My Book Is Obsolete

This blog has slowed to a crawl this year.

The pandemic has been a brutal blow to the global economy, and no sector has been hit any harder than coworking.  A coworking space has only one business, bringing workers together in a face-to-face community.  And that’s the one thing that just isn’t safe to do.

In addition, the customers of coworking spaces, freelancers and independent workers, have been pounded by the shutdown.  And, worse, these independent workers generally work at home part of the time, so they are positions to WAH 100% if needed.  So the customers of coworking spaces are uniquely prepared to forgo the service for extended periods.

Coworking spaces have closed, and many will never reopen.

All this means that my book, “What is Coworking?” (2018) [1] is pretty thoroughly obsolete.

“What is Coworking?”  It’s over, is what it is.

What’s Next?

Book Review: “Out of Office” by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

Out of Office by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen

I’ve been looking at the New Way of Work for a while now, particularly the development of coworking spaces, along with the overall gig economy and remote working.

This new book is a response to the sudden, unplanned pandemic-induced experiment in mass remote working.  Millions of office workers were suddenly required to work from home, ready or not.  And mostly we weren’t ready.

I’ve pontificated on this topic myself, so, yeah, this is something I kind of had to read.

Warzel and Petersen’s basic findings are sort of a mash up of Why We Gather, How To Do Nothing, and The Sum of Us.

So–no real surprises here to anyone who is paying attention.

Though, I must say that none of those books above were sold as business advice, or as “the future of work”, which W & P seems to be.  So it’s interesting to see W & P tie these themes together in a book of business advice about the future of work.

First of all, the authors discovered that this isn’t really about remote work, per se.  It’s about how people work.

“The true issue at hand is not where we will work but how we will work.” (p. 232)

The main theme throughout is that work is broken, and that “flexibility”—at home or not—has generally come to mean working all the time.  This is bad for workers, obviously, and for families and communities. W & P argue that it’s mostly bad for organizations, too. 

This book is a useful survey of the ways that “flexible” work is broken.  Even after decades in the workforce, I learned stuff, including the terms “Hustle Porn” (p. 86) and “LARPing your job” (p. 169).  (These have nothing to do with “gamification”, although, worst case, I guess they could.)

But it’s hard to break out of these patterns, to get off “the treadmill” of continuous, precarious, work.

“We are trying to get off the treadmill so we can remember all the purpose and dignity that can come from the whole of our lives.” ( p. 239)

W & P argue that real flexible work means working less, not working more.  And workers must be allowed to choose when and how to work. 

Achieving this requires guardrails: real rules and norms that prevent “flexible” from becoming “infinite” work.  This also requires trust, between workers and managers, and among workers.  We have to trust each other to get things done well, in the ways they choose, without penalties for taking time for other things.

What do W & P  have to tell us about the future of coworking?

From W & P’s POV, much of the coworking and freelancing propaganda is definitely the wrong stuff

‘Flexibility’ (e.g., renting a bare bones desk by the hour) that mainly enables more work rather than less work is bad for workers, bad for everyone.  From this  point of view, freelancing is mostly the wrong thing for workers, organizations, and society.  The whole gig economy is the logical end of a long history of negative trends.

On the other hand, as I have consistently argued, real coworking is about community, which is mostly the right stuff.  Especially when the solidarity is real, not just rhetorical cover for reduced pay, benefits, and security.

On the other other hand, a coworking community may or may not be connected to the wider surrounding community.  To the degree that coworking communities are self-selected groups of people with similar interests (which is a big part of why workers like them), they are hardly representative of all workers, let alone everyone living in the area. So that’s not good. 

The book discusses the rise of “Zoom Towns”, including the rather lavishly intentional Tulsa project which curated and paid workers to move to Tulsa to work remotely.  (I had not heard of this project.)

It is important to note that, while coworking spaces were involved in Tulsa, and were probably very valuable to some workers, they were only a tiny, relatively insignificant part of the overall effort. Most of the work went into selection of candidates, housing, child care, connecting to non-work activities, and so on. Working at home or in a coworking space or any other workspace was nearly irrelevant to the big picture.

At the moment, it’s still far from clear how coworking mixes into the ‘hybrid’ organizations emerging.  Obviously, remote workers might benefit from working in a coworking space at least some of the time. 

But what happens when your company selects and assigns you to a coworking space?  This is increasingly popular. Is this anything other than a poorly resourced satellite office?  

And to the degree that the worker participates in the culture of his or her local coworking space, they are not participating in the culture of their own organization.  Is this dual loyalty good or bad for workers and  organizations?  I dunno.

In any case, a coworking space, per se, hardly addresses the issues of guardrails and the flexibility to not work.  There are no guardrails in coworking, and the trust, if any, is between otherwise unaffiliated co- workers, not within working groups. 

So, coworking as conventionally designed seems largely irrelevant to W & P’s program to improve work and life.

Hmm.  I didn’t expect that.

  1. Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, New York, Alfred A. Knopft, 2021.

Sensei Elam’s Megatrends 2022

It’s time for end of the year round ups and predictions.

Once again Sensei Liz Elam, long-time leader of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) offers her “Megatrends” [1].   As I have said before, actually she does know what she is talking about, so I always pay attention to these prognostications.

I was happy to see her push back against the tendency, even within GCUC itself, to misdefine coworking to be nothing more than the office rental industry.  “Welcome to Coworking Megatrends 2022! Notice it’s not the flexible workplace trends? (wink, wink)”, she says.

As Liz and me have been saying for years now, coworking is all about community, not desks.

“Coworking is not simply a place to work. Coworking embraces a community and believes that together we are better and will thrive in shared space.” 

So what trends does Elam call out? 

For one thing, “Home should be your haven, not your workspace.” (I strongly agree.)

Like everyone, she is looking at the evolution of working, as organizations try to figure out hybrid working practices, with both in person and remote working.  In this unfolding situation, coworking spaces have the possibility to be a third option between “in the office” and “at home”.

As noted in this blog, Elam sees a great expansion of coworking in “Suburbs and Rural” settings.  Remote working enables geographical distribution of work groups, but workers still need office space some of the time.  So coworking spaces should be located where ever workers live, including outside city centers.  In fact, coworking makes even more sense located near residential areas than in the middle of business districts.

So what should a good coworking space offer? What to workers need and want?

Culture is King”, says Elam.  As noted in this blog, the strength of coworking is a community with a culture.  Each coworking space should serve some workers, expressing an authentic work culture that workers want to enact. 

Different coworking spaces can and should have different cultures—”Choice is the New Black”. (Actually, “choice” has always been the critical ingredient.)

Is coworking the be all and end all?  Definitely not.  Work will be happening in offices of different design, in home offices, unofficial settings, and various coworking spaces.  Elam calls this, “Boundaryless Work”. 

In this article and her other writing throughout the year, Sensei Elam continues to outline her own ideas for what workers want and how to do coworking right.  We may have our own ideas about that.  But you probably should pay attention to what ol’ Liz has to say.  Cuz she definitely has her heat screwed on right.

  1. Liz Elam, Coworking Megatrends 2022, in GCUC Blog, December 7, 2021.

What will Coworking Become?  Kane on “Productivity as a Service”

We’re all wondering just what coworking will look like after the pandemic shutdown.

The “flexible office” industry is stepping forward with pitches, including spiffy new jargon.

This fall Kenny Kane writes about “Productivity As A Service”, which he links to the future of coworking [1].

Huh?  What?

OK, the “as a service” tag has been popular for a while, riffing off the original breakthrough, “Software as a Service” (i.e., rent, not own).

So what in the world could “productivity as a service” even mean, with or without coworking?

I mean, productivity is a statistic, a number which can be computed for a person or a group.  You can’t buy or sell “productivity”, so how can it be rented as a “service”?  This makes no logical sense.  Or, more to the point, it is making up a new, trendier word for “renting office space”.

What I think Kane is talking about are the features of an office that help workers and groups be more productive.  Good connectivity, comfortable work areas, appropriate meeting spaces, etc.  These are things that operators do sell to their users, and I think the notion is that operators should be sure to provide the right array of features.  He’s thinking that you charge more for features that arguably pay off for the business, i.e., improve results, AKA “productivity”. So you are renting not just space but valuable infrastructure services.

The “as a service” part also suggests that the operator should provide these features as part of a menu that renters can select from.  I.e., they are not built to order, they are built in as standard parts of the workspace, though possible with options.

OK, this all makes sense, even if the term “PAAS” is an abuse of the historic sources.

What does this have to do with coworking?

I think Kane’s point is summed up in the section header, “Beyond Coworking: Physical Spaces Designed For Productivity”.

He focusses on the original format of coworking, the open plan shared workspace.  As he notes, workers need more than a desk and a chair.  Or at least, many workers, some of the time, want other things.  Such as a quiet space or private office.  So, Kane says, building managers should offer more than just desks-by-the-hour in a big “chatty” room.

“For this reason, we may start to see coworking evolve from chatty social hubs to productivity destinations.”

(From [1])

Kane also notes the important value to workers of having someone else run the office space.  As workers and organizations work back from Work At Home, everyone has a new regard for professionally maintained office and infrastructure.

Of course, Kane makes some good points here.  I’ve been making the same points for quite a while, long before the pandemic.

However, his implications that flexible office space is the future of coworking is dubious. 

For one thing, the idea of coworking emerged out of flexible office rental, so Kane is describing devolution, not evolution.  Coworking spaces have always provided a variety of features, including everything Kane describes here.

In fact, what Kane describes here is basically what I call “sprinkling community on rental office space”.

As I have argued for many years, the essential product of coworking is not office space, productive or otherwise, it is community.  That is why coworking spaces always have a “chatty social hub” at the core.  The social part is what the coworking space is selling.  The rest is just infrastructure.

Tellingly, Kane provides for this crucial function in the form of “Designated collaboration rooms to keep noise levels at a minimum.”  Let the hippies have their little room, he is saying, while the real workers hunker down alone in quiet, private offices.

Is this the future of coworking?  Hardly. 

A successful coworking space must be all about building and sustaining community, not about selling “productivity as a service”.   This requires community leadership (i.e. talented humans) and plenty of face to face interaction.  And, no, there is no such thing as “community as a service”.

Is this PAAS future of rental offices?  Maybe, but who cares?

The good news is that you can build a good coworking community on top of many variations of flexible office space.  So PAAS may enable coworking operations to build and sustain their communities.

“Community as a Layer on Top of PAAS”  There’s an Nth order buzzword!

  1. Kenny Kane, The Rise Of Productivity As A Service In The Coworking Model, in Forbes – Forbes Biz Council, October13, 2021.

Priya Parker on “How We Should Meet”

Parker has studied and written on what she calls “The Art of Gathering”.

Much of her earlier work was out the window during the pandemic.  Meeting in person was too dangerous, so we all improvised mostly with the Internet.  Overall, it worked better than I expected, but everyone knows meeting over small screens isn’t perfect. 

Now we are all struggling to figure out how to ease back into face to face activities, we are all wondering what to do.  Organizations of all kinds are trying to move to some kind of “hybrid” operation, with some activities remote, and some in person. 

As Parker writes this week,  “How should we meet?” [1] .

And, as she asks, “Who should decide?”

So, what does Sensei Priya have to say?

As usual, she has her head screwed on right. 

The basic answer is, “it depends”.  It depends on what the group needs and wants to do.  And the answer may be tricky, because different participants may have different wants and needs.

One of the best points she makes is that the best meetings, regardless of format, have a known purpose, and are designed to fit that purpose.  This means that the way to meet might be different each time.

As a student of meeting-ology Parker is eager to see organizations experiment.  If ever there was to time to try new things, it is now.  Don’t ask how to “return to the office”, she says.

“What did you long for when we couldn’t physically meet? What did you not miss and are ready to discard? What forms of meeting did you invent during the pandemic out of necessity that, surprisingly, worked?”

(From [1])

One kind of experiment she sees is for groups meet in person sometimes mainly for bonding with each other.  Besides creating work for meeting planners like Parker, this calls for flexible meeting places, and flexible organizing strategies.  Meetings do not have to always be in the office, nor always doing the same thing.

Coworking spaces are yet another way we gather.  Parker does not mention coworking spaces in her essay, but I’ll point out that flexible coworking spaces located near workers are ideal for off-campus meetings as well as remote working.  “Flexibility” is coworking’s wheelhouse!

Of course, coworking spaces are mainly about social support, about having other humans around even as you work remotely with others.  Routine coworking is a way we gather that is a shared experience of the workers, but not confined within the organization.  In fact, workers “meet” in order to create their own community, independent of companies or bosses. 

“Who decides?”  In a coworking space, the workers themselves decide.

“We have an unusual moment to experiment with the workplace. These moments don’t come along often and don’t stay open long. Let’s seize this occasion to reinvent.”

(From [1])

I would encourage organizations to think about how coworking spaces might best fit into their new “hybrid” office concepts.

  1. Priya Parker, How Should We Meet? And Who Decides?, in New York Times. 2021: New York.

It’s Coworking Day – Surface Your Purpose

September 9 is International Coworking Day (not to be confused with National Coworking Day, 6 June). 

Over the last 18 months we all have learned to work remotely, like or not.  This year coworking is celebrating a rebirth of interest in coworking spaces, as people ease back into offices, and organizations contemplate a future of “hybrid” work practices.

As I have argued before, coworking is potentially just the right thing for workers who sometimes commute to the office, sometimes work from home, and sometimes want to work near home but not in the main office.  And frankly, if a coworking space is a good fit, you might want to spend a lot of time there, rather than home.

What are the variables that might determine a good fit?

Well, Sensei Cat Johnson has a little list [1]. Sensei Cat has always had her head screwed on right, so pay attention.

Her top three items are WiFi, coffee and creamer.  I’d say these are is necessary but not sufficient, especially since a good coffee shop covers these bases, no?

The core is items 4-7:  Connection, Belonging, Professional development, Professional connections.  Community, community, community.

And the rest is mere infrastructure….  Chairs, sanitation, provision for separating phone conversations from quiet work.  And so on.

This is a great list, and I know it is based on years of experience.

My own summary would be this.  Without WiFi and coffee, it’s not actually usable office space.  The key is, as it always has been, Community, Community, Community.  “Belonging” is basically the whole point.

If you’ve got that Wifi, coffee and community, everything else can be worked around.

And if you don’t believe me, Sensei Cat included two last points, to cement the point: “Purpose” and “Community”. 

“A strong community is the intangible that money can’t buy and data can’t pin down. “

From [1]

“Purpose” is an interesting one, and very definitely Cat Johnson-y:  “People want purpose in their lives and work.”

In my view, this is something that coworking leadership helps enunciate, and both creates and emerges from the development of a community. Sensie observes that “coworking spaces are full of people living a life of their design, digging deeper into their best self, and finding purpose in their days” .

And so, an important goal for coworking leaders is to, and I quote, “Surface this”. 

So there’s a motto for 2021:  Surface your Purpose.

From Rene at da.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Surfacing Our Porpoise….
From Rene at da.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Cat Johnson, 25+ Things Members Want From Your Coworking Space, in Cat’s Blog, August 3, 2021.