Hoffmann, who runs an online branding company called TomatoDesign.net, offers up coffee. Doughnuts are supplied by Heather Quinlan, a telecommuting producer for Discovery Science Channel’s Web site.
On one side of the room, freelance programmer Ken Smith works on software to enhance GPS technology. On the other is Tony Bacigalupo, a telecommuting project manager at Desktop Solutions Software, a Hauppauge, New York-based Web design company, who catches up on his e-mail while chatting with Quinlan about her site.
This is the world of Jelly, a new type of casual co-working that thousands of workers participate in worldwide.
Each week in cities from Melbourne, Australia, to Birmingham, Alabama, workers get together to participate in Jellies, which got their name from jelly beans, according to Amit Gupta, a 25-year-old Web entrepreneur who founded the first Jelly three years ago.
"We figured that a big part of Jelly was the collaboration and co-creation with people of varied skill sets and backgrounds," Gupta says. " ‘Jelly’ felt like it could become a good word to describe that."
Unlike traditional co-working spaces, Jellies, which are usually limited to 15 to 20 people, foster brainstorming and creative exchanges, Gupta says.
Until recently, Jelly participants largely have been freelancers and entrepreneurs, but regulars say there are a growing number of workers who telecommute.
"Working from home can drive you crazy," says Bacigalupo, who organizes the New York City Jelly events. The New York listserv for Jelly has 500 people signed up and is growing every day, he says.
"I would say normally half of the people that come are regulars and half are newcomers," he says.
For employers, Jellies could provide a great opportunity to motivate employees who telecommute, says Kathie Lingle, executive director at WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress in Scottsdale, Arizona.
"Particularly with younger workers, this is a great way to keep them motivated and getting the creative thinking going," Lingle says.
Yahoo has recognized the potential of Jellies and in August agreed to sponsor them on a national level.
"We have found that some of the best ideas come from just talking and surrounding yourself with people from different areas," says Sean Florio, a director of marketing at Yahoo. Particularly since the majority of Jelly participants are in the technology field, Yahoo thinks it’s a perfect fit.
As part of the sponsorship, Yahoo will send its own telecommuting employees to Jellies as well as occasionally provide lunches and speakers, Florio says.
"We definitely are getting the word out to our employees in San Francisco about Jellies," Florio says. However, the challenge for Yahoo is to support the Jellies without taking them over, he says.
Employers with telecommuting workers may want to get a handle on whether any of them attend Jellies, since they could be a great recruiting source, observers say.
Indeed, job offers are common at a Jelly. Smith says he has gotten a few referrals, while Quinlan, a Jelly first-timer, says she is hoping to find some writers to hire.
But companies should make sure their own talent doesn’t get poached at one of the events, Lingle advises.
Companies also might want to remind teleworkers attending Jellies about making sure they keep trade secrets to themselves, warns Douglas Wickham, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Littler Mendelson.
"Collaboration and exchanging ideas is a wonderful thing, but at the same time if your workers are sitting next to a competitor it could be pretty easy for someone to take a peek at their screen," Wickham says. "Companies need to make sure that telecommuting employees are aware of these issues."