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Making work... work

I've found a great alternative to the soul-sucking office

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Tracy Tjaden

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Tracy Tjaden

I have been shackled to an office since the first day of my journalism career. Aside from two or three weeks of holidays a year, I've been working nine to five, on a good day -- eight to six was more the norm, 10 if we were on deadline. Weekend work was not unusual. An entire weekend without a phone or computer usually coincided with a wilderness adventure where I was completely off the grid.

This was my life, until suddenly it wasn't. Workaholism may be rewarded in today's society, but it is not actually rewarding. While I always made friends at work and enjoyed trying to foster a collaborative, supportive atmosphere, there was something inherently unproductive about the imposed structure of these workplaces.

To be sure, not everyone who works in an office is a workaholic. It's just one of several bad habits (such as time-wasting meetings and office politics) these regimented workplaces subtly encourage. Many pay lip service to the notion of "flex" work schedules, promising to meet employees' needs for balance. But the guy who leaves at 4 p.m. to take over child-care duties at home never gets promoted. The woman who sleeps with her BlackBerry under her pillow does.

When I quit my perfectly good job as managing editor of a New York financial magazine to move to Winnipeg, with no job or prospects or even a plan of what to do next, I felt equally horrified and liberated. After tending to burnout and reconnecting with family, I began to wonder if it was possible to do meaningful work, beyond the confines of a soul-sucking office/jail.

It is. I picked up some decent freelance work, landed an opportunity to edit a book, and then found a position editing a magazine for a publisher that encourages independence and rewards its team based on results, not hours spent punching a clock.

I was working from home, I was in heaven -- almost. That quickly waned; I missed getting ready to go to work in the morning, shopping for office attire, chatting with the people filling the desks nearby, building relationships. Was I missing the stagnant, unproductive, politically-charged office environment? Yes and no.

That's when I discovered co-work spaces. These were all the rage in New York and Vancouver (when I could only fantasize about the option), but it took me some digging to find out who was offering this in Winnipeg.

ACI delivered. The Arts and Cultural Industries association launched the city's first co-work space at almost exactly the same time I found myself seeking such an option. I stumbled upon this gem on the third and fourth floors of 245 McDermot Ave., in the eclectic Exchange District after embracing another one of my crazy ideas: boxing. (Winnipeg's Pan Am Boxing club is housed in the basement of the same building.)

Now I am an avid fan of both. The boxing club is amazing; its principles and work ethic motivate me in all areas of life, not just fitness. ACI's approach to co-working is much the same -- it embodies all that has made other similar co-working ventures successful, but with an added local touch.

ACI executive director Thom Sparling is the brainchild behind this creation. He's laid-back and thoughtful, yet ambitious. He has pulled together a list of goals and guiding principles meant to govern this dynamic space, and set the tone for its atmosphere. Collaboration, support, cooperation, inspiration, motivation, professional referrals -- this is what you are signing onto if you apply for a space in this coveted environment.

To me, this is the perfect marriage of what I liked about office environments, with none of the qualities that lead to the dysfunction that I detested -- and that contribute to shockingly low productivity.

The kind of co-working that is happening at 245 McDermot achieves the perfect happy medium between the extreme workaholism that is subtly encouraged at many workplaces, and the bland isolationism that invades many people's fantasy of working from home.

Now, I come in to work, chat with a few friendly people and head to the kitchen for coffee. Around noon I scoot downstairs to boxing class and when I come back up, I lament with those same friendly people about what a grueling but awesome workout it was.

The people here are doing interesting things. I don't know the details but there are some common themes guiding the work ethic here: collaboration is encouraged, creativity is celebrated and flexibility is inherent. This is a workplace I could make my own. People pop by to chat but never linger too long. The architecture is divine, the lighting is mellow and the coffee is good.

I may be more productive --and happier --than I have ever been in my life.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2013 A1

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