What Is Coworking? Not Necessarily Utopia

As I have said before, my own view is that a big part of why coworking makes workers happy is that each coworking community serves its niche, so workers can self-select their work environment.

So we see lots of ‘niche’ coworking spaces, not just localized, but focusing on specific types of work, personal interests, or demographics.

A prime example are workspaces aimed to serve women (for example, see here or here).  The idea of a “female friendly” workplace can be a tricky balance to hit, since female workers and businesses need the same things as everyone, but at the same time can benefit from not quite so many large male elbows and shadows, thank you very much. My own observation is that a ‘female friendly’ coworking space (or any similar effort) requires of ambiance, policy, and just the right people.

This summer we are reminded that things can go wrong.  Very wrong.

In particular, any kind of workspace and community may work for some of the workers, and not for others. Just like any other human organization….

This week we see reports about The Wing, a female oriented coworking space [1].  (The fact that WeWork invested in The Wing is, to me, a warning sign.  But that’s not the topic today.)

The thrust of the story is that this community that espoused feminism and female empowerment, was and is rife with racial stereotyping and flat out discrimination [1]. AI can’t independently verify the claims, though the resignation of the leader would seem to indicate that there is something deeply troubled there.

Reading the report, it sounds familiar.  I’ve encountered workplaces with similar issues. Of course, this sort of degradation and shafting is often directed at working women of any demographic.  The irony is that this is exactly the problem that The Wing aims to solve for working women.

The reports paint an ugly picture, for sure.  To the degree this is accurate, The Wing does not seem to be all unicorns and rainbows.

Perhaps the safe space for women made room for some women to let loose their own biases on other women.

In fact, though, this sounds pretty much like a lot of conventional offices.

However, in a coworking space, the lines of responsibility are murkier than a conventional office.  Just who is responsible for maintaining a decent work environment?  The workers do not work for the workspace, nor do the workers all work for the same employer. Noone is formally responsible to anyone else.

Worse, the workers are actually paying customers of the workspace, so they can’t be disciplined or fired for misbehavior.  And works of all, it is easy to see how you could act as if the people who run the workspace are not coworkers, but rather are servants.   (These are inherent weaknesses in modelling coworking on the “hospitality” industry, IMO.)

Utopia often is built on slavery.

One of the great things about coworking is that it is all about workers creating their own workplace culture.  But these reports make us realize that the resulting “bottom up” workplace culture can be just as toxic as any other workplace culture.

  1. Ashley Reese, How The Wing’s Empire Was Built On Trauma, Racism, and Neglect, in Jezebel, June 12, 2020. https://jezebel.com/how-the-wings-empire-was-built-on-trauma-racism-and-n-1844000985

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