On a snowy Tuesday last February, 22 inches of light, dry fluff fell overnight, and at 9 a.m., the desks in the office I work in were completely empty. By noon, wind-chapped faces started to filter through the front door and coworkers were hanging soggy jackets, placing steamy goggles on the heat vents, and hammering keyboards to make up for lost time. By 4 p.m., the place was packed and après ski took on a whole new meaning--beers over emails and spreadsheets.
This isn't your standard office--everyone works separately, either freelancing or remote for businesses based elsewhere. Coworking is a growing trend worldwide--an estimated 14,000 coworking spaces will have opened around the globe by the end of this year, according to a recent global coworking survey, up from around 1,130 workspaces in 2011. And officially, they have arrived in ski towns.
As a freelance writer, I'm part of this growing work-from-anywhere, at-any-time-of-day workforce. Working from home, however, comes loaded with distractions. So, three years ago, some friends and I got together and started our own coworking space in North Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Mill has 16 desks, which we rent by the day or month, and a closet-turned-meeting-room in a sunlit space that used to house an old ski shop. We make a small profit, but the business is not a huge moneymaker. Our office is located five minutes from two ski resorts. But now, you can work even closer to the chairlifts.
This winter, Mammoth Mountain is opening a coworking space called The Fort, with locations in town and on the third floor of the mountain's base lodge. It's soundproof, so you can pop in for a quick meeting between gondola laps without hearing the clobber of ski boots.
Last winter, Tahoe Mountain Lab, a bustling coworking space that opened in 2014 in South Lake Tahoe, debuted a new mountaintop offshoot inside Heavenly ski area's Lakeview Lodge, atop the tram on the resort's California side. So now, you can ride up the tram with your skis and your laptop, and in between laps, log in to the virtual office next to a bar serving PBRs to skiers. Video conference calls at 11 a.m. on a powder day? No problem.
From Frisco, Colorado, to Chamonix, France, to the base of the Whistler gondola to Jackson, Wyoming, coworking spaces in ski towns are a plenty. There's even a Mountain Coworking Alliance that offers perks and memberships between over a dozen ski-town shared offices.
Having work spaces near ski resorts seems like a smart idea--you can squeeze in a morning of bowl laps, then rush to your desk before your remote boss notices you're gone. Some 1.2 million people will have worked in coworking spaces by the end of this year, worldwide. According to the same Global Coworking Survey, people who work in these spots are more efficient and happier--67 percent of people said coworking boosted their professional success; 84 percent said they are more motivated when coworking.
But they're also raising a lot of questions and debate--especially when they are showing up on top of mountains, literally. As a society, we already can't seem to disconnect, and now, apparently, we're further blurring the lines by providing WIFI and laptop lockers at ski resorts.
Is this ski-work-hustle disrupting the very reason we ski? When we're hunting powder in the trees, shouldn't we be in the moment, and not be thinking about the email you just read on your iPhone on the chairlift that needs answering from your computer in the lodge?
Why are these spaces booming? Because more and more of us are working remote, for ourselves, and with greater flexibility than ever before, but we still need places to work. By 2020, 40 percent of America's workforce will be freelancers, contract workers, and solo entrepreneurs, according to a study by software company Intuit.
All of this sounds great, but what are the side effects to this new flex workforce? For starters, we're all connected at all times, and research has shown that we have less time to be bored--which means less time for creative thinking--and that an excess of social media use can actually make us feel less connected and lonelier.
"We know when you're on the mountain, you don't want to work or you want to work as minimally as possible," says David Orr, the co-founder of Tahoe Mountain Lab. "But we also know nowadays, when you run your own business or you take your job seriously, you're connected at all times. And sometimes, work crops up. If anything, this space allows people to get in turns that they wouldn't otherwise be able to get. So I'd say it'll unlock more time on the mountain."
I see his point. These spaces do permit days--or hours, if we're being realistic--on the mountain that you might not otherwise get if you're stuck in a cubicle far from the slopes.
But I'm also worried that these spaces are just encouraging and enabling us to work even more hours than we already do. (People in coworking spaces reportedly work an average of nine hours a day, which is comparable to conventional offices.) Once you start sending work emails on the chairlift or taking calls on a skintrack, you're neither enjoying your time outside to its fullest, nor working productively. You're doing both, halfway.
In the three years I've been running the Tahoe Mill, we've had a steady flow of people looking for desks. They are techies working remote from Bay Area start-ups, freelance photographers and graphic designers, an architect, a lawyer, a women's ski company, a wine start-up, a Danish guy who runs a team of friendly hackers, and a duo who chauffeurs tourists to local breweries. They're here to work, but they also want to get outside--people are constantly coming and going, toting skis, mountain bikes, and muddy running shoes. Mostly, it seems like they're proving they can work and play and do both well. For myself, I know I'm always more productive and focused if I've spent a couple hours running up or skiing down mountains before I sit at my computer.
Kirstin Guinn, who rents a desk at the Tahoe Mill to work for a property management company in Snowmass, Colorado, says she has a better sense of work/life balance, thanks to the coworking space close to the lifts.
"I do feel like it's harder to disconnect, but I try to cultivate an awareness of when I'm using technology, and when technology is using me," says Guinn. "The temptation to pull out my phone on the lift to check my email is gone, because I know I will be back at my desk in as little as 45 minutes, if I have to. Having my office so close to the chairlifts means I get more time on the mountain without compromising my work."
This is the world we live in. You can't silence the ding of your phone or the hum of your computer and more people are working from anywhere than ever before--free-agent employees already make up 25 to 30 percent of our current workforce and self-employment and personal businesses are on the uptick.
But here's the key: We've got to give ourselves a break. Stop working, stop checking our phones, and get outside for sustained lengths of uninterrupted time. As the owner of a coworking space near a ski hill who benefits from you logging in, I'm telling you to ditch the office. Don't try to work and ski in the same frantic breath. Today, just ski. You can always work tomorrow.