It’s taken me years to understand that my yearning for the life of a digital nomad was really just dissatisfaction with a regular job. Even now this stuff is like catnip.

“It was like I’d spent my day working in a sci-fi film, only to end it with the reassurance of a classic historical novel.”

Source: Why Estonia’s capital is the best city in the world for digital nomads

Over the course of my career as a software engineer, I only accepted job offers from employers that provided their software engineers with real offices, because I expected I would be less productive in a cube. When my last employer moved us from offices to cubes, that expectation proved correct. However, the situation turned out to be more complicated than that.

For certain kinds of work—certain phases in code generation, certain phases in prose generation—I need large blocks of uninterrupted quiet. That was hard to come by in a cube. When I spent the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 building the necessary state in my head to be able to generate code to solve a particular problem, and then had my manager come by at 10:10 to ask whether I was on schedule, I could quite literally lose a whole morning’s productivity—there was no point in starting over at 10:15, knowing that I’d want to break for lunch at 11:30.

For large blocks of uninterrupted quiet, an office with a door that closes is very much to be preferred.

Because I knew I needed an office—which I have in my apartment—I was surprised to find myself taking an interest in coworking. But it turns out that many phases of my work don’t require large blocks of uninterrupted quiet. In particular, when I pretty much know what I want to write, and it’s just a matter of sitting down and typing it out, a certain amount of activity in the surroundings actually makes it easier to get something done.

I have a few theories about why some surrounding bustle helps:

  • I think it’s good to have other people around me who are also working—modeling good working behavior.
  • I think a little activity makes it easier to just get a first draft down—making it easier to get past my internal critic that would otherwise insist on perfection.
  • I think a little stimulation makes it easier to be creative—providing some randomness that my brain can use to generate new ideas and make new connections.

Whatever the reason, sometimes I want to work in a place where other people are working.

There was a coworking place in Urbana a couple of years ago, called Collective Turf Coworking. I don’t know if they’re still around or not (their website seems to be down just now), but they were much too expensive for me.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of local public spaces that serve the purpose very well.

Both the Champaign Public Library and the Urbana Free Library provide a wide variety of spaces where work can be done:

  • Coffee shops
  • Large tables in the main library area
  • Divided workspaces in the main library area (Champaign Library only, I think)
  • Quiet rooms
  • Four-person study rooms

In my experience, the quiet rooms are quiet enough for me to be productive even on things that require quiet, the spaces in the main library area are only a little noisier, and the coffee shops are pretty noisy. The 4-person study rooms are great when two or more people want to work either individually or together.

The other place I’ve used to roll my own coworking space is the University of Illinois. Its various libraries provides an array of workspace options similar to those in the public libraries, but the main place I like to work is the Illini Union. It offers spaces ranging from the Pine Lounge (a very quiet place with desks and chairs), the South Lounge (just a couple of desks, but many chairs and sofas), the vending machine room (a bunch of long tables with chairs), and a very large Espresso Royale coffee shop.

Both libraries and the University offer free WiFi to the public. The University also offers secure WiFi to anyone with a NetID (which I have through OLLI). Not every space has power, but there are plenty that do. (The Pine Lounge has power at every desk, as does the quiet room in the Champaign Library.)

The main downsides are:

  1. Spaces aren’t reservable. On a day where there’s high demand, it’s entirely possible that all the prime spaces will be in use when you show up.
  2. Spaces aren’t secure. I’m unwilling to leave my computer and other stuff unattended even long enough to go to the bathroom and get a cup of tea.
  3. No off-hours access.

Those issues aside, each of these venues actually offer more options than any but the best coworking space is going to, in terms of a full spectrum from quiet space for individual work, meeting spaces for collaborative work, a coffee shop, outdoor spaces, and so on.