Just Go With The WORKflow

by Kelly Mantick
Photography by David Vernon

A growing movement brings a new way of working to Peoria.

In the midst of a project for one of your biggest clients, you panic. Your creative juices have frozen just hours before deadline, and, even worse, you’ve stumbled upon a technical issue that’s leagues above your head. Miserably, you think, “Now what?” In a traditional office setting, you might flounder. But for Peoria’s coworking community, the answer could be as simple as yelling over to the resident IT guru just a desk away.

Since the inception of the first coworking location in San Francisco in 2005, a new model of work has swept the country, emphasizing the importance of both structure and freedom in the workplace. Central Illinois’ own coworking chapter, WORKflow Peoria, embodies this ideal, down to the name itself. The rigid “WORK” exudes productivity, professionalism and a down-to-business vibe. But paired with the flexible “flow,” it hints at the adaptability and free-spirited atmosphere reflected in the space at 820 SW Adams in Peoria’s Warehouse District.

The location’s high, vaulted ceilings, open office space and loft-like feel unveil a cutting-edge hub that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Chicago or New York. Yet its Peoria roots can be found in the details, such as the kitchenette table made of floorboards from Bradley University’s old Robertson Memorial Field House. And boasting a colorful history peppered with fame and infamy alike, 820 SW Adams offers more than just square footage.

The ABCs of Coworking
Coworking is a workplace model that emphasizes community, relationships and collaboration, manifesting the philosophy, “A rising tide raises all boats.” With its flexible work environment, this modern office set-up is characteristic of urban and metropolitan areas. What makes coworking unique is its use of a single space to house independent professionals, freelancers and small business owners from a broad range of fields.

Unlike traditional office settings, the workers here don’t simply hole up in their respective cubicles. Instead, they often consult one another, offer encouragement and even hire resident coworkers to lend their skills to important projects. “Coworking is not just about the physical space,” explains Tim Wasson, an original member of WORKflow. “It’s also a state of mind. It’s sort of a belief in being creative and doing better together.”

In Peoria, this twist on the traditional workplace paradigm was brought to life by John Searby, WORKflow’s CEO and founder, who plays the role of coach to the coworking community. And few could be more qualified to fulfill this duty than Searby, who has been a coach, professor, mentor and visionary throughout his life.

Upon graduating from Milligan College on a basketball scholarship, Searby spent a decade pursuing a coaching career, eventually working his way up to “the pinnacle of coaching” at Auburn University. Having attained that goal, Searby retired his record books and hunkered down to start a family.

“[My wife and I] decided that I needed to get out of coaching and stop chasing other people’s kids around,” he laughs. “That transition brought us to Peoria.” Tapping into his athletic background, Searby began working for a Florida-based sports technology company. With an ironic smile, he explains that he was drawn to the job for the opportunity to work from the home office in his basement. “But after about two months, I hated it!” he admits. “It was lonely. There were a lot of distractions. I had a hard time staying focused on the task at hand.”

Taking his work to coffee shops and cafes, Searby found the change of scenery welcome, but impractical. Forced to dash outside to answer phone calls lest he disturb other customers, Searby knew this was not a productive means of conducting business. “So for me, this idea of coworking came out of a personal need,” he explains.

Frustrated, Searby vented on Facebook, posting to his wall: “I need a new way to work.” Serendipitously, an answer was provided when he received a tip to check out coworking. With his work putting him on the road half of the year, he was in a unique position to visit coworking spaces throughout the country. Trying out the model in Philadelphia, Portland, Salt Lake City and Chicago, Searby’s curiosity was on the rise.

He began researching the model, and eventually met up with Shannon Castillo, a college friend who had founded a coworking space in Johnson City, Tennessee. Inspired by her success and bolstered by his expanding knowledge, Searby concluded that he was ready to bring the idea to Peoria.

From Cornerstone to Capstone
To start out, Searby followed a piece of advice given to him by Castillo. “You need to build the community first,” he relays, “and that community will decide what the space is supposed to look like.” For WORKflow, the community began with its first charter member, Gainlight Studios.

Gainlight co-owners Matt Lakics and Derek Oddo had started their marketing company fresh upon graduating from Bradley University. Oddo explains that Searby had been his sports marketing professor and boss during his internship with Bradley’s Athletic Department. More importantly, he served as a mentor to the two partners as they jumpstarted their professional careers. When they expressed their own frustrations about working from home, Searby presented his ideas to the duo, who decided to take the plunge.

With Gainlight on board, Searby’s coworking know-how sprung into action. He secured their first location after contacting CI Creative about that organization’s acquisition of space at The Shoppes at Grand Prairie. “It was the exact right thing at the exact right time,” he explains. “It wasn’t long-term, but it was a great way to have a place to get started.”

From his new home base, Searby sought to add more creative minds to the mix by holding informational sessions on the coworking model. Meanwhile, he incorporated the WORKflow brand as an LLC and by October of 2009, WORKflow was in business. Just a few months later, the nascent crew found that they had garnered enough interest to invest in a permanent space.

Conducting Business at the Conductor’s Quarters
A permanent space was exactly what Searby had been waiting for. Unveiling his visionary eye, he looked to Peoria’s diamond in the rough: the Warehouse District. But relocating to that historic area was riddled with challenges. Instead, it was Lakics who stumbled upon an answer.

The Conductor’s Quarters at 403 ½ N. Jefferson brims with history. Originally set on the Peoria Riverfront, this pre-Civil War building, the second oldest in Peoria, housed train conductors for the night before they continued on their journeys. In March of 2010, the building’s new tenants took over its 1,000 square feet, transforming the old house into WORKflow’s first permanent space.

At this point, WORKflow consisted of Searby, Gainlight Studios, and two web designers: Tim Wasson of TJ Dub Web Design and Jeff Freeman of Graphical Force. 403 ½ Jefferson comfortably accommodated the four professionals, but by October, WORKflow had already outgrown the space.

“We had 10 members, eight of whom were making this their day-to-day office…in just 1,000 square feet!” says Searby. “We were on top of each other, and I was back in the basement—just like I was at home. It was clear that we had to keep progressing forward or the idea was going to die.” In the spirit of collaboration, Searby consulted his fellow WORKflow members.

“They were very clear; they wanted to keep moving forward. They were willing to commit long-term if I was willing to take the next step.” That meant an additional location. And so, building upon his initial Warehouse District vision, Searby’s next step proved to be a giant leap for WORKflow.

Hiram Walker Was Here
While hunting for a new space, Searby met with Dennis Slape, warehouse owner, photographer and publisher of Numero magazine, who offered him a tour of what would soon become WORKflow’s current residence at 820 SW Adams. But at that point, the space was uninhabitable.

“The basement was a disaster area! There were chunks of concrete all over the place…drop ceiling in some places…insulation hanging down,” he recalls. There wasn’t even a staircase to take them to the basement; Searby had to jump onto the loading dock and enter from the back alley.

But after brainstorming with Slape—and with a little imagination—it became evident that this fixer-upper might be just what WORKflow needed. “I had the community, and [he] had the space. We just had to get those visions on the same page,” Searby recalls.

And Searby did more than just imagine; he put his ideas into action. Bringing Wasson and the Gainlight guys to the site, the four coworkers conspired about the future of the building. By Thanksgiving, renovations had begun. The work was complete in February, and by the middle of March, WORKflow had settled into the space, adding a new chapter to the building’s unique legacy as a former harness maker’s shop, pot belly stove company, warehouse for Hiram Walker, and the Biggins Label Company.

In alignment with Searby’s vision, WORKflow Peoria was the first to take advantage of the new TIF (tax increment financing) incentive in the Warehouse District. “[WORKflow] is really proud of that, and that’s part of the passion of the members. They all want to be on the bleeding edge,” Searby affirms. “They see the value and the vision of what the Warehouse District can be.”

Stop, Collaborate and Listen
Being the first to take on a project is nothing new for the members of WORKflow, who aren’t afraid to stray from the beaten path. “It is a creative coworking community,” declares Searby, who adds that he uses a broad interpretation of the word “creative.” Housing an attorney alongside a videographer, web designers, event planner, personal trainer and others, WORKflow’s definition of creativity is as flexible as the environment itself.

“It’s not so much about the business you are in, it’s more about the way you approach your business,” he explains. “If you approach your business in a creative manner—you try to think differently about what you are doing—you will fit in this space.” Searby recalls that when each of the members walked into WORKflow for the first time, they just “got it.” Incoming WORKflow resident Kenton Bowles of Blue Horizon Tax Consulting attests that upon seeing the space, “It just clicked.”

“Any of these people could be working in their basement and probably be doing fine,” Searby says. “But they see value in collaborating with each other—not only getting business from each other, but bouncing their own [ideas] off of others.” He believes this model is particularly appealing to the young professionals of Generation Y, who grew up with a collaborative mindset and desire that same feeling of teamwork in the workplace.

Now, as he brings his vision full circle, Searby hints, “I think that WORKflow is the exact kind of business—the working model—that will suit the Warehouse District. The Warehouse District, if it is going to thrive, will be the place that young professionals in Peoria will be interested in moving to, living in, working in…”

Catching the Bug
Searby bursts at the seams with visions for the future of the Warehouse District, WORKflow and his personal business ventures. And they all seem to orbit around the same axis of entrepreneurship.

In terms of his own future, Searby confides, “It’s the entrepreneurial spirit—I have caught that bug and I want to pursue that.” Having already invested in the Warehouse District through both WORKflow and his day job for Adams Outdoor—conveniently located right across the street—Searby foreshadows that he would love to continue expanding on his vision for the area.

Searby sees the need for individuals to take the Warehouse District by storm and not wait around for someone else to make the first move. And WORKflow is a testament to the benefits of striking out ahead of the masses. The results: a thriving business that is creating a buzz in a heretofore underutilized area of Peoria.

And WORKflow is already expanding again. When renovations of the building’s additional 3,000 square feet are complete, Searby anticipates opening more coworking offices by early next year. Though the new space is already being scouted by the likes of Oak Point Technologies President Matt Allen and Bowles of Blue Horizon, there remains plenty of space ripe for the picking. In addition, the cozy Conductor’s Quarters is still alive and well, seeking more professionals to add to its numbers.

Meanwhile, a third coworking chapter is opening across the river at the square in Washington, on the second floor above Portrait Life and The Kitchen Store. Searby has agreed to manage memberships for the location through WORKflow, but explains that, for now, his focus is on completing the renovations on Adams Street.

In summing up the nature of coworking and WORKflow, Searby refers back to the name itself. “WORKflow comes from the idea that the space is a place to work, but also to kind of unwind and be yourself,” he says. “There’s no agenda from anyone in the building other than their own flow. We want everyone to have the freedom to come and go as their business suits them.”

All over the country, this type of flexibility in the workplace is catching on, and paired with an emphasis on mobility, it’s altering the traditional office paradigm forever. And while WORKflow embodies the “go with the flow” attitude, it also demonstrates the importance of swimming upstream once in a while, making waves for others to follow in its wake. iBi

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