A new book about Coworking, Coworking Spaces, and Coworkers.
A new book about Coworking, Coworking Spaces, and Coworkers.
Boston based Workbar coworking talks about “What is Coworking?”
Hey! That’s my line!
So, what’s their take on the question?
Their subtitle gives a hint: “Benefits, Perks and the Most Important Facts You Need to Know About Shared Workspaces”.
The crux of the matter, in their view, is “Coworking offers many advantages that have proven to help companies and individual professionals grow.” (This is not exactly the Coworking Manifesto).
Workbar does get the most important point: “coworking is not only about sharing a physical space to get your work done. Most professionals using a coworking space enjoy the sense of community….”
They list five key features:
They correctly identify that community thing as number one, and make the common assertion that connecting with others increases happiness and productivity (number two and three).
The other two points are arguments for Workbar’s specific approach. In their view, coworking competes on price and convenience. Obviously, your mileage may differ—these aspects shade into other workspaces, such as home offices and public cafes.
Workbar has a second list of benefits, “Five ways coworking makes your day great” [Infographic].
This list overlaps with the first one, but item number one is “No More Distractions”, which means “get out of the house”. Item three is “Professional Space”, e.g., for meeting clients.
Finally, Workbar sees coworking as something of interest to “an increasing number of large companies”. Clearly, this is an important potential market for Workbar. But I remain extremely skeptical of how well it can work to have, say IBM and Microsoft workers salted in to a room full of freelancers.
“Today an increasing number of large companies are asking employees to work at coworking spaces or at least offering them the option to work from a remote shared workspace on a part-time or full-time basis.”
Sure, it’s cost effective, and might be popular with workers. (I mean, who wouldn’t like the flexibility of a freelancer with the security of a real job?) But I have to question whether these workers can really be fully part of a community of independent workers.
Is, say, IBM going to let its workers share their knowledge and activities with random non-IBMers? They never have been easy about that in the past, with good reason
And should freelance workers freely commune and help out workers from, say, Microsoft? This might be great for Microsoft, but I personally don’t like giving away knowledge to mega corporations who give me nothing in return.
And will IBM and Microsoft employees be able to talk to each other? That’s generally not allowed, for good reason.
Look, the idea of a coworking community is that it is a community of like-minded peers. And corporate workers may be “like-minded”, but they cannot be peers with people outside their organization. And vice versa.
In short, conventional employees, especially of large corporations, are not going to fit, and may tend to break the community that is so critical for coworking. So I have to strongly disagree with the notion that coworking is going to work the same way for companies as it does for independent workers.
However, I can see that companies will like flexible, inexpensive, even Bring-Your-Own workspace. And I imagine that some workers may like working near, if not exactly among them as peers.
But I really don’t think this is a formula for good community.
A company in Cape Town offers a mobile workspace in a trailer, called Nova. The main point is that they will tow it to a scenic location (e.g., a beach), so you can work for a day with a nice view out the window. (As Mark Wilson put it in Fast Company, “like a horse trailer” .)
It kind of marginal office space, though probably better than some. (At $250 per day, it better by pretty nice.)
Actually, the Fast Company headline is misleading (“This coworking space is like a horse trailer, but for humans”) because the Work & Co has a more or less conventional workspace. The trailer is basically similar to their other room reservations, except on wheels. You could rent a conference room, or rent the trailer and conference at the beach.
So it’s basically a gimmick.
Seeing this South African amenity, I wonder if the Sandbox Santa Barbara might want to “mobilize” their Airstream lounge. There are definitely beautiful beaches and overlooks in the SB area (and the main space is nice, but has no particular view).
Generally, I think coworking is about community, not about desk space. So a rented meeting room—in a trailer or not–is an asset to a coworking space only to the degree it is used by a community of remote and freelance workers.
I’ll note that this particular facility is never going to be a very good space for actual coworking. It’s too small to hold more than a handful of people at a time, and, by design it is separated from the main space and the community there. There is no synergy, mutual help, or networking. Any mobile facility by definition is not rooted in a specific location, which is one of the things that may tie a community together. Hiding out by yourself at the beach is pretty much the opposite of immersing in a community workspace, which is the essence of coworking IMO.
(For much more on what makes coworking tick, see the book “What is Coworking?” )
I first encountered coworking in the context of virtual organizations and computer supported collaborative work (CSCW—it’s a thing). As a software guy, I’ve continued to be interested in what kind of software people use to implement coworking. Maybe I can understand coworking if I understand the software it uses.
I quickly discovered that most of the software that coworkers and coworking oprators use are pretty generic. Digital communications, social media, cloud computing—these make freelancing, remote working, and coworking cheap and easy. But they aren’t specifically “coworking” software, and that’s actually the whole point. Coworkers can collaborate and generate products where ever they want in the same ways they would in a conventional office.
There is also software used to manage and operate coworking spaces and communities. Again, much of this software is essentially generic. Resource scheduling, billing, membership services, etc.—coworking operations need these generic business services. Coworking operations also use digital social media to “manage” the community of workers.
So what, if anything would it mean to specialize software for coworking?
Hector Kolonas (one of the wheels at the Coworking Library) is building a collection of “Coworking Software”. . This list comes from his research for software solutions for his own coworking operation.
So what kind of software is he looking at here?
He has over fifty products listed, with two main categories, “Billing Software”, and “Member Portals”. The former isn’t exactly an innovative category, but for most coworking operations low cost, simplicity, and ease of integration are critical. Only the largest operations and chains can afford a conventional billing system, or have personnel to operate it.
The category “Member Portal” is interesting. There are, of course, a lot of “portals” in the world, but for coworking there are some important desiderata. Coworking communities are part time and fluid, so the system needs to handle on-boarding, leaving, and the common case of coming and going.
There is also an element of DIY. Many coworking operations have small staffs, and lean toward self-registration, etc. This matches the general low-overhead, on-demand flavor of coworking.
I’m not familiar with the details of these products, but I’m pretty sure that these “member portals” also interface to social media, because membership involves joining the community, not just getting a log in and a key code. For example, a new member will probably create a profile which will be pushed to the whole community as an introduction.
A couple of other points seem to be important. Much of Kolonas’ information is about software integration, “how they’re connected and who integrates with what.”. While large companies with conventional workforces can purchase a closed silo system, coworking operations are generally small (even the largest aren’t that large) and don’t “own” the workforce. So it is clearly advantageous to be able to mash up your own system out of pieces from different vendors.
The second point is that Kolonas clearly has a vision, at least implicitly, of what a coworking operation does. As a trivial example: you don’t need billing software if cowowrking is free. Another example from Kolonas’s own product (included.co) , are features like “How to add included deals”. Obviously, he views marketing and this kind of “deal” as an important feature of running a coworking community.
This software collection is interesting, and I’m sure it will be useful to people trying to set up a coworking operation. I’m a little disappointed that he collects rating information, but does not include any of that in this table. Maybe he sells that intelligence.
One thing that is missing is an explanation of his categories. What does “Member Portal” mean? What are the definitions of the “extra features” listed in the tables?
Along those lines, it would be interesting for him to expand on just why these products are included, and what criteria must be met. Sensei Kolonas obviously knows a lot about this arena, and it would be nice to hear how he is thinking about these products.
(For more background on coworking management and leadership see the book, “What is Coworking?”, especially Chapter 4 and 5.)
Contemporary coworking blossomed during the 2008 crash. The world wide crisis forced many workers to seek part time and freelance work. More than a cheap desk and wifi, a coworking space offered a community of like-minded workers.
Following the spirit of the software many of them admired, many of these tech oriented workers conceived of coworking as analogous to, and maybe part of, a larger open source movement.
This concept was expressed in the Coworking Manifesto [2, 7] which appeared circa 2005 and has been copied and quoted many times since. The manifesto proclaims that coworking is “the future of working,” which is “a new economic engine composed of collaboration and community.” It invites workers to endorse and enact the values of this “movement”, such as:
In addition to these general values, the manifesto also defines a view of the proper spirit of this global community. This is expressed in a list of desired attributes:
These concepts are rather hazy (and, if I may say, kind of new agey), but the general thrust is describing a non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer community of socially oriented entrepreneurs.
The Coworking Manifesto document was highly influential, and appeared in the self-descriptions of many coworking spaces (e.g., ).
That was then.
By 2016, the number of coworking spaces and coworkers had skyrocketed world wide, along with conferences, magazines, and, yes books [1, 4-6] <<link book>>. But more and more of these workspaces were operated by large companies, including real estate companies. At the Global Coworking Unconference (GCUC) in 2015, talk of “the movement” was abruptly eclipsed by discussions of “the service office industry”.
And, indeed, the most representative face of Coworking today would be WeWork and other corporate chains. “redefining success measured by personal fulfillment, not just the bottom line. Community is our catalyst.”
This may be in fact be the “Future or Work, 2019”, but I’m not finding even the tiniest trace of the Coworking Manifesto here.
It is remarkable to see the manifesto disappear so suddenly, with hardly a peep. I mean, the CW was everywhere. You couldn’t open a coworking space without the using the manifesto to explain what you were trying to do.
And now no one even knows it ever existed.
Wow! That particular “future” sure didn’t last long. (Kind of like the contemporaneous Occupy movement, no?)
For more on this topic, please see Chapter 8 of What is Coworking? 
This winter a group based in Europe has booted up The Coworking Library.
This non-profit is an open database of “current and former research about coworking”. The current database has more than 100 entries, including academic articles, theses, other articles, and books. There is a basic search function, and many of the items are accessible on-line.
The Coworking Library is curated, but has an open call for submissions, i.e., recommended references.
It’s early days, but this could become a useful resource.
From this side of the Atlantic, the collection is notable for its relatively rich collection of research from European sources.
Of course, you can find What is Coworking? listed. : – )
(And, by the way, there are many references in What Is Coworking? that are not in The Coworking Library yet—so get the book, just for the bibliography!)
One challenge for this database will be how to deal with blogs, wikis, tweets, etc. Researching my own book, I found that much of what is recorded about coworking (and freelancing) is in these types of sources. There is relatively little academic research to date, and even the academics are publishing little in conventional journals and conferences. (I think that in part, that is because the topic is multi-discipline, and partly because it is new enough that reviewers and editors don’t know where to place it.)
Attempting to curate less formal but still valuable digital sources such as blog posts, tweets, and so on, is difficult, but would be really valuable in this case. For that matter, actually collecting web sites for coworking spaces and organizations would be a very valuable resource, especially if materials can be preserved as sites change and close.