Now they're outsourcing the office

Latest entry into niche of flexible work space sprouts in Old Town
by: JIM CLARK, Souk founder Julie Duryea sits in the lobby of her flexible work-space facility in Old Town, where members pay for the use of office amenities, a desk and meeting rooms.

Sometimes you need a place to call work.

In the case of Souk, a new flexible work space that looks out on the soon-to-be-torn up Northwest Sixth Avenue, there are 27 'hot desks' (where you sit where you like) each decorated with a small cactus, surrounded by meeting rooms and offices with closeable doors.

Souk has all the sorts of things a mobile worker craves: clean toilets, secure Wi-Fi, a modern kitchen with free use of a DeLonghi Magnifica cappuccino machine, some couches and an array of newspapers and magazines such as Fast Company, Inc. and The Economist.

When Julie Duryea opened Souk in Old Town on Jan. 4, she was hoping to tap the market of roving information workers who are caught between the clatter of the coffee shop and the claustrophobia of the home office.

Souk is an Arab word for bazaar or business district, and Duryea believes an office can be more than just a place to prop up a laptop. It can be a place where people find new business partners.

Her hope is that people will pay $499 a month for unlimited use between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., or $249 for 80 hours a month.

'It's aimed at the sort of person who might get a three-month contract doing (computer) programming or (Web) development,' she says. 'Or maybe the person who spends much of the day going to meet clients but then needs a base to come back to.'

Elizabeth Arledge is a communications and fundraising consultant. She moved to Southeast Portland last summer while keeping her East Coast clients. For a while she worked in her home office and in places such as Common Grounds, Chance of Rain, Tiny's and Sound Grounds.

'It depends what mood I'm in,' Arledge, 42, says about the daily choice of where to work. 'The ambient noise doesn't bother me. You have to be strategic, though, to find the seat where the sun doesn't shine on your screen or whatever. And some places tend to crank the music in the afternoon.'

However, she found herself still disconnected - not from work, but from Portland.

'It was hard to integrate into the city,' she says. 'My big outing for the day was going to the grocery store.'

Networking event draws 160

Arledge chose Souk because it gets her across the river. 'I love coming downtown, I feel energized and it reminds me of why I live in Portland.'

As for the look and feel of the place, she says, 'I like the light, I like the bricks!'

She travels a lot, so the 80-hour option is plenty. Soukees sign in and out (by hand - no chips here) so if they go the gym or lunch they aren't using up hours.

So far Souk is pretty quiet, with just 10 clients, some of them the owner's friends and acquaintances. The exposed brick (which makes you feel connected to history) and creature comforts may smack of the office-as-fun house era of the turn of the century, but Duryea speaks the laid-back language of post-crash business.

'I'm trying to go with the flow and use trial and error to guide me,' she says. 'It's about being flexible and strategic and not wanting to control everything.'

Being flexible with flexible workers is just part of it.

The owner of Souk also has found fertile ground in the world of meta-work. That is, she realized there were dozens of networking groups in Portland, but it would be more efficient to bring them all under one roof for an evening.

'They each had three minutes to pitch, then they went off into their corners and people came and talked to them,' she says. According to Duryea, 160 people showed up for it March 1.

Souk also hosts the Portland chapter of Ladies Who Launch, a national organization for female entrepreneurs.

'Co-working' goes national

Renting work space by the hour is nothing new. Regus offers executive suites all over the country - there's one in Portland's World Trade Center - although they are considered a bit more starched collar.

Business Week has identified 17 flexible office spaces and called the trend 'co-working.'

Some of the cooler ones include theOffice in Santa Monica, Calif. ($249 per month), which has a wall of fame for successful projects created there; the Hat Factory in San Francisco ($170 per month); and writer-friendly Paragraph in New York City ($80 to $132 per month).

Portland has had ActivSpace ($140 per month) since 1995, although it is more like discrete studio space for artists and hobbyists. And last October CubeSpace opened at 622 S.E. Grand Ave. At $250 per month or $40 a day it has actual fabric cubicles and more meeting rooms than Souk, and a larger break room with a free granola dispenser. It also hosts ' 'Battlestar Galactica' and Beer' evenings. On the other hand, you have to like Grand Avenue.

All of which indicates that for the knowledge worker, which includes the so-called 'creative class,' work has evolved into a mixture of long hours of availability punctuated by short bursts of activity in a semisocial space. It remains to be seen whether Portland has enough people to fill these spaces.

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