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/.

 

What is Coworking? It Can Have An Indigenous Flavor

In an earlier post, I noted the soon to open Canoe Coworking, which is designed of, by, and for indigenous workers in Winnipeg.   This is part of a larger trend of contemporary workplaces targeted for use by first peoples across Canada [1] (other examples here, here).

Coworking spaces are all about “community, community, community”, and every successful working space creates and sustains a community of workers.  Of course, this means different things to each such community, and that is one of the cool things about contemporary coworking.

So, what do these “indigenous” workplaces do that is different, and that makes them attractive to their workers and communities?

Aside from the obvious “flocking” of like-minded workers (on this point, Everett commented that it is nice not to have to ‘splain their culture to other workers), these spaces offer the cultural room for ritual and for their own comfort food [2].  These touches willprobably  mean much to their community, and little to other people.

These spaces also pay a lot of attention to multi-generational interactions.  Canoe Coworking plans a space reserved for “elders”, which is both for caring for the elders by younger workers and for counseling from the elders.

This is obviously a practice common to the heritage of many North American tribes, but it is also interesting to think about how something like this could be integrated into any coworking space.

It’s not so much that there are no such interactions in other spaces.  Its more that these communities are far more intentional about it, and have strong norms about the value of intergenerational care and counseling.

Overall, these spaces seem to fit nicely to aspects of traditions of North American First Peoples .  As Tara Everett of Canoe Coworking puts it, “before there was money in North America, we were always sharing resources or time or expertise. That’s how I see the coworking movement.” [2]

From the very beginning of the coworking movement, there has been an element of “back to the village” for many coworkers.  Kane’s home coworking space drew on her local neighbors, and the interactions were much like life in a villages in many parts of the world [1].  In Kane’s kitchen, there were many informal rituals and home-made comfort foods.

Indeed, even in large “corporate” workplaces, it is frequently reported that workers benefit from “mentoring” by older, experienced workers.  Whether planned and supported by the operator, or purely spontaneous, these intergenerational interactions are clearly valuable for everyone, not just indigenous workers.

As these indigenous coworking spaces flourish, perhaps they can spread the wisdom by helping other coworking spaces design for the intentional inclusion of elders in multigenerational communities.  That would be interesting.


  1. Lori Kane, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015.
  2. Ruby Irene Pratka,  Empowering Canada’s Indigenous communities through coworking Sharable.November 12 2018, https://www.shareable.net/blog/empowering-canada%E2%80%99s-indigenous-communities-through-coworking