What Should Coworking Become? Bring Your Own Cubicle?

Is this “The End of Open Plan Coworking Spaces”?

Most coworking spaces offer open plan office spaces.  (Tellingly, other options usually cost extra—the clearest possible indication of the relative value of open office space.)

Unfortunately, sharing a table with strangers is pretty much the worst possible thing to do during the pandemic.  Most coworkers work at home some of the time, so I’m sure that many have transitioned to working at home almost completely, even if their coworking space is open (which a lot are not).

If workers ever needed a respite from our isolation [1], we need it now. So what can be done?

The Global Coworking Un Conference (GCUC) folks have been seeking solutions (mostly through virtual connections). 

This fall they are promoting a gadget that might help.  As in many retail settings, the idea is to add a transparent screen, so coworkers can be near each other but not breathing on each other [1].

To me, this is basically a DIY kit for converting an open plan desk into a (cruddy) cubicle. Is this a step backwards? 

I.e., both the hardware and the safety protocols that go with it must surely negate much of the benefits of the open plan coworking. 

No hugging.  Very limited “looking over the shoulder”.  No standing around in the break area.  Heck, there may be no break areas.  So, basically, very, very limited coworking.

Still, needs must.  Even this limited social interaction may be better than nothing, and may help us get through this very bad two years.

Now, I personally still wouldn’t go into a coworking space, screens or not.  Indoor safety depends a lot on the air flow.  In a big room with shared tables, we’re probably all sharing each others’ used air and touching the same surfaces. That’s not safe, and these spit guards don’t do anything at all to change the air circulation or clean the air or surfaces.  So, these screens are really not that useful.

The bad news is that really good internal air quality is hard to achieve and generally very expensive, and cannot be reverse engineered into an existing building. The odds that a given coworking space has really good air are slim.

I guess the good news is that a large open plan space could be relatively safe, provided you keep the number of occupants low—and they don’t get close to each other.

So, you probably can think about entering a coworking space, but only a few at a time.  But it really cannot provide most of the critical social interactions that are the vital, beating heart of coworking communities. 

It’s going to be a hard two years for coworkers and coworking operators.

I don’t really know what things will look like on the other side.

  1. GCUC, CoScreen by GCUC, in GCUC Community – Shop, September, 2020. https://gcuc.co/product/coscreen-by-gcuc/
  2. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity

Coworking in an Urban Forest

This spring Nicolas Carvajal reports on a new coworking space in LA “in an Urban Forest” [1].

A green village of offices creates a community for the working individual surrounded by a dense urban forest in the middle of busy Los Angeles.” [1]

OK, this sounds pretty cool.  Goodness knows, a bit of “forest” would be very welcome in LA.

In fact, it sounds too good to be real.

First, this doesn’t look much like a “forest” to me, urban or otherwise.

It’s more building than trees (sixty “rooms”), and the entire area between buildings appears to be paved.  So, this looks more like a garden than a forest.

Other than the extensive gardens, the workspace and facilities are pretty similar to a lot of rental office space.  Presumably there is more external light and air than a office tower (though that is not necessarily all that great in the LA basin), and it seems to all be on ground level, so that’s good for those of us not in love with high rise buildings.

In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a workspace in a garden, IMO. In fact it sounds nice.

As their web site suggests, this is a “post-WeWork” space.  Or at least a “different that WeWork” space.  So yeah, that’s good.  Though I’m not really looking for a “WeWork” of any kind, myself.

I don’t live anywhere near LA, so I can’t easily visit in person to check it out.  Maybe the next time I’m there, I’ll pop in to see what it is like.

  1. Nicolas Carvajal, Co-Working in an Urban Forest, in Pop Up City, March 11, 2020. https://popupcity.net/observations/co-working-in-an-urban-forest/

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.

What is Coworking? Some Statistics

This month, Ivan Stevanovic reports an impressive list of statistics about Coworking [2].  (Important Caveat:  many of these statistics are from proprietary sources, and most are based on somewhat opaque methodology.  The reports are plausible, even though the empirical support is weak.)

Some of the stats are the usual:  there are almost 19,000 coworking spaces world-wide, and 30,000 “flexible office spaces”.  The latter appear to be a term for workspace that is similar to a coworking space, except not necessarily exclusively used by coworking. The latter would be a building suitable for coworking, but not necessarily used for that purpose.

Note that 50,000 workspaces worldwide is not a very large number.  That is a tiny number of the total buildings and workspaces in the world.

There are estimated three million coworkers world wide, according to the GCUC’s survey.  As I have noted earlier, there is room for argument about the definition of “coworker”, so this number has to be taken with care.  (Again: there are a billion workers in the world, so this is a tiny, tiny fraction.)

Some of the stats are no surprise to those who have read my definitive book on Coworking [1].  Coworkers work in digital industries, especially IT and media.  The workers are younger than the overall population of workers, and more male, though the proportion of women is increasing.

As I have discussed many times, coworkers like coworking for many reasons.  Coworking is a “respite from our isolation”, a tonic for loneliness, and a network of like-minded professionals. In short, it’s the community.

Stevanovic offers some stats about the state of the business.  Many workspaces are serving both coworkers and corporate workers.  I’m sure this has always been the case, though coworking was pioneered by and for freelancers.

Stevanovic reports the somewhat worrying statistic that, world wide, only 42% of coworking spaces are profitable, and 33% break even.  This puts the boosterism in perspective:  there may be more and more workspaces, opening every day, but many of them will close within a few years.  (One reason:  rents are rising.)

“there are currently around 18,700 coworking spaces around the globe. The number is growing daily and is expected to reach nearly 26,000 by 2025.”

The troubling implication is that these workspaces are breaking even or losing money in a strong economy with high employment.  At the next downturn, freelancers will suffer rapid reductions in hours and pay, and many coworking spaces will close.   Perhaps half or more existing spaces might close in a few years of bad times.

So much for the “future of work”.

Overall, these statistics confirm the foundations of coworking (“Community, community, community”, Chapter 3 of [1])  They also suggest that the recent drumbeat of talk about the “industry”, and the debt fueled rise of WeWork is probably a bubble.  WeWork is crashing, and the whole “industry” could crash.

Perhaps the lesson is, focus on the fundamentals, not on “growth”.  Coworking is about creating and sustaining community.  There is no short cut, and giant piles of borrowed money won’t help if you are doing the wrong things for your own people.

  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. Ivan Stevanovic, Coworking Statistics You Need to Know in 2019, in SmallbizGenius. 2019. https://www.smallbizgenius.net/by-the-numbers/coworking-statistics


GCUC on Coworking and Childcare

For several years I have been advocating for coworking spaces to incorporate child care.  It’s the mountain we have to climb, I have said.  This is a difficult thing because you have to be good at two businesses, which generally means finding the right partners. And both businesses are pretty low profit, so you aren’t likely to get rich.

This month the Global Coworking Unconference Conferences (GCUC) blog reports on some of the Coworking Spaces that are offering child care.

In every facebook group, forum, contact form and unconference- Coworking and childcare comes up. While most of us agree that it is needed and the next step in the “co” niche movement- there is a real lack of information around it.”  (From [1])

In three installments (so far), they talk with the operators of five coworking spaces about what they do and the challenges they face [1,2,3].   It’s a small sample, but there is interesting information. These spaces are rare, and in many cases are pioneering this challenging service.

All of the responses indicate that they are responding to their own experiences as working parents (mostly moms).  Coworking is largely worker driven, and is simple and cheap enough that it is possible to experiment.  So, working moms are able to try out solutions to their own challenges.

Reflecting this spirit of experimentation, it is very striking that there doesn’t seem to be “one right way” to set things up.  In this limited sample, we see the kids’ space:

  • In a corner room of the main floor
  • In a separate building (a church)
  • On the ground floor of the house, workers on second floor
  • In another part of the community center
  • In the garage next to the house

Some of the spaces want to staff the child care cooperatively, i.e., by the workers.  But most hire professional caregivers, or contract with a professional child care operation.  This is expensive, especially compared to the relatively low staff costs for a coworking space, and that is a challenge for all of them.

I’ll note that one operation is located in a community center, which has child care.  And another is located in a church, and does child care at a second church.  I think these are very natural alliances, even without the child care.

Actually, I’ve been rather surprised at how few church-based coworking spaces seem to exist.  That seems like a really natural win-win:  there is a ready made community, the church has facilities (including child care), and probably has space available on workdays (and would welcome the income).  Of course, there probably shouldn’t be wild, all night keggers in the church basement, so I guess that might be a minus for some workers.

Finally, I’ll point to one interesting coworking operation that was not interviewed for the GCUC series (at least not yet).  Our local town has the Lodgic Everyday Community,  with “offices, coworking space, drop-in childcare, and all-day dining options”.

This operation was built from the beginning as multiple businesses, including child care from the get go.  In other words, none of the components is a slapped on after thought.

The most interesting thing about this space is that this is not the product of entrepreneurial moms, seeing a need.  It is, in fact, an initiative of the non-profit Moose Lodges, who aim to serve working families and earn income to support their children’s charity activities.  So this is yet another variation on the theme: a twenty first century service organization.

It will be interesting to see how their efforts play out, and if they replicated the operation in other places.

  1. Global Coworking Unconference Conferences, Child Care & Coworking part 1, in GCUC Blog. 2019. https://gcuc.co/child-care-coworking-part-1/
  2. Global Coworking Unconference Conferences, Child Care & Coworking part 2, in GCUC Blog. 2019. https://gcuc.co/child-care-coworking-part-2/
  3. Global Coworking Unconference Conferences, Child Care & Coworking part 3, in GCUC Blog. 2019. https://gcuc.co/child-care-coworking-part-3/