Directly across from the co-working space at the Boston Bouldering Project, rock climbers muscle themselves up many-hued slabs. On the floor above, runners sweat through treadmill workouts, and a summer program full of high-pitched children is in full swing.
But inside the small, glass-walled room, where a handful of people parked their laptops on a recent Friday afternoon, the focus stayed — at least for the time being — on working, not working out.
“Working alone in your house all day gets old,” said Melissa Ewing, a software engineer who works remotely for a meditation retreat center in Virginia. Ewing said she works from the gym two or three times a week, and as the clock neared 5 p.m., she got ready to hit the walls herself.
A 40,000-square-foot rock climbing gym in Somerville may not have the usual trappings of an office environment, but in today’s “work-from-anywhere” world, it checks two major boxes: Good WiFi and a place to sit. Breweries, museums, and even beaches also meet these criteria — and over the last three-plus years, Boston-area workers have clocked in from all of them.
To be sure, teleworkers and freelancers have long set up shop at public libraries, cafés, or formal co-working spaces like WeWork. (Even the co-working space at the Boston Bouldering Project isn’t new; it’s been around since the gym — previously called Brooklyn Boulders — opened in 2013.)
But while millions of knowledge workers grew accustomed to working from their kitchen tables following the onset of COVID-19, many of those people are now settling into seemingly permanent “hybrid” work routines. Untethered from their cubicles and no longer keen on being cooped up at home, some are seeking out work environments that fit into their lifestyle — not the other way around. And they’re adopting something of a choose-your-own-adventure attitude when it comes to what can constitute an office.
“I feel that is the direction the world is going — in letting people choose both their workspace and their workplace,” Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who studies the geography of work. While not everyone can — or wants to — up and move to entirely new regions, plenty of people who work from home have decided to experiment as a way to “break the monotony of being in one space,” Choudhury said.
Around here, these experiments have run the gamut, with people setting up laptops everywhere from Newbury Street salons to the Boston Harborwalk. William Addison, who runs a video game event organizing business, enjoys working at the arcade in the back of Roxy’s Grilled Cheese in Central Square — he likes hearing the chiptunes from the retro machines while he works.
“If I’m getting a little burnt out while working, I can take a break, and then pop on the Xbox, play for a little bit, and then go back and do something else,” he said.
These makeshift offices can offer workers the best of both worlds — the social benefits of an office, with the autonomy of working from home, said Connie Noonan Hadley, a lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business and the founder of the Institute for Life at Work.
Hadley was one of the researchers on a 2022 survey exploring loneliness and remote work, which found that 42 percent of workers who had the ability to work remotely reported feeling the most socially fulfilled when working from a “third space” — a locale that is not an office or home. (Compare this with the 33 percent who felt most fulfilled in an office and 26 percent in their home.)
“Often I get frustrated with the description of ‘remote work’ as synonymous with ‘working from home,’” said Hadley. “Those who are more comfortable with remote work are continuing to refine what that looks like for them.”
This is the case for Jenny Lewis, an operations project manager at a local pharmaceutical company who spends many Fridays working from a green vinyl booth at Shy Bird in South Boston, which has offered a co-working program since it opened in December. $23 buys you all-you-can-drink coffee plus lunch or dinner, as well as access to a printer and other office supplies.
Lewis, who has ADHD, said the bustling environment is not ideal for Zoom meetings, but it’s perfect for her to chug through ‘heads-down’ work, like building PowerPoint decks or responding to emails.
“Being able to manage focusing from home is something that’s uniquely challenging,” said Lewis, who until the pandemic worked five days a week in an office. “Having the background noise is really good for me — just being around people, too.”
Others seek out more peace and quiet. Tom Rose, who lives in the southwestern suburbs, purchased a Mercedes Sprinter last July from Remote Vans, a Cincinnati-based company that specializes in outfitting vehicles for people who want to take their work on the road. His 19-and-a-half-foot van came complete with built-in WiFi, plenty of battery storage, and a fold-out swivel table.
Rose worked in corporate banking — a career he said he couldn’t imagine doing anywhere besides a traditional office — until he mostly retired in April 2022. But he did some consulting work from the van during a cross-country road trip last year, and appreciated the flexibility.
“I had my pedal bike and an e-bike. I had a suit so I could go to a wedding. I had my golf clubs. I had my computer, so I could work,” Rose said. “No matter where I was, I could do whatever activity I wanted.”
While this trend has given some workers the changes of scenery they crave, it may also prove to be a modest boost for local businesses.
At Shy Bird, said cofounder Eli Feldman, the co-working program currently accounts for about three to four percent of the restaurant’s sales. Meghan Gotsell, operations manager of the Boston Bouldering Project, said some remote workers have been spending their company’s “co-working stipends” on the gym’s $115 monthly membership fee because it offers the laptop-friendly space.
Other spots see opportunity to grow. Bert Holdredge, cofounder of Winter Hill Brewing Company, believes the number of remote workers at the Somerville stomping ground has actually shrunk since the pandemic, due to people leaving the neighborhood. He is looking to attract more of the 9-5 crowd.
“I feel like we could host more people,” Holdredge said, “and that’s something that we need to communicate better.”
And some infrastructure is cropping up to help. Sync Remote, a new Boston-based startup, is a Yelp-like platform designed specifically for remote workers. The service allows users to filter cafés and breweries to find spots with features like WiFi, big tables, and natural light.
While it is meant mainly to benefit workers, cofounders Haley Grant and Carlos Guisado said, they also hope to help storefronts capitalize on this new cadre of customers by letting daytime workers know they’re open for business.
“Right now our focus has been on coffee shops,” said Guisado, “but our idea is to empower any business that wants to create this laptop-friendly environment on their own terms.”
Back at the rock climbing gym, these terms are ever-changing. The gym is undergoing a major construction project, and Gotsell, the operations manager, said the designated co-working spaces have been in flux as a result.
But for Nefertiti San Miguel, an author and performer who has worked there routinely for several months, the climbing gym is a “holy grail,” she said — she can break a sweat, get work done, and meet up with friends, all in one spot.
“I take a break, I go and jump on the wall a couple of times, I’m pumping adrenaline, I’m oxygenating my brain, so that makes me more productive,” she said. “Everything about it is so cohesive and so conducive for everything that I’m doing.”