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.

Peace.


  1. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  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. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.com/

 

What is Cowworking?  What Will Coworking Become?

 

Coworking in an Urban Forest

This spring Nicolas Carvajal reports on a new coworking space in LA “in an Urban Forest” [1].

A green village of offices creates a community for the working individual surrounded by a dense urban forest in the middle of busy Los Angeles.” [1]

OK, this sounds pretty cool.  Goodness knows, a bit of “forest” would be very welcome in LA.

In fact, it sounds too good to be real.


First, this doesn’t look much like a “forest” to me, urban or otherwise.

It’s more building than trees (sixty “rooms”), and the entire area between buildings appears to be paved.  So, this looks more like a garden than a forest.

Other than the extensive gardens, the workspace and facilities are pretty similar to a lot of rental office space.  Presumably there is more external light and air than a office tower (though that is not necessarily all that great in the LA basin), and it seems to all be on ground level, so that’s good for those of us not in love with high rise buildings.

In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a workspace in a garden, IMO. In fact it sounds nice.

As their web site suggests, this is a “post-WeWork” space.  Or at least a “different that WeWork” space.  So yeah, that’s good.  Though I’m not really looking for a “WeWork” of any kind, myself.

I don’t live anywhere near LA, so I can’t easily visit in person to check it out.  Maybe the next time I’m there, I’ll pop in to see what it is like.


  1. Nicolas Carvajal, Co-Working in an Urban Forest, in Pop Up City, March 11, 2020. https://popupcity.net/observations/co-working-in-an-urban-forest/

How Digital Technology Enables Freelancing

For the past twenty five years or so, many people point out how digital technology, especially digital networks, enable remote working, including freelancing, coworking, and general digital nomadism.

My own view is that the technology is necessary but not sufficient, it enables but does not really drive these trends in work.  (See the book!)

This winter Anna Medina reiterates this case, explainingwhat the cloud means for freelance workers” [2].  Writing in the Freelancers Union blog, she declares cloud technology to be “a game-changer”.

Cloud-based technology has been a significant game-changer responsible for propelling the growth of the freelance industry.” (From [2])

Now, to me, “cloud technology” is as much a business model as a technology.  The stuff in the cloud is pretty much what we had all along in large organizations (and which I helped pioneer).  The new thing is who owns it, and the fact that you basically rent your critical infrastructure rather than try to run it yourself.

I think Medina’s basic point is that this approach (renting form the cloud) is especially beneficial for freelancers.  I would say that it levels the playing field, making it possible for an independent worker to have the same high-quality infrastructure as a member of a large organization.

She lists the kinds of tools available, including Communication, Sharing, and Payments.

I think Medina is completely correct that a lot of contemporary freelancing and coworking would be infeasible without access to these cloud services.  Technologically, the array of services cited would be “the easy ones”, services well perfected long before “the cloud”.  She doesn’t even mention virtual machines specifically, which make possible a variety of “on demand” computing, including software development, simulation, large computations, and lots more.

From my point of view, cloud computing makes a kind of “average” infrastructure available at low cost to even an individual worker.  “Average” isn’t perfect or ideal, but it definitely places a solid floor on the quality of infrastructure, raising all boats.  Only the wealthiest organization could afford the quality that you or anyone can get in the cloud.  That’s good, for sure.

Now, the cloud does not provide everything you need.  For one thing, you need a physical place to work, and most people need other people.  That’s what coworking spaces are for.

But even technologically, cloud users have to “bring your own” stuff: computer and networks, and users have to take care to use the cloud well.

For example, earlier in February in the same blog, Samuel Bocetta discussedHow to secure client data when you work remotely” [1]. The essential point is that, no matter how great and how “secure” cloud services may be, you, the worker, must still take responsibility for protecting you clients and your own information.

Obviously, using well designed cloud services is a good foundation.  But, as Bocetta outlines, you still need to operate defensively and practice safe computing:  passwords, cryptography, and policies.   You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again.

The good news is that the steps he outlines are little different from any Internet user.  The bad news is that they aren’t any more fool proof than general Internet security.  So watch out.

To me, one of the scary parts of freelancing is that, as an independent freelance worker, you are on your own, both responsible and liable for protecting you clients.  One of the great benefits of belonging to a large organization is when you are helped by and at least partly shielded by the larger group.  A big company or university has lawyers on retainer, and also has experts who work hard to defend your systems.  You are not alone.

Yes, cloud computing is certainly a good thing for freelancers.  My own view is that it is an enabler, but not exactly “responsible for propelling the growth of the freelance industry.”  It also is hardly the whole picture.  Freelancers are still “on their own” in many ways.  This is why coworking spaces and communities are so important and valuable for freelancers:  so you aren’t all alone.


  1. Samuel Bocetta, How to secure client data when you work remotely, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 18, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/02/18/how-to-secure-client-data-when-you-work-remotely/
  2. Anna Medina, What the cloud means for freelance workers, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 28, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/02/28/what-the-cloud-means-for-freelance-workers/

 

Sara Horowitz on “The Future of Workers”

I have long said that, if we’re going to talk about “The Future of Work”, I want to talk about “The Future of Workers”.

This is why I have been so interested in Platform Cooperativism, Coworking, and why I eagerly joined the Freelancers Union.

This month Sensei Sara Horowitz asks, “Is the future of work stuck in the past?” [1]  As a founder of the Freelancers Union, she has long been involved with futurist punditry on this topic for many years, and she expresses dissatisfaction with discussions that “focus on the impact on businesses rather than individual workers”.

The perspectives (let alone the interests) of actual workers are absent.

“In fact, “The Future of Work” takeaways are often radically disconnected from the needs of American workers.”

Eternal optimist Horowitz is happy to note that workers mostly don’t know and don’t care about these pontifications. She sees workers “charting their own course, building that new workplace in real time and creating the social organizations they need”.

Horowitz has her own agenda, of course.  As any good social scientist (such as me) or union organizer (such as SH) will tell you, “Workers are social creatures” (all people are social creatures), so it is a mistake to talk about gig workers as if they are isolated units, one person companies.  For Horowitz, the implication is that it is important to organizing workers for economic and political power, and, these days, she is busy creating worker owned insurance and other social safety nets.

““Future of Work” enthusiasts should focus their attention and energy on the institutions that organize workers”

Of course, labor unions are the (lost) past for most workers, so this is hardly a ground breaking prescription.  And I’m not as optimistic about the feasibility of organizing workers in the way SH talks about.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be a member of the FU,  I just don’t think it is likely to gain enough power to matter.

(However, coming up with decent insurance and other benefits will be a huge plus for ordinary workers. So, you go girl!, on that front.)

I am considerably more optimistic about other kinds of worker driven “organizing”, especially coworking spaces.  Independent workers may not be able to wield a lot of political or economic power, but we definitely can create and control our own work places, and our own communities of co-workers.  This is a huge win for workers, indeed, potentially life saving.

But IMO, the secret to success for a coworking community is local, in person interaction, which is not a large-scale thing.  Everybody can belong to a coworking community, but it will be a zillion small, independent groups, not one large group.  So, coworking is very important and beneficial, but it is not really an “institution that organizes workers” in the way SH is thinking.

Obviously, we can expect both coworking and the FU to continue in the future, both serving the needs of future workers.  These two movements are different ways to address the needs of individual workers, and both are powerful because they are social.


  1. Sara Horowitz, Is the future of work stuck in the past?, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 6, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/02/06/is-the-future-of-work-stuck-in-the-past/

 

“Broad City” Portrays Freelance Life?

For the record, following a post wondering “Where are all the freelance characters on TV?”, the Freelancers Union* posted an earlier item that tells us that one place to look is the TV show, Broad City [1].  The article, signed by “Trupo” (which is an insurance company partly owned by the FU), discusses the fictional life of the characters.  (Caveat:  I haven’t watched more than a few minutes of this show myself.)

“The characters don’t explicitly say they are freelancers, but they continue to work side jobs throughout the shows five seasons.”

These two working women live the real life of a freelancer: many gigs, mostly very short term. Intermittent income, no benefits, little security.

The show plays these challenges for comedy, of course.  The point is that this is slice-of-life comedy, representing the real experience of a lot of workers living in New York City.

The FU concludes, “hopefully this is just the beginning of a more accurate representation of the growing norm of non-traditional work.”

I don’t know how “normative” or “non-traditional” gig working is, will, or should be. But it’s certainly good to see some realistic fiction about working lives.

As I commented earlier, why not a fictional life set in a coworking space?  I have described coworking (and by implication freelancing) as “participatory theater”, in which workers create their own story of the Future of Work.  That sounds like a decent scenario for scripted theater.


  1. Trupo, What Broad City got right about financial insecurity and episodic income, in Freelancers Union Blog, January 31, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/01/31/what-the-show-broad-city-got-right-about-episodic-income/

*Note:  I am a proud member of the FU.