop-in members who need to use the space irregularly. With 24/7 access, it suits the “gig economy” workforce that isn’t necessarily working within a 9-to-5 framework.
“I’ve seen [coworking] benefits just in terms of the growth of my business,” Martin-Drysdale says. “I’ve hired lots of Homestead members that have come into the space as contractors for my own business. To me, the biggest benefit of coworking is being able to use our members for expertise, and to have our members help each other grow.”
She shares a story about one Homestead member telling another about a funding opportunity, which that person then applied for and received. There’s a lot of knowledge-sharing and collaboration that happens due to the open design of the space and the ability to mix industries and professions. “We’ve been playing with our programming and we’ve seen the needs change. Coworking is a fluid industry and you have to build spaces and programming that you’re willing to constantly change and adapt as members come and go and needs change.”
Antoine Palmer, founder of Sparrow Capital, thinks that there’s value in sharing spaces not just from a professional perspective, but from a cultural one. Palmer is behind the Gibbard Block, a mixed-use space in Highlands that will house Corduroy Suites boutique short-term rentals, Fox Burger, June’s Delicatessen, Highlands Liquor, a rooftop patio — and a coworking space. It will be one of five planned Sparrow Spaces, a series of coworking spaces throughout the city. “I think coworking isn’t just about office spaces, it’s about people working together in many ways,” Palmer says. “It’s a whole paradigm about how we approach economic development. We want to bring strength and resources back to the community that these spaces operate in, we want them to be inspiring ecosystems.”
Palmer thinks co-working spaces are needed to suit the strong innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem in Edmonton. “About three years ago, we looked at how we could build more meaningful urban spaces, and we realized if we wanted to do so we needed to find the best people,” Palmer says. “When we met with people whose work we were inspired by, we started to realize that there weren’t enough operators to activate all of the vacant spaces in the city. We meet so many people who are working to enhance the cultural fabric and are working to change the regional economy, but they’re just too small or too new, or the nature of their business doesn’t make sense for them to walk into a full commercial lease. Co-working removes some of those obstacles, and creates up-front flexibility and room to grow.”
Melenka and Tighe also see the value in having multiple properties and amenities, and would love to initiate a program where clients move between spaces based on their needs and locations, as each space offers slightly different resources and atmospheres. “Our idea when creating a coworking space was to encourage community over competition, and we want to do this in the true spirit of collaboration, so we have to be open to working with other co-working spaces in the city,” Melenka says.
And maybe there is a benefit to duplicating the social value of traditional conversations around the office water cooler. “The City talks a lot about social isolation, and coworking is a good remedy to that,” Melenka says. “You can work on your own here, but you’re never working alone. Working from home or running a small business can be socially isolating or mentally exhausting, and coworking has alleviated that for some people because they have that human connection and a place to go.”