Designing work space for diversity?  Would coworking be a good tool?

The pandemic has been terrible for commercial real estate.  Worse, it looks like there will be a lot less demand for office space as we come out the other side, especially in city centers where the “prime” properties are.

The coming thing seems to be “flexible work” and “hybrid workplaces”, i.e., a lot more workers working remotely most of the time, and in person offices used less, and always in concert with remote work.  (E.g., see Microsoft’s take on things [1].)

On another front, we are wondering if remote working is better or worse for social equity in the workplace. So far, it looks like there are plusses and minuses.

Overall, no one really knows exactly what comes next.


In this uncertain environment, people who design workspaces are trying to figure out what to do next. 

If there will be fewer offices, and we will be using them differently, how should offices be designed?

Along these lines, I was interested to see what design firm Spacestor (“California Cool, London Design”) means by “Designing For Inclusivity In The Workplace [2]. 

Inclusion and diversity are not only the flavor of the month for businesses, they reflect the defining political issue of our time.

So what does this mean for workspace design?

First of all, I noticed that their current product is not actually office space, but a phone booth for virtual meetings (“Residence Connect”).  Undeniably useful, I suppose, especially if office workers are going to spend a lot of time zooming with remote colleagues.  And I guess we can take this as sort of a ‘mini-office’.

But, what are the key design innovations for “inclusion”?

And what, in fact does “inclusion” mean in this context?

As it happens, this group is mainly interested in accessibility across a broad range of abilities.

“[T]he design of Residence Connect affords an equitable experience for all users, regardless of their abilities”

(From [2])

Hmm.  This is not as ground breaking as one might imagine.  I mean, the ADA is 40 years old in the US, so all office space is supposed to be accessible.

I don’t want to pick on this company or product too much, but I have to say that most of the “innovations” are standard stuff—lighting, color schemes, door handles.  And they mainly address mobility issues. 

This isn’t even particularly inclusive. People with limited vision gain little from fancy lighting, and people with limited hearing benefit little from fancy acoustics.  And, by the way, video conferencing is more and less unusable by people with various sensory abilities.

And, most of all, many of us were thinking about social diversity and inclusivity as well. 

I have to say that, how ever cool the video booth may be, there isn’t much about a one person office that encourages or fosters any kind of social interaction, let alone racial, gender, or any other equity. 

This fact is clearly acknowledged by Spacestor itself, who remark, “true inclusivity is a matter of effective leadership and the organization has to have a true culture of inclusivity and diversity.”

So, in fact, “designing for inclusivity” has relatively little to do with furniture, and everything to do with leadership and behavior.

It looks like Spacestor’s headline is mainly PR, catching attention by referencing an important issue that their produce isn’t really about.  Sigh.


So, what kinds of things would you do to really design for inclusivity in a “hybrid” working environment with lots of remote and rotating in person workers?

Well, this is one place where the experience of coworking spaces might be really, really relevant.

Because, what you might want to do is create community.  And this does not come from office design (see WeWork), it comes from authentic leadership and interpersonal relations.

Now, coworking isn’t guaranteed to create a perfect working environment, and certainly isn’t immune to the usual office hazards of excess testosterone, buddyism, racial a-holery, and so on.  But the good news is that it should be possible to boot up many small coworking spaces, so workers can vote with their feet, to choose their own poison.

And, by the way, it looks like there will be quite a glut of office space as we come out the other side of the pandemic, so it will be economically possible for a lot of people to make their own small, local, coworking spaces.

So—“hybrid workspaces” == coworking spaces?  Or at least, a coworking space is one good way to implement “flexible” work.


  1. Microsoft, The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?, in Microsoft Worklab, March 22, 2021. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/hybrid-work
  2. Spacestor, Designing For Inclusivity In The Workplace, in Spacestor, March 5, 2021. https://spacestor.com/insights/industry-trends/designing-for-inclusivity-in-the-workplace/

What is Coworking? Goodman on “The Coworking Canvas”

Cleo Goodman writes for the Coworking Accelerator about “The Coworking Canvas”—a descriptive framework for the things you need to do to develop “a thriving coworking community” [1].

(The Coworking Accelerator aims to help coworking leaders lead coworking communities.  One of their products is “Coworking In A Box”.)

coworking-canvas-worksheet
From [1].
This “Coworking Canvas” has six main areas (links to blog entries):

For readings of my book and this blog, these topics are not new.  In this case, Goodman explains these topics from the perspective of the community of workers and community leaders.

Notably, she breaks out the benefits (to workers) of peer support, networking, learning, and co-location from the “space”.  In fact, the main things she emphasizes about space is really “first impressions”, and appearances in general. If you have co-location, networking, etc. going on, the community will be strong in any space.

A community leader has a role to facilitate all these facets, though “hosting” is all about the specific activities of the community leader—introductions, connections, promulgating the “culture” of the community.

Goodman offers a sort of theoretical description of how “vibrant” coworking communities work.

  • “Belonging: People unleash their potential and become resilient when they develop a true sense of belonging.

  • “Nurturing: People and businesses grow and endure when talent, relationships and opportunities are nurtured.

  • “Place-making: Place-making happens and communities thrive when people, spaces and places create a joined-up ecosystem.”

    (From [1])

This seems to me to be a good summary of the key benefits of a coworking community.  “Belonging” plus “Nurturing” is the opposite of “loneliness and isolation”.   “Place-making” is precisely and exactly what a coworking operation is all about.

These blog entries don’t have footnotes or anything like that, I assume these are based on experience.

I’d say they have their heads screwed on the right way.  This is certainly the right stuff to worry about.

I’m not sure how you put this “in a box”! : – )  I guess you just have to check out their products to see.


  1. Cleo Goodman, What is the Coworking Canvas? 2019. https://www.coworkingaccelerator.network/blog/what-is-the-coworking-canvas

Alex Hillman On How to Start a Coworking Space

Sensei Alex Hillman is an ancient grey headed sage, dating back to the dawn of coworking. Famous for founding and sustaining Indy Hall in Philadelphia, he continues to teach and consult in the theme of “community”.  Or as Chapter 3 of my book puts it, “Community, Community, Community”.

Sensei Alex tags himself as a “community builder”, and he teaches that this is what really matters.  In recent weeks, he has snarked to the effect that he neither knows nor cares what is going on with WeWork or other “industry news”.  What they are doing is simply not coworking, or at least not the kind that matters.

This month Hillman pointed readers to a piece he wrote in 2016, giving advice on how to start a coworking space [1].  It is quintessential Hillman, and highlights just how non-WeWorky his world view is.

His tips for starting a coworking space is basically, “forget the workspace, find your community first”.

His four tips are:

1 – Start by finding a few places where people are already gathering.
2 – Look for patterns in what people have in common.
3 – Look for ways to bring those people together.
4 – Lead by example.

The first two sound like anthropology, which they are.  (And that’s part of why Coworking is so interesting.)  But this is, of course, the essence of “bottom up” organizing. No matter what you think people do and want to do, you’ll be better off finding out what real people really do.

Item 3 gets into “community organizing” territory. It also cuts right to Sensei Alex’s core value:  “bringing people together” makes things better.  Period.

Underlying these tips is the understanding that the right way to do coworking is to meet the needs of the community of workers that participate.  There is no one right way for everyone, you need to find your community and do what is right for all of you.

Item 4 is, of course, the essence of leadership in any context.  (The US Infantry School develops officers whose hard duty will be to lead troops into the teeth of enemy fire.  Their motto: “Follow me”.)

But this is more than just being a good example. Alex is famous for leading from within, being part of the community. “Of the workers, for the workers, by the workers” could be his motto.

“The best way to create a collaborative space is, well, collaboratively.”


I can’t resist drawing the obvious contrasts with the splashy saga of WeWork.  This company and others like it are in the workspace business.  Alex is in the community business.  As he says, “You can do this literally anywhere”.

Furthermore, Sensei Alex tells that if you take the time to find and cultivate your community, to pull together “people who would be upset if the space couldn’t open”, then

“You might open later, but you’ll stay in business longer”

This point is even more telling as we watch WeWork megafail.  Indy Hall is still in business after more than a decade, WeWork will not last out this year.  Indy Hall makes enough money to stay healthy.  WeWork is setting worlds records for getting rid of money.

Why did WeWork fail?

Well, they definitley didn’t follow Sensei Alex’s advice, did they?

And the bottom line is:

“The biggest mistake you could make right now is opening an empty space without a community.”

I’d say that the biggest mistake you could make, period, is trying to run a workspace without a community.


  1. Alex Hillman, Wanna start a coworking space? Start here. , in Alex Hillman: better coworking, better business, and better communities. 2016. https://dangerouslyawesome.com/2016/04/the-first-advice-i-give-to-almost-everyone-starting-a-new-coworking-space/

 

What is Coworking? It Can Be Out In The Country

Living out here in the flyover states, I have been watching how coworking might happen outside cities.

This month Sensei Cat Johnson interviewed Torill Bye Wilhelmsen about her coworking space Fjellflyt (“mountain flow”), in the Norwegian countryside [1].

In a small town (pop 3500), “there are not a lot of entrepreneurs to recruit”.  There actually was shared office space available, but Wilhelmsen wanted to create a community of coworkers, not just offices.

How did she do it?  She spent a year getting to know here neighbors.  The coworking space opened only after she created the community.

We invited people for dinner in our home, we’ve had wine and cheese evenings, we’ve gone on trips together, we’ve taken our families on outdoor adventures, we make dinner in the evenings, the adults have gone on mountain biking or kayaking trips, or other social activities.”

Now that’s what I call “community leadership”!

Her coworking space is also kind of “destination” coworking.  Located in a wonderful area of National Parks, many of her community have moved out from the city to find a nice life.  Obviously, not every rural area is as attractive to refugees from the smoke.

Her community is also focused on “creatives”, including actors, writers, designers, programmers, and, she says, one “ecological, small-scale” farmer.  With the exception of the farmer and mountain lodge business, this is not that different from many urban coworking communities, is it?

Wilhelmsen also says that her coworkers were remote working from home.  This is the classic use case for coworking:  a respite from the loneliness and isolation of working at home.  This, too, is pretty much the same as urban coworking.

Special challenges, aside from low population?  Connectivity cannot be taken for granted, and is actually an important asset for the workers.

Special advantages?  Well, most coworking communities are not recruited one by one over the dinner table, are they?

One open question is how this fits with the “native” residents and the long term health of the rural communities.

Reading between the lines of the interview, it seems that most of the interest is from “immigrants” up from the city.  The locals are involved in their own businesses, such as tourism.  I suspect that young people who want to be “creatives” probably leave town to go to the bigger city.  So, with a local coworking community, will more local kids stay home, or maybe come back home?  If so, that would be a huge benefit to the rural area.


  1. Cat Johnson, Bringing Coworking To A Norwegian Mountain Town: A Q&A With Torill Bye Wilhelmsen, in AllWork. 2019. https://allwork.space/2019/07/bringing-coworking-to-a-norwegian-mountain-town-a-qa-with-torill-bye-wilhelmsen/

 

The “Coworking Code of Conduct”

Sensei Cat Johnson calls attention this month to the “Coworking Code of Conduct”, which is a template policy document intended to be used as a model for coworking spaces to use.

The document is undated and unsigned, but is promulgated by Cobot and other coworking operators (and CJ).  The document cites other similar templates that inspired this particular template.

The main thrust of the template is the kind of workplace code of conduct that many conventional organizations promulgate.  Anyone who has worked or gone to school anywhere should already be familiar with these policies.  (This document doesn’t consider kidful environments, which would have additional wrinkles involving interactions between adults with children, and the rights and needs of parents.)

The thing is, of course, that in a conventional office, the employer is in charge of both the space and the workers, so responsibility for the policy and its enforcement are clear. (In many cases, there are legal obligations for employers to enforce such policies.)  In a coworking space, the workers don’t work for the space, so it isn’t necessarily clear who sets and enforces the rules of the workplace.

This policy template essentially encourages the workspace operator to take up this aspect of running the space, even though there isn’t a clear legal requirement to do so.

Yet another important responsibility for community leaders….

What effect would such a policy have?

Obviously, a well-functioning community of coworkers probably doesn’t need any such a formal policy, because they’ll be treating each other with respect already.  But not all communities work smoothly all the time, and workers come and go all the time, so things can change at any moment. In addition, there will inevitably be differences of opinion, such as what is or isn’t “appropriate” talk or touching, so conflict resolution may be needed.  Notably, the code calls for the workspace operator to create mechanisms for mediation, which are probably a good idea anyway.

This document is intended as a template to be adapted for specific workplaces. It will be interesting to see how it might be used by coworking spaces serving specific communities, such as women or first peoples or whatever.  These spaces are balancing the goals of being congenial and/or safe for specific communities, with a desire to be open to everyone.  The generic template about incusion might be too little or totally off target for these communities, I dunno.

If nothing else, this document should make coworking operators and community leaders think about this issue in their own community.  Even if a community is functioning fine, there may be improvements to make.


Coworking Code of Conduct