What is Coworking? It Definitely Can Be Feminine

Senssei Cat Johnson is an enthusiastic supporter of ”Women Who Cowork”, a new “alliance” that is “a growing network of supporters and allies and a beautiful vision to transform the way we work.”

As I document in my 2018 book, one of the key features of contemporary coworking is that it is whatever the workers want it to be.  And it surely can be what female workers want it to be.  A woman who is her own boss has a woman for a boss!

So what, specifically is this “beautiful vision” which Sensei Cat eloquently invokes?

First of all, this is clearly coming from the perspective of women who lead and operate coworking spaces.  Individual workers may benefit and enjoy participation, but WWCO invites you to “Join the professional community of women who create, inspire and lead coworking businesses.

There is nothing wrong with that, and, of course, community leadership is the make or break element of any successful coworking community, so this is certainly at the heart of things.

These women are also founders of the GCUC conferences, and are deeply involved in the evolution of the “industry”.  In fact, their manifesto has the telling sentence, “We believe coworking is the industry best positioned to achieve the goal of 100% gender parity in leadership and funding accessibility.

There is lots of talk of gender equity everywhere, but it is interesting to see what the WWCO think are the crucial facets:  leadership and funding accessibility.  Power and money.  Yup. I can’t disagree with that.

Of course, WWCO is going to be about more than that, but, hey, give me money and power and I can make stuff happen!

Inevitably, part of the mission of WWCO will be advocating for women coworkers, recognizing success, busting myths, and generally promoting the “beautiful mission” of “Yes, We Can.”


As I have written many times, coworking is all about community, and community all about being “us, together”—for pretty much any value of “us”.  We see coworking communities that serve geographical neighborhoods, vocational categories, and of course all kinds of social and lifestyle groupings.

But I must be quick to say that across all demographic, geographic, and identity slices, coworkers share a broad base of common needs, goals, and working life.  Everyone is using the same technological base, navigating similar career paths, and struggling with the same life-work challenges.  Truly, we’re all in this together, even though we may “clump” into relatively homogeneous “us” groups sometimes.

Women have always had a strong role in coworking, even if some of the “clumps” are pretty masculine.  Since freelance workers are free to choose their workspace and coworkers, many women and men (and whatever other gender self-identifications) are happy to find a community with women leaders, and will choose to join.

While it may be a stereotype to think that women are “better” at community than men, it is certainly true that women can create and sustain community very well.  There have always been successful female leaders, and there certainly should continue to be so.

From this perspective, WWCO is basically playing a game that has already been won.

But I’m sure that for those who a playing the “shared workspace industry” game, WWCO could have an important role, demanding “100% gender parity in leadership and funding accessibility.”  I personally am not interested in that game, but I want to make sure that “girls get to play, too”.

How will “femme-identified coworking entrepreneurs and community managers” do things different?  I don’t know.  Let’s see what happens.

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What is Coworking? Ashley Procter Still Believes It Can Transform Communities

This month Sensei Cat Johnson interviewed Canadian “coworking powerhouse” Ashley Proctor about “the potential of coworking to transform neighborhoods, cities, regions and beyond.”  [1]

The “future of work”, hell!  It’s the future of everything!

I have asked whether anyone still believes in the Coworking Manifesto.  Proctor and Johnson clearly do.

Sensei Ashley is very clear about what “genuine” coworking is and is not.

“A genuine coworking space has nothing to do with desks or wifi or space rental—it’s about bringing people together, and dismantling loneliness. We see people focused on building and strengthening communities, and inspiring and empowering members.”

Amen, Sister Ashley!

Proctor looks beyond coworking per se, to other just as valuable activities that “can make an impact on a local economy, and have a social impact“. What does this mean in practice?  If she isn’t specific, it’s because every case is specific.  Her own example is a repurposed building (a disused polices station) in a poor neighborhood.  In this case, improving the community means dealing with poverty right outside the door.

Other cases will be embedded in other communities, and thus have other possibilities and necessities.

Her guiding principle is “lead by example”.

It’s really just that simple, actually.

“Any coworking space can make an impact on a local economy, and have a social impact, as well. Every coworking space can be dismantling loneliness and helping people connect within their community. Whether or not that’s their focus, that’s happening in each space. Every space is empowering neighborhood residents.“

Proctor gets extra points from me with a call for collecting data to demonstrate the (alleged) benefits of coworking.  I see lots of claims, but little evidence to back them up.

Getting decent evidence isn’t easy, but, as she notes, there are (or should be) people who are very interested in these questions.  Find allies, she suggests.  (My own experience has been that there is very little interest is seriously studying these issues.  But there should be.  Keep trying.)


Unfortunately, Procto’s philosophy seems to be a minority in the overall coworking world.  Many workers and operators are focused on business development, of workers and of the workspace enterprise itself.  If “community” is defined to be “the (paying) members’ of the workspace, there is little impact on the street outside.  Coworking makes workers happy, which is good.  But Proctor would say that it can do a lot more than that.

And, of course, there are many people who are focused on furniture and layout , which I think is irrelevant to “community” of any sort, and certainly contributes nothing to any wider social impact.  Furniture doesn’t change the world, people change the world.

To be fair, there is an inherent tension between the needs of independent workers and the desire to serve the whole local community.  Workers need infrastructure, companionship, and child care, among other things.  A community needs jobs, public space, and decent places to live, among other things.  It is difficult to meet all the needs of everyone, in one operation, and not necessarily wise to try to do too many things at once.


Clearly, Sensei Proctor has her head screwed on right.  She has an inspiring vision, and seems to still be living out the “Coworking Manifesto”.


  1. Cat Johnson, The Social And Economic Impact Of Coworking: A Q&A With Ashley Proctor, in allwork. 2019. https://allwork.space/2019/03/the-social-and-economic-impact-of-coworking-a-qa-with-ashley-proctor/

 

What is Coworking? Proximity Thinks It Should Have A Playlist

Friend or the book Proximity (in Colorado) are in the business of software to manage a coworking space (“We have everything you need!“).  They do a sort of turn key, “Click here to set up and run a coworking space” thing.

This winter they have another feature, which is probably a sort of side project that got out in the world:  Coworking Playlists.

I’ve heard that music (or silence) is one of the most difficult design challenges for operating a coworking space.  I personally prefer quite and natural conversations, but many people really, really want a sound track.  The problem is, of course, that tastes differ. So it is hard to please everybody, or, on a bad day, to please anybody.

 

So what’s a coworking operator to do?  It’s an opportunity to be a DJ to a captive audience.  But the audience is paying you for workspace, so driving them nuts or away is not a good thing.

Proximity Coworking is in the business of selling technical support for running coworking spaces. In that effort, they study the common problems and try to provide simple, cost effective solutions.  (We sued to call this musak.)

So, it’s sort of logical that they have identified this challenge and provide a solution.

“Finding a good playlist for your coworking space can be difficult. There are so many genres and moods to choose from, and you want to find the perfect balance. Luckily, we’ve created some playlists for you! “

The product itself is a collection of playlists available via Spotify, with tags such as, “Monday Motivation, for when you’ve had a great weekend and need to come back into focus.”  And so on.

I don’t do Spotify, so I can’t really listen samples.  I definitely don’t recognize any of the titles or artists.  So basically, I can’t critique the music.

I’m deeply skeptical that any playlist picked out by a twenty-something will appeal to me, let alone make me more productive (or “come back into focus” on Monday). (Kids today—their music, it’s just noise!)

The point is, of course, that these playlists say more about the DJ, and about not very carefully examined assumptions about workers taste, experience, and culture.  As with many aspects of coworking, there is a tension between binding together a community of workers, versus openness to diverse workers.  In this case, music can be a powerful common cultural statement, gluing together a group of workers.  At the same time, it can be a powerful force to push away and, sub-consciously, exclude others.

And bear in mind, too, that the supposed psychological effects are very much individual—just because you find this tune motivating, doesn’t mean that anyone else does.

So, my advice is to proceed with caution.  I hope you see my point.

I’ll note that there is a good reason why ear buds and headsets are nearly as universal as mobile devices.  Everyone can have their own personal playlists, which can override whatever ambient sound is around.  The safe play is to let people program their own sound.

These playlists have the earmark of somebody’s personal project that was good enough to get out in the world. So, more power to you.  I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from creating curated playlists.  There is too much algorithmic programming in the world, and not enough human DJing.  (My personal listening actually leans heavily on streams from local, live DJs.)

But maybe coworking operations shouldn’t to blast this out loud into the room—unless you are sure that everybody really wants to listen to the same thing as you.


  1. Megan Dirksen, Coworking Playlists, in Proximity Space – Blog. 2019. https://www.proximity.space/2019/02/22/coworking-playlists/

Kolonas on “Coworking Software”

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”. [1]. 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.

(Historical note:  we worked very hard from the early days of the web, and even before that, to develop pluggable, modular infrastructure.  It’s good to see that concept in use.)

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.)

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  1. Hector Kolonas. The Big Bodacious List of Coworking Software. 2019, https://inztinkt.com/big-bodacious-list-of-coworking-software/.