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. https://catjohnson.co/members-want-coworking/

The Future of Work: Office of the Future (Some thoughts)

As we go back in to work after the pandemic, everybody, including me, says ‘hybrid’ offices are the next thing. The idea is that offices closed by the pandemic will not reopen as they were.  Basically, some workers will be in the office some of the time, working remote other times. 

This spring, John Seabrooke discusses what office designers are thinking, and how this might actually work [2].  His piece has inspired me to think a bit more about work space “design”.

The main goal of the ‘hybrid’ model is to use the in-person office time for what it is necessary and/or good for, e.g.,:

  • Some meetings, especially with clients and stakeholders
  • Group culture
  • Training of new hires
  • Serendipity

Other activities, including many routine meetings, can be done remotely, or with some workers collocated and others remote.

  • Many solo activities, including research, coding, and writing
  • Routine checkins and team meetings
  • Some conversations and collaborations

What Should We Shoot For?

So, what kinds of things should the office and remote try to optimize?

In my view, an in-person office space should try to maximize (in no particular order):

  • Visibility and equity in decision making
  • Promote group cohesion
    • Positive feelings, especially in public
    • Private channels for negative communication
  • Hi security/privacy
  • Specific facilities, i.e., shop/lab/kennels/etc.,
  • Hospitality (e.g., for clients, customers)

And a remote work experience should emphasize:

  • Productivity (individual and group)
  • Work/life balance
  • Reduced commuting, etc.
  • Reduced cost of office space

What can go wrong?

Well, as Seabrooke makes clear, you can always manage to get the worst of both worlds. : – (

Remote workers can easily become isolated, lonely, and depressed.  Distributed work groups can become unmotivated, disorganized, inequitable, and prone to the special digital hell of what we used to call “flame wars”. 

At the same time, the in-person part of a hybrid work environment is prone to all the woes of any conventional workplace, made worse by low and inconsistent attendance. 

There can be crappy work conditions, bad meetings and that special analog hell of antisocial behavior. And, these days, people sit in office working remotely with headphones on.

I would say that any in person office, but especially partly occupied ‘hybrid’ office is prone to anti-serendipity–i.e., random acts of social disfunction.

What does this tell us about the future of coworking?

I note that the coworking “industry” is whole-heartedly embracing the ‘hybrid’ space concept.  This make sense because this is what coworking has always been about.

Coworking spaces are actually pretty good models for what a ‘hybrid’ office should look like.  And, as I have written, it’s not the layout of the space, or any specific amenities that matter.  What matters is the people and how they get along [1].

And successful coworking communities are generally no larger than 200 people, which stands as a guide for all office design (which Seabrooke notes, too).

A coworking space (at least pre-pandemic) has one interesting feature that designers should pay attention to:  participation is optional.  Unlike corporate offices, workers inhabit coworking spaces that they like, and leave when they don’t like it.  This means that a coworking space succeeds by meeting the needs of its workers, whoever they are. 

There can be (and have been) many different coworking spaces, meeting the needs of different groups of workers.  But each one needs to work hard to recruit and satisfy a community of workers, and this is what successful coworking spaces do well.

In contrast, a company can only have one or a few in person office spaces, and workers generally don’t have a lot of choice about where to work.  And this is a challenge, because everyone is different, and no single office can be perfect for everyone.  (It is quite possible to be awful for everyone, of course.)

So, I would say that an organization needs to understand how its workers work, and what they like, and try to do that. 

There is some circular logic here, because organizations select and shape their workers to their own ways.  So there is tangled feedback of what workers are used to and what workers want.

Worse, people who don’t fit the official or most dominant ‘culture’ face marginalization and can be driven out.  This isn’t good for the workers or the organization, and can easily be flat out illegal when any group is treated unfairly.

Coworking spaces deal with these issues with strong community leadership (see Chapter 5 of my book [1]). In a conventional office, “culture” is promulgated by managers and HR who work for management.  Coworking “culture” is promulgated by leaders who work for the space, which means that the workers are their customers, not their employees.

This seems like a very significant psychological difference to me.  Corporate “culture” is too often something that arrives via email from a boss.  Coworking community culture is something that arrives via personal conversations and introductions.

Hmm.  Which one would you like better?

So, here’s a thought. 

Don’t worry too much about the layout of the office.  Instead, hire people whose job is to make workers happy in the space, and specifically, to get people to like each other.

This role is inspired by coworking ‘community managers’, but can’t be quite the same.  The really tricky bit is to make these people mostly responsible to the workers, not to management.  I.e., this cannot be a classical HR position (concerned with enforcing policies) or line manager (concerned with meeting goals).  This is something different, and it doesn’t even have a name.

Can this be done?  Will it work?

I dunno.

But I think it might be the right way to go.


  1. 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/
  2. John Seabrooke, Office Space: The Post-pandemic Future of Open-plan Work, in The New Yorker. 2021, Conde Nast: New York. p. 40-49. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/02/01/has-the-pandemic-transformed-the-office-forever

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/