As I commented after attending the 2016 GCUC, this conference has mutated into mainly a trade meeting for operators of “social office” spaces, which is certainly not the whole, or even the most important aspect of coworking. (For a fuller picture, see the book, What is Coworking?)
This focus is on clear display in the pre-conference (or pre-un-conference) release of a study of “the future of the flexible workspace industry” . (This report was prepared by The Instant Group )
The study reports “33,072 centers” world wide, and project 14% growth. (I’m not sure what a “center” is.) Much of the growth is expected to be in “secondary and tertiary” cities, AKA, fly-over country. (I have advocated for this move for quite a while.)
There is also projection of strong growth outside Europe an North America. Basically, it’s last year’s trend, so it’s going to be big in the hinterland, no? (Not that China, Africa, or Latin America are secondary except in the minds of US and European analysts.) Also, this reflects not only saturation, but also real estate prices. There ain’t any such thing as affordable real estate in major cities, so even “tertiary” cities look interesting.
The most telling part of this report is what they consider to be the topic of the survey: “Flexible workspace industry”. This actually refers to a business model for real estate operations, not how workers work or anything else. From this point of view, the growth is driven by “awareness among clients of all sizes of alternative ways to occupy office space”: the “client” is someone who “occupies office space”.
If you wonder where the “community” or even “work” went, so do I.
The report discusses the growing interest in “hybrid” spaces, which “cater to a mix of SME businesses that want privacy, alongside start-up, freelancers”. Conventional companies rent a block of space, but share common areas with un-affiliated workersand other companies. “The key for operators of these spaces will be to provide services that cater to both groups while creating a sense of community that encourages all occupiers to mix and feel part of something bigger than just themselves.” (It’s telling that the workers are characterized as “occupiers”, no?)
I’ve heard that this arrangement is popular with workers, though I have yet to see any evidence of its effects for either the conventional employees or the independent workers. I can see the benefits of getting outsiders to motivate, help, and “share” with your company’s employees—for free. But I have difficulty imagining how employees of a company can “share” with outsiders.
I think it will be interesting to see how this hybrid model actually works out.
In every survey of coworkers, the workers rate “a community of like-minded workers” high on the list of benefits. Are these hybrid groups “like-minded”? I doubt it. This hybrid model does not seem very “peer-to-peer” to me—some of the workers are part of a hierarchy, and others are not. And some are “inside” and others “outside” the companies. And what independent worker would donate intellectual property or anything to a company that doesn’t pay her?
The report also contains the same bad news as last year: “we can expect to see increased investment into the industry, potentially leading to increased consolidation from larger scale providers, while smaller independents continue to look towards niche sectors to carve out sustainable business communities.” Classic, community-based coworking suffers from competition from the massive build up of “flexible office space”.
As the report says, “smaller independents” will continue to exist, but not by competing on price or scale. “Carving out a niche” simply means “crating a real, local community”, which is kind of the whole point of coworking.
The good news is that this kind of community has been the essence of coworking from the start, and is the very stuff that the giant corporate spaces are selling to their cold soulless face sucking corporate clients. So I say, pay more attention to the community and the workers, and less to the “clients” who “occupy office space”. You may not conquer the world or make millions, but you’re community will be happy and successful.
- Global Coworking Unconference Conferences (GCUC), The Future looks Juicy – What can we Expect from the Flexible Workspace Industry, in GCUC Blog. 2019. https://gcuc.co/the-future-looks-juicy-what-can-we-expect-from-the-flexible-workspace-industry/
- The Instant Group, Flexible Workspace Trends – 2019 and Beyond, in Instant Offices Blog. 2019. https://www.instantoffices.com/blog/featured/flex-workspace-trends-2019-beyond/