What is Coworking?  Let’s Think About What Coworking Will Be

I have been observing and investigation coworking since 2015 or so.  From my earliest explorations, it was very clear to me that the key feature of a coworking space is that it is a face-to-face community.  As Zachary Klaas put it in 2014, coworking is “a respite from our isolation” [1].

As I have put it more than once: “Community, community, community

Furthermore, I have argued for more face-to-face time, and less digital “community” throughout all aspects of life.  “Turn It Off”.

I stand by these arguments.

But, of course, in the face of a global pandemic, we are all forced to isolate.  All we have at this moment is digital community, for better or worse.  (And we should all be thankful that back in the day my generation was down in the basement booting up the Internet designed to survive a nuclear war.  We sure need it now.)

It is impossible to know for sure, but I’m pretty sure that coworking as we knew it has completely halted along with practically everything else.  Freelance workers and coworking space operators are facing extreme losses, no one can work together.  It just isn’t safe.

So whatever coworking used to be, it sure isn’t that right now.

We will make it through this.

But for a blog about “What is Coworking?”, we must surely turn to the question, “What Will Coworking Be Next?

I can’t answer that question today.  But here are a few thoughts.

The gig economy will likely reboot, and there will be plenty of freelancers.  (Who knows whether there will be a living wage, though.)  These workers will still need and want places to work.

Absolutely everybody knows about digital remote working now.  A lot of people are going to be (indeed, already are) hungry—starving—for face-to-face community.

So, yeah, the basic psychological drivers for coworking is and will be there.

The big question is, how will this demand be met?

Another interesting question is how existing coworking communities may weather a period of digital only contact.  One scenario would see communities coming back together in person as soon as it is safe to do so.  But it is also possible that community will disintegrate if the separation is too long.

So, we’ll all stay tuned.

Stay safe.  Be good to each other.  Hang in there.


  1. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014.
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community. 2018, Robert E. McGrath: Urbana.


What is Cowworking?  What Will Coworking Become?


Noah Rue on Freelancing Full Time

One of the attractions of freelance work is the flexibility to work as much as you want.  There are many workers who freelance part time, perhaps alongside conventional employment.  But freelancing as your sole source of income is a big step.  Many workers find independence and fulfillment, but it can be a tough road.

This fall Noah Rue suggests four questions to consider before you take the “leap” [1].  He asks four very personal questions:

These are great questions.

“What Are You Trying to Accomplish?”
“Are You Ready to Separate Your Personal and Business Lives?”
“Do You Have a Short- and Long-Term Financial Plan?”
“Are You Emotionally Prepared?”

(From [1])

On the first question, Rue warns that going independent out of boredom or to escape an undesirable gig could be a mistake.  Full time freelancing is hard work with plenty of boring and undesirable stuff.  It’s not utopia.

The second question is not about work-life balance, though that will be a challenge.  What he is talking about is essentially incorporating yourself, to create a clear separation of accounting for work and personal.  This includes opening bank accounts, filing paperwork, and stuff like “paying yourself”.   This amounts to a lot of “unglamorous, unpaid activities that come along with the money-making stuff.

Plan?  I don’t need no steeking plan!  In addition know why you want to freelance, you need to understand how you are going to make it work.  What expenses do you have to meet, how much money do you need, where will the money come from and go to?  When you go independent there is no one other than you to handle all this stuff.

And finally, are you prepared to actually do it.  Sell yourself.  Face rejection and conflict.  Long hours.  Ideally, you’ve done some freelancing so you have some experience.  But when you are 100% in and you lose a big gig, that’s disastrous and potentially psychologically crippling.  And you have to get really good at selling yourself, and also making good deals.  It takes skill and discipline and a certain amount of thick skin.

The reader may detect that my own answers to these questions are pretty much “no way in the world”.  I have never been tempted to “leap” to freelancing, and I think Rue’s list really clarifies some of my most critical hesitations.  I had financial planning and paper work, I hate selling myself, and so on.  No wonder I haven’t wanted to go independent!

Now, Rue phrases this move as a choice, “If you decide to go full-time”.  Unfortunately, many freelancers can’t get enough gigs to be full time living wage.  And others might have lost other jobs and have nothing other than freelancing to earn money.  And, of course, in many industries, conventional employment is nearly impossible to find, so freelancing is the only option.

So I sincerely hope that you do have a choice in the matter.

But even for those who are forced by circumstances to go freelance, Rue offers some sensible guidelines for things you’ll want to do and do well.

  1. Noah Rue, 4 questions to ask before you begin freelancing full-time, in Freelancers Union Blog, September 24, 2020.

What Should Coworking Become? Bring Your Own Cubicle?

Is this “The End of Open Plan Coworking Spaces”?

Most coworking spaces offer open plan office spaces.  (Tellingly, other options usually cost extra—the clearest possible indication of the relative value of open office space.)

Unfortunately, sharing a table with strangers is pretty much the worst possible thing to do during the pandemic.  Most coworkers work at home some of the time, so I’m sure that many have transitioned to working at home almost completely, even if their coworking space is open (which a lot are not).

If workers ever needed a respite from our isolation [1], we need it now. So what can be done?

The Global Coworking Un Conference (GCUC) folks have been seeking solutions (mostly through virtual connections). 

This fall they are promoting a gadget that might help.  As in many retail settings, the idea is to add a transparent screen, so coworkers can be near each other but not breathing on each other [1].

To me, this is basically a DIY kit for converting an open plan desk into a (cruddy) cubicle. Is this a step backwards? 

I.e., both the hardware and the safety protocols that go with it must surely negate much of the benefits of the open plan coworking. 

No hugging.  Very limited “looking over the shoulder”.  No standing around in the break area.  Heck, there may be no break areas.  So, basically, very, very limited coworking.

Still, needs must.  Even this limited social interaction may be better than nothing, and may help us get through this very bad two years.

Now, I personally still wouldn’t go into a coworking space, screens or not.  Indoor safety depends a lot on the air flow.  In a big room with shared tables, we’re probably all sharing each others’ used air and touching the same surfaces. That’s not safe, and these spit guards don’t do anything at all to change the air circulation or clean the air or surfaces.  So, these screens are really not that useful.

The bad news is that really good internal air quality is hard to achieve and generally very expensive, and cannot be reverse engineered into an existing building. The odds that a given coworking space has really good air are slim.

I guess the good news is that a large open plan space could be relatively safe, provided you keep the number of occupants low—and they don’t get close to each other.

So, you probably can think about entering a coworking space, but only a few at a time.  But it really cannot provide most of the critical social interactions that are the vital, beating heart of coworking communities. 

It’s going to be a hard two years for coworkers and coworking operators.

I don’t really know what things will look like on the other side.

  1. GCUC, CoScreen by GCUC, in GCUC Community – Shop, September, 2020.
  2. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014.

Online labor markets let people be people

Contemporary freelancing—at least, pre-COVID—has been enabled by digital technology which enables remote work and collaboration.  Freelancers also participate in online labor markets, such as Task Rabbit and Fiverr.  These services matchmake between workers and hirers at a relatively fine grained, task-by-task level.

This technology automates and standardizes the hiring process, collecting descriptions, histories, and evaluations of workers to feed the hiring decision.  In principle, these datasets are level playing fields, with every worker treated the same, and uniform processes across all gigs.

What could possibly go wrong?

(“People” is what could possibly go wrong.)

This month, Nahla Davies writes about her own experience on these platforms which is not that different from a lot of other work and hiring experiences [1].  <<link>> The technology may be “color blind”, but the people using it sure aren’t.

Gosh. Who’d a thunk it?

There isn’t a lot of solid research on these platforms, but some studies show that hiring, pay, and evaluations may well be skewed in favor of white males [2]. The evaluations matter a lot, because these can strongly influence getting future gigs.  And while the differences may be small, in a crowded market even a slight disadvantage can be disastrous.  And with pay at the edge of a living wage, even slight pay discrepancies can make the difference between success and failure.

Davies backs up the limited research with her own observations.  She perceives that non-white workers receive lower evaluations, which ultimately hinders their ability to get gigs, and the pay offered.

In addition, hirers act like bosses everywhere.  They talk down and man-splain to experienced professionals and, worse, hire, as Davies puts it, as “part of a reputation management attempt”.

“I’ve been asked, for instance, to be “the face” of some employers … so they can fairly transparently prove their progressive credentials.”


Now, as Davies says, we can’t really expect online platforms to cure racism, sexism, and blockheadedness.

But I agree with her that it’s not OK for the platforms to wash their hands and do nothing to protect their workers from patently unfair (not to mention unreasonable) outcomes.  If nothing else, this is a waste of human resources, which is the main product of these platforms.

Davies suggests collecting demographic information to document this kind of bias.  She also speculates on using some kind of algorithmic corrections.  The former would make it easier to document the outcomes, if nothing else.  I’d be surprised if the latter would actually make things better, and could easily make things much worse.

She also suggests changes to the decision making, including more transparency about pay and wider participation in the hiring decisions.  These are probably good ideas in any case.  And it seems to me that a digital hiring platform is well placed to enable such modifications.  In fact, why doesn’t the platform offer an array of decision-making processes, in the same way that it offers an array of gigs and workers?

I would add a suggestion that the platform should let workers rate the platform results, similar to how employers are allowed to rate workers.  I.e., if the platform is giving biased outcomes, the workers should be able to ding it, or its processes.  Maybe this should trigger lower fees to the platform, or something like that.  If the platform does nothing to help workers, the fees should be lower than when it serves their interests, no?

Freelancing it hard enough, I hate to see these “level playing fields” making things even harder for some workers.

  1. Nahla Davies, Black freelancers face discrimination on online hiring platforms, in Freelancers Union Blog, August 24, 2020.
  2. Anikó Hannák, Claudia Wagner, David Garcia, Alan Mislove, Markus Strohmaier, and Christo Wilson, Bias in Online Freelance Marketplaces: Evidence from TaskRabbit and Fiverr, in Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. 2017, Association for Computing Machinery: Portland, Oregon, USA. p. 1914–1933.


Katz on the Value of Learning Stand Up

This month Michael Katz writes about “What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing” [1].

He makes several good points

1. Content and delivery are not the same thing.

2. The audience decides what’s funny.

3. The only way to get better is to practice.

And, of course, “The most important, I think, is to just get started.

On the first point, he emphasizes that you need to decide “who you are”, what he case “voice”, for purposes of a specific message.

And the second point is, of course, you need to pay attention to your audience.  And, as they say, the customer is always right, and you have to pay close attention.

The third point is obvious.  But he also notes that there is always more to learn, and a humble, beginner’s attitude goes a lot way toward getting better.

And, of course, doing something out at the edge of your comfort zone is scary.  Screwing up the courage to do stand up to a bunch of strangers is really hard.  But, compared to that, pitching your own stuff, stuff that you really know and care about, should be easy, right?

This is all good advice.

I’d add a deeper point.  Stand up comedy and improv in general not only force you to put your self out there, they force you to act.  Whatever you try to do, but especially something multifaceted like freelancing, you will do well to act the part.   If you act like a talented, confident professional, then people will treat you like one—and you’ll be a step closer to being good at doing whatever you are trying to do.

Speaking as a psychologist, I’ll note that you are acting out roles in improvised little plays all the time anyway.  It’s called life.  So why not study and practice to be good at this skill?

Furthermore, as I have pointed out many times, coworking can be viewed as a form of improvisational theater, in which workers enact “the future of work”, making it up for themselves.  (See the book!)

So yeah, improv is something I would recommend to everyone*.

By the way, I also recommend pretty much everyone learn a bit origami, just because there are so many useful design insights, and it’s 3D and it’s self-organizing and it’s parsimonious with materials and…  You get the idea.

  1. Michael Katz, What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog, June 23, 2020.


* Of course, I am far, far too shy to take this advice myself.  But then, I am not a successful freelancer, am I?  Do as I say, not as I do.

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.