WASHINGTON (AFP) - When Mr Lance Macon started his real estate consulting firm, he did not want a traditional office. But he wasn't going to work out of his home or a coffee shop either.
Mr Macon instead signed on with the "coworking" space Cove, where he gets an available desk and conference room, along with coffee, Wi-Fi, copier access, soft drinks and a professional work environment.
"I have to be in the field every day, so it doesn't make sense for me to have a regular office," Mr Macon said at the workplace in the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington, a short walk from his home.
"Here, I have the comfort of the office, but I don't have the expense and hassle of being trapped in the office."
In Washington and in communities around the world, growing numbers are turning to this new kind of work environment, sharing office space with people from various fields and using their smartphones and laptops as portable offices.
A survey by the website Deskmag, which tracks the trend, found 7,800 coworking spaces worldwide as of October 2015, up from 3,400 in 2013 and just 75 in 2007.
These workspaces had more than 500,000 members, tenfold growth since 2011.
The survey projected the number of coworking spaces to grow to more than 10,000 in 2016, in dozens of counties, with a strong growth trajectory in Canada, Italy, France, Thailand, Australia and India.
While informal office sharing has always existed, the emergence of coworking spaces with low-cost memberships has become appealing to new startups as well as individual entrepreneurs, consultants and others who want a flexible but professional work environment.
"These spaces fill a need for people seeking a work community who don't necessarily have a work organization," said Professor Gretchen Spreitzer, a University of Michigan professor of management who leads the school's coworking research project.
Prof Spreitzer said the coworking movement is a natural extension of the "sharing economy" which draws on unused resources like vehicles or apartments.
"People are used to the idea of sharing a car, or sharing tools, so it makes sense to be part of a coworking community," she said.
Prof Spreitzer said coworking helps provide "a sense of belonging" that allows independent workers to thrive, while also making more efficient use of real estate.
She sees ongoing growth in coworking because "we have more people freely choosing independent careers and more people working remotely, helped by collaborative technologies like cloud computing and strong Wi-Fi".
Coworking spaces offer plans similar to gym memberships without a long-term commitment - some as low as US$60 a month for part-time use of a desk, while others offer dedicated or locked offices.
"We view this as an evolution of the workspace," said Mr Adam Segal, a co-founder of Cove, which has nine locations in the US capital and two in Boston, with plans to expand to other American cities.
"This is part of a decoupling of the organization and the individual. It's a lifestyle change."
The culture change is reflected in a "coworking manifesto" signed by nearly 2,000 members of these workplaces, stating "We envision a new economic engine composed of collaboration and community, in contrast to the silos and secrecy of the 19th/20th century economy".
Amid the rapid expansion, some coworking spaces are focusing on scale, like New York-based WeWork, which has 58 locations in the United States, Britain, Netherlands and Israel. A broad network enables participants to use multiple locations when they are in different parts of a city or traveling.
WeWork last year announced it had raised $400 million from investors, boosting its valuation to US$10 billion, to fuel expansion in the US and abroad.
"Having a nice office is not just something for cool tech companies like Google," said Mr Miguel McKelvey, co-founder and chief creative officer of WeWork.
"People like to connect with other people, there is a loneliness sitting in a sheetrock box on Facebook."
The origin of the new coworking trend is debatable. Some trace it to a "hacker space" which opened in Berlin in 1995 or the 1999 opening of a collaborative workspace in New York.
The first "official" coworking space opened in 2005 in San Francisco, according to Deskmag, followed by hubs in London and Berlin, and the field has been on an upward trajectory ever since.
Coworking has been a staple for tech-focused startups but has grown to attract independent professionals such as lawyers and consultants, as well as employees who work away from their headquarters.
"Coworking isn't just for startup teams and millennials any more," says Mr John Arenas of Serendipity Labs, which has eight locations in the eastern United States.
"Although 20 per cent of our members are start-ups, 35 per cent are independent and about 45 per cent are trusted employees of established companies."
Ms Jacqueline Sloane, an executive coach and consultant who works out of Creative Coworking outside Chicago, said using the space is better than a coffeehouse.
"It's a pleasant environment, and you meet other professionals, and they sometimes send business to me or I send business to them, so it works out well," she said.
Moving to a coworking space has advantages over coffee shops, many of which are becoming less welcoming to those who want to park their computers for the day to use free Wi-Fi.
"You get the conversations around the water cooler, but it's nice to feel you have an office where you can come and go as you please," said Ms Laura Doody, who works out of Cove for the District Communications Group.
WeWork, Mr McKelvey points out, helps members find health insurance or connect with legal professionals as well as find experts or partners for projects.
"This is a global shift, and we hope the real estate market shifts to be more thoughtful about human beings," he said.
"It would be great if every building in the world becomes more like WeWork."