CoCo’s collaborative office space: A place for independent-minded workers

MinnPost photo by John Reinan
The former trading floor of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange now is home to CoCo, a collaborative workspace.

Rarely have old and new blended as smartly and beautifully as they do in the historic Minneapolis Grain Exchange.

The cavernous fourth-floor room that once housed the exchange’s trading floor is now home to CoCo,  a collaborative co-working space. At CoCo, independent businesspeople and entrepreneurs pay a monthly membership fee that gives them access to a magnificent work space, printers and wi-fi, meeting rooms – and as much coffee as they care to drink.

The giant tote board that once tracked grain prices is frozen on Dec. 19, 2008 – the day open floor trading ceased and the exchange went all-electronic. Now a portion of the old board flashes an endless Twitter feed and displays the music tracks playing over the sound system.

CoCo was founded by Don Ball and Kyle Coolbroth, who opened their first outpost in St. Paul’s Lowertown in 2010 and added the Minneapolis location the following year. About 400 members pay from $50 to $350 a month. The lowest fee lets you use the facilities once a week during normal business hours; the highest entitles you to 24/7 access and a permanently assigned desk.

Techies – IT professionals and web programmers – make up the largest share of membership. Other well-represented occupations include marketing and public relations people, lawyers, copywriters and non-profit groups.

I would have guessed that many of the CoCo members are refugees from large corporations, cut loose in recession-related layoffs. But Ball said that’s not the case.

“Most of our members are independent by choice,” he said, adding with a laugh: “They’re malcontents.”

Ball and Coolbroth may own the place, but the job of keeping it running belongs to Teke O’Reilly, executive director and community curator. O’Reilly, who calls himself the “lead co-worker,” not only makes sure the printers are working – he helps create and maintain CoCo’s collaborative culture.

“We instill the notion that this is not just office space,” O’Reilly said. “We push the members to meet others, to be involved in the community.” Many CoCo members wind up working together on projects and referring work to one another, he said.

O’Reilly worked in public radio before joining CoCo. When he started his new job, he said, “I felt I had stumbled into something that I was made to do.

CoCo's Teke O'Reilly
MinnPost photo by John ReinanTeke O’Reilly and the big board: on the left, the frozen grain trading figures; on the right, a Twitter feed.

“In radio, all I ever wanted to do was put on good shows to make people have a good day. I do that every day here.”

Collaborative workspaces are catching on across the nation. Ball estimated that there are about 1,200 such spaces in the United States and more than 2,000 worldwide. And he sees only growth ahead.

“Even when the economy recovers, it won’t result in more office jobs,” Ball said. “Companies are restructuring around more flexibility.”

If more collaborative spaces like CoCo come into being, it’s hard to see why anyone would prefer a gray flannel cubicle.

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