What Is Coworking? Not Necessarily Utopia

As I have said before, my own view is that a big part of why coworking makes workers happy is that each coworking community serves its niche, so workers can self-select their work environment.

So we see lots of ‘niche’ coworking spaces, not just localized, but focusing on specific types of work, personal interests, or demographics.

A prime example are workspaces aimed to serve women (for example, see here or here).  The idea of a “female friendly” workplace can be a tricky balance to hit, since female workers and businesses need the same things as everyone, but at the same time can benefit from not quite so many large male elbows and shadows, thank you very much. My own observation is that a ‘female friendly’ coworking space (or any similar effort) requires of ambiance, policy, and just the right people.

This summer we are reminded that things can go wrong.  Very wrong.

In particular, any kind of workspace and community may work for some of the workers, and not for others. Just like any other human organization….

This week we see reports about The Wing, a female oriented coworking space [1].  (The fact that WeWork invested in The Wing is, to me, a warning sign.  But that’s not the topic today.)

The thrust of the story is that this community that espoused feminism and female empowerment, was and is rife with racial stereotyping and flat out discrimination [1]. AI can’t independently verify the claims, though the resignation of the leader would seem to indicate that there is something deeply troubled there.

Reading the report, it sounds familiar.  I’ve encountered workplaces with similar issues. Of course, this sort of degradation and shafting is often directed at working women of any demographic.  The irony is that this is exactly the problem that The Wing aims to solve for working women.

The reports paint an ugly picture, for sure.  To the degree this is accurate, The Wing does not seem to be all unicorns and rainbows.

Perhaps the safe space for women made room for some women to let loose their own biases on other women.

In fact, though, this sounds pretty much like a lot of conventional offices.

However, in a coworking space, the lines of responsibility are murkier than a conventional office.  Just who is responsible for maintaining a decent work environment?  The workers do not work for the workspace, nor do the workers all work for the same employer. Noone is formally responsible to anyone else.

Worse, the workers are actually paying customers of the workspace, so they can’t be disciplined or fired for misbehavior.  And works of all, it is easy to see how you could act as if the people who run the workspace are not coworkers, but rather are servants.   (These are inherent weaknesses in modelling coworking on the “hospitality” industry, IMO.)

Utopia often is built on slavery.

One of the great things about coworking is that it is all about workers creating their own workplace culture.  But these reports make us realize that the resulting “bottom up” workplace culture can be just as toxic as any other workplace culture.


  1. Ashley Reese, How The Wing’s Empire Was Built On Trauma, Racism, and Neglect, in Jezebel, June 12, 2020. https://jezebel.com/how-the-wings-empire-was-built-on-trauma-racism-and-n-1844000985

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/

 

What is Coworking?  Saidat Giwa-Osagie on Coworking and Community

What is Coworking? One answer has always been, “Community, community, community”.  (See The Book)

Of course, short term, seat-by-seat rental is great for rental companies.  It squeezes every last penny out of their properties, with minimal extra investment.  So, of course, major real estate companies love the idea and want to get in on it.  So there is now a “Service Office Industry”.

Everyone tells them that what these customers want is cheap office space and “community”.  We got the first, so all we need to do is sprinkle on some community, and bingo!  The future of work!

This corp-rat nonsense has prompted numerous objections from leaders of what is now called “authentic coworking”, including Cat Johnson, Liz Elam, and Alex Hillman.  (Readers of this blog know where I stand on this issue.)

This winter, Saidat Giwa-Osagie takes an uncompromising stand, “No Community, No Co-working” [1].  Apparently addressing the real estate industry, she emphasizes that “success depends on the special bonds between its members”.

As I have said, “Community, Community, Community”.

This advice is not easy to follow, because “Community is something you have to build. You can’t buy it,” (Liz Elam, quoted in [1])  I would add, the emphasis msut be on the “you”, which is plural and includes the workers.

Giwa-Osagie points out that community is also not to be achieved through technology.  No end of companies are selling the usual surveillance software, that aims to help a workspace operator track the workers.  That’s not likely to do much good, IMO.  In fact, I would argue that workers already have all the digital community they can stand, and coworking is all about face-to-face interactions.  “a respite from our isolation”, (per Klaas [2])

Giwa-Osagie agrees with Elam that real estate companies generally lack the competencies to do “community” right. This is not their lane.  Therefore, they should collaborate with people who do understand community.

She also points to the success of “niche” coworking (which I consider to be the only kind of coworking that works).  Community isn’t something generic, and it doesn’t really scale. There are many, many kinds of communities, and each community is specific.  Think lot’s of little operations, not one gigantic one.

In short, Giwa-Osagie encourages real estate to stay in their own lane, and not imagine that they can just conjure up “community” to sprinkle on office space.

I agree.  And I’s you don’t have ot look farther than the rolling catastrophe that is WeWork.  Of the many mistakes WW has made, ignoring this advice is the most fundamental.


  1. Saidat Giwa-Osagie, No Community, No Co-working, in Propomodo, November 24, 2019. https://www.propmodo.com/no-community-no-co-working-why-your-co-working-spaces-success-depends-on-the-special-bonds-between-its-members/
  2. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity

 

Payne on How to be a Happy And Successful Remote Worker

The “Future of Work” is often touted as a gig economy, and for many jobs, a remote gig economy.  Almost any work that centers on the Internet can be done anywhere. Growing legions of remote workers prove that this is not only feasible, but very productive [1].   And many workers prefer to “phone it in” via the Internet.

(Remote working is not necessarily freelancing or gig working.  Many conventional employers allow some workers to work from home, and there are many geographically distributed collaborations.  On the other hand, many gig workers are expected to provide their own infrastructure and workplace, so they may well work from home.  So, remote working is a very important aspect for most gig workers.)

(I’ll also note that remote working and distant collaboration has been happening since we invented the Internet.  It’s kind of the whole point of the Internet.  So much of this is not really new or unprecedented, except it has become ubiquitous.)

By now it is clear that remote working has its challenges.  Indeed, the isolation of remote working is the key problem that coworking is designed to solve.  Besides finding a coworking community, what should remote workers try to do?

This month, Kevin Payne suggests “7 tips for being a happy and successful remote worker” [3].  He is writing for the Freelancers Union, but the “tips” apply to workers no matter what their contractual arrangements.

What are his tips?

1) Set boundaries
2) Designate a dedicated working area
3) Change things up
4) Make a schedule (and stick to it)
5) Know your priorities
6) Invest in the right tools
7) Don’t forget yourself

The first tip is actually the crux of the matter.  When you work at home, there is no physical separation between “work” and “not work”, and more importantly, between “work” and “home/family/everything else”.  Whatever may be wrong with conventional workplaces—and there are plenty of things to complain about—they definitely are psychologically and physically separated from “home”.

The other tips are mainly about how to set and keep these boundaries.  An important part of this is psychological, hence “know your priorities”.  This also involves at least two sets of priorities—work and not-work—and also two distinct sets of activities.  Hence “a dedicated work area”, a schedule, and the right tools.

These are good tips, for any worker, remote or not.  And there is no one right way to do it, so find your own way.

But even if you have a great gig and a great home office and manage to balance your life with work, you still are working alone.  People are not meant to be alone all the time, and sooner or later most people are unhappy without colleagues and human contact.

This is, of course, one of the big reasons why people join a coworking community.  Coworking is a “respite from our isolation” (a la Klaas, 2014 [2]).  Indeed, Payne suggests joining a coworking space.

“Some remote workers and freelancers work in coffee shops, while others sign up for coworking spaces.”

I will go farther, to point out that the coworking space actually solves many of these other problems.  There is a boundary, it is a dedicated space, it has the right tools—including like-minded workers to actually talk to.

In short, a coworking space is just the thing for remote workers.

So, Bob’s top “tip” for remote working is “find a local coworking community”.  You’ll be happier, healthier, and probably successful.


  1. Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2013.
  2. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  3. Kevin Payne, 7 tips for being a happy and successful remote worker, in Coworkers Union Blog, January 17, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/01/17/7-tips-for-being-a-happy-and-successful-remote-worker/

Coworking Researchers Meet In Warsaw

The Coworking Library held a “meetup” in Warsaw in November [1].  The speakers discussed their current research on coworking in Europe.  I’m very glad to see that coworking is (finally) attracting attention of social scientists.  I’ve been saying for a long time that there is a lot of interest here, and these investigators are taking interest.

This particular meetup was fairly informal, a sort of “what have you been working on” session, rather than refereed papers.  (There are papers associated with the research, but those are reported elsewhere.)

So what have these folks been working on?

The overall impression is that the big picture hasn’t changed.  Coworking is still about “community, community, community”.  And the reported benefits are about the same as reported many times before, including in my book.

One of the speakers (Marko Orel) discusses a taxonomy of coworking, i.e., what do people mean by the term?  As he points out, the terminology has been evolving and mutation rapidly.  And, I would add, the terms were never sharply defined in the first place.  While creative ambiguity is beneficial for marketing and Internet yapping, it is problematic for academic research.  It’s not clear that any two studies are even talking about the same thing.  I look forward to his result in the future.

Another speaker (Viktoria Heinzel) is looking at “rural” coworking, which I’ve written about.  It’s not clear from the slides how this concept is defined or which specific “rural” areas were studied.  The summary of points seems consistent with other work on the topic, including the potential for ”recruitment & return of skilled workers/ young talents”.

Anita Füzi examined what attracts workers to a specific space.  The basic finding is that social factors; i.e., “community, community, community”; are what matters most.  And she points out that “One space is not better than the other”.  As I have said many times, there is no one right way to do it.

The fourth speaker (Miryana Stancheva) explores the idea of looking at coworking spaces as “a living organism”, specifically, through the ideas or Erik Erikson.  I’ve never studied Erikson in any detail, though I am familiar with the general topic.  This approach requires applying concepts such as “ego development” to coworking.  She seems to be trying to create improved coworking communities through this analysis.

I strongly agree with the importance of a developmental model.  She also considers the development of satisfaction and happiness, not just numbers and revenue.  But, I’ll have to reserve judgement as to whether this particular interpretive framework works well.

I mean, maybe a coworking community is like a child or a family, in some ways.  But maybe not in others.  For one thing, coworkers can walk away at any time.  For another, there is usually very little hierarchy.  And for another thing, the community is usually largely self-selected.  These features probably have a major impact on both happiness and the development over time.


Overall, it is useful to have this kind of academic exchange.  Too much of the discussion of coworking is Internet-grade natter, with little attempt at academic rigor or clarity.  Me, I like footnotes.

It is unfortunate that there isn’t an equivalent effort on this side of the Atlantic.  Perhaps it would be possible to add a virtual component, for those who don’t mind video-ing in from far away.


  1. Coworking Library. Researchers Meetup Warsaw November 13 2019. 2019, https://coworkinglibrary.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Researchers-meetup-presentation-2019-Warsaw.pdf.