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AT THE OFFICE: 'Co-working' sites give self-employed, others on their own a chance to connect, collaborate

CHICAGO -- Call it a station. Call it a port. But don't use that dreaded word. "It's so not a cubicle," said Shaul Jolles, standing in front of a row of 120-square-foot work spaces bordered by low white walls. Nearby he plans to set up a kitchen ...

CHICAGO -- Call it a station. Call it a port. But don't use that dreaded word.

"It's so not a cubicle," said Shaul Jolles, standing in front of a row of 120-square-foot work spaces bordered by low white walls. Nearby he plans to set up a kitchen and a fake patio with a mini golf course.

For Jolles, cubicles are lifeless, anonymous and isolating. That's why the 34-year-old real estate broker from Kansas City, Mo., is transforming 15,000 square feet at State and Washington streets into loft-like office space for entrepreneurs, freelancers and small-business owners.

"The idea is to put it in an urban, workable, fun, creative environment," Jolles said.

OfficePort Chicago, which opens Aug. 24, will be the latest and biggest addition to the city's "co-working" scene. Co-working, a phenomenon that began in San Francisco, brings together people with different jobs who want to work alongside each other. The arrangement offers an alternative to working alone at home or fighting with other laptop-toting freelancers for electrical outlets at a cafe. And unlike traditional shared office space, co-working is aimed at people looking to socialize and collaborate.

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"There would be times my only interaction was a voice on the telephone or the cashier if I went out to lunch," said Jeff Park, who runs the Ravenswood Co-working Group. He's the lone U.S.-based employee of a family-owned pharmaceutical export company, and he found coffee shops too noisy for any phone conversations longer than a few minutes.

Park originally wanted to find other independent workers and rent office space together. But one friend suggested they adopt a model similar to the Uptown Writer's Space, a hub for writers seeking community and a quiet work place.

Park's first space held 10 people. In July, he moved a few blocks away, to an office for-merly occupied by a call center. The new space, which offers cubicles and private offices, can accommodate 22 people.

Others working there include a film editor, a mobile phone repairman and a fair trade chocolate saleswoman. Last year, a software developer from Oslo turned up for a few months while his wife completed a program at the University of Chicago. Others drop in for a day if they're in town for a conference.

Marissa Strassel, a freelance Web designer and marketer for environmental and social organizations, moved into the Ravenswood space a year ago. She said she missed hu-man interaction working from home.

"I'm creative," said Strassel, who previously worked in the marketing department of a Chi-cago interior design studio. "It was missing the people and the action of the day."

At the Ravenswood space, Strassel met a Web developer with whom she partnered on a project for the Illinois Solar Energy Association. The co-working arrangement made it easy for them to meet during the day.

"The collaboration aspect is really great," she said. Another time, a longtime contact who was setting up a non-profit briefly joined the space. Strassel tackled the design work while her co-worker hammered out her business plan just a few cubicles away.

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Jolles, who opened his first OfficePort in Kansas City's arts district several months ago, said he initially envisioned a haven for "cool IT geeks who were sitting in 20 different Star-bucks ... wasting their brains by not working together."

But the concept has attracted more than geeks. Jolles said small-business owners and even local politicians are paying $400 a month in Kansas City for desks, telephone and high-speed Internet service, a snail mail address and access to conference rooms. Offic-ePort Chicago's rates also start at $400 a month. Chicago already boasts a handful of small co-working spaces, including the Ravenswood location and the Coop in the West Loop. Another co-working group, Jelly Chicago, meets twice a week for four hours at Noble Tree Coffee & Tea in Lincoln Park. It also meets once weekly at the Mercury Cafe in West Town. Jelly Chicago is less structured than other co-working setups but is also built around collaboration.

"There's a lot of talking about ideas and openly sharing our expertise with each other, with-out expecting any return," said David Kadavy, a Web developer and entrepreneur whose ventures include a speed dating-like service for people looking for roommates.

Jelly Chicago usually draws seven to eight people per session who share a large round table at Noble Tree with their drinks, laptops and iPhones. If everyone is typing silently, members might instant message each other instead of disrupting the group. But other times, the conversation flows freely.

Jelly Chicago attracts a heavily tech-oriented and entrepreneurial crowd, so many of the members frequent the same networking events. They've also planned such social activities as happy hours and volunteer projects. Kadavy said one upside is that he has more friends after a year in Chicago than he made in three years living in Silicon Valley, where he was constantly scouting coffee shops for good electrical outlets and reliable Wi-Fi.

Park said friendships between members often form because "you never have to talk about work."

But like any work environment, differences in personality and habit can create tension. Park said he set up a Google Group for members to discuss issues such as building security, but has wound up fielding gripes about cell-phone ring tones, dirty dishes in the kitchen and people who hog the conference room. And he's been the subject of some com-plaints about his phone calls, conducted loudly in Korean, which members have de-scribed as "hostile."

"I've had to bring it down 30 decibels," he said.

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Jolles is setting up an intranet for OfficePort Chicago members so they can reserve com-mon areas and network with each other. He'll be in town several days a week but is hop-ing the co-working space will run itself.

"You come here and this is your building," he said.

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