What is Coworking? Can it be a trailer?

A company in Cape Town offers a mobile workspace in a trailer, called Nova.  The main point is that they will tow it to a scenic location (e.g., a beach), so you can work for a day with a nice view out the window.  (As Mark Wilson put it in Fast Company, “like a horse trailer” [2].)

It kind of marginal office space, though probably better than some.  (At $250 per day, it better by pretty nice.)

It isn’t offering a day at the beach; it’s a day, spent on Slack, in a little cage at the beach.” “I mean it really can’t be worse than an open office anyway.” [2]

Actually, the Fast Company headline is misleading (“This coworking space is like a horse trailer, but for humans”) because the Work & Co has a more or less conventional workspace. The trailer is basically similar to their other room reservations, except on wheels. You could rent a conference room, or rent the trailer and conference at the beach.

So it’s basically a gimmick.

Seeing this South African amenity, I wonder if the Sandbox Santa Barbara might want to “mobilize” their Airstream lounge.  There are definitely beautiful beaches and overlooks in the SB area (and the main space is nice, but has no particular view).

Generally, I think coworking is about community, not about desk space.  So a rented meeting room—in a trailer or not–is an asset to a coworking space only to the degree it is used by a community of remote and freelance workers.

I’ll note that this particular facility is never going to be a very good space for actual coworking. It’s too small to hold more than a handful of people at a time, and, by design it is separated from the main space and the community there. There is no synergy, mutual help, or networking.  Any mobile facility by definition is not rooted in a specific location, which is one of the things that may tie a community together. Hiding out by yourself at the beach is pretty much the opposite of immersing in a community workspace, which is the essence of coworking IMO.

(For much more on what makes coworking tick, see the book “What is Coworking?” [1])

  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. Mark Wilson, This coworking space is like a horse trailer, but for humans, in Fast Company. 2019. https://www.fastcompany.com/90297908/this-coworking-space-is-like-a-horse-trailer-but-for-humans

Coworking Trends 2019

Sensei Liz Elam, founder of Global Coworking UnConference, has posted her annual “Coworking Megatrend Predictions

Looking back, she gives herself credit for a lot of predictions coming true in 2018.   As is often the case, her predictions were generally accurate, though not necessarily in detail.  For example, WeWork continued to grow, but a lot of the growth is taking the form of diversifying into other businesses.  It’s debatable whether these businesses are “coworking” or not.  And, by the way, WeWork is experiencing debt problems, so its growth will almost certainly be followed by contraction.

Anyway, Elam’s 2019 predictions are not all that different than 2018. I.e., more of the same.  Her headlines are:

  • Real Estate
  • Differentiation
  • Consolidation
  • Design
  • Wellness
  • Coworking Nomenclature
  • Tools for Coworking

“Real Estate” is “the sleeping giant” that has awakened to the concept of on-demand workspaces.  It’s pretty obvious that big real estate operations will want to get a big slice of coworking.  How well this will work out, is less than clear.  (And Elam’s comments are rather Delphic,  something about “as the power shifts from the owner to the tenant”.)

“Differentiation” and “Consolidation” are an interesting pair.  Big money is building large workplaces and buying up (or killing off) other operations, consolidating ownership.  At the same time, Elam correctly notes that a key to coworking success is “niche spaces”.  From the point of view of the real estate industry, a “niche” is a matter of clever branding.  My own view is that this is the heart and soul of community coworking, and there really are nothing except niches.  How you can consolidate and also be authentically community oriented is the great contradiction for Elam’s industrial trends.

Another “sleeping giant” is the design industry, which she notes is showing greater interest in coworking spaces.  This goes hand in hand with the entry of big money, of course, and an uncharitable observer might say that designers are simply marketing the same old stuff to a newly trendy market.

Elam has been advocating “Wellness” for quite a while.  Here she totally understands that wellness is not really about design (sure, natural light is great, etc.), but more about people.  This isn’t limited to coworking, of course, but a thriving coworking community is likely to foster the kind of “CheckYoMate”  action that she advocates. (I’ll comment that gigantic, corporate workplaces, and even fancy “luxury” workplaces are generally not so great for this kind of wellness.  Low cost, local community workplaces are going to be a lot healthier.)

Elam is Delphic about coworking nomenclature.  She has taken a strong stand on this in the past, but in this forum takes the co-opting of the term “coworking” by designers and real estate as a sign of victory for coworking, “an indication of a huge shift and a new emergence in the market where the power shifts to the tenant.”  I don’t know who is the “tenant” here, or what this supposed power shift might be.

Finally, Elam points out that there is a minor boom in “tools”, mainly for operating a coworking space.  This is a trend I predicted a long time ago, based on my observation that there are a lot of common tasks that could easily be automated.  But, putting my software developer hat back on, I’ll say that this looks like an area where it will be hard to make much money off the software.  So I’d be very surprised if this area grows very much.

Finally, Elam boasts a “bombshell” prediction: “Coworking will replace the office.”

I’m sure it looks this way from the perspective of the real estate industry (where Elam now sits), but it’s kind of obviously wrong.

OK, I guess if you define “office” narrowly, and by “replace” you mean, “make workers provide their own office space”, then, sure. A lot of companies will Uberize their desk workers, making everyone BYO.  (This will include the inevitable “mandatory optional” requirement to rent your desk from a specific coworking space. Not coworking so much as charging workers for their desk.)

But if you take “office” to mean “workplace”, then obviously there will have to be a lot of workspaces that are not “coworking” in any meaningful sense.  I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again:  there are broad swaths of workers and work that are not suited to coworking for one reason or another.  E.g., Work processes involving atoms rather than bits (think fabrication or lab work), work that involves human interactions (think medical services), work that is proprietary or otherwise highly secured (trade secrets? Record keeping?), or businesses that need a branded space.

Furthermore, I’ll point out the related fact that the number of Freelance and independent workers is small and not growing.  So it is far from clear how much coworking will grow.

I have tremendous respect for Sensei Elam, but I think this “bombshell”  will surely fizzle.

  1. Liz Elam, Coworking Megatrend Predictions for 2019 (and a Bombshell), in Liz Elam Articles. 2018. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coworking-megatrend-predictions-2019-bombshell-liz-elam/


What is Coworking? Kidful Coworking is Here to Stay

I’ve been writing about kidful coworking for a long time now (here, here, here, here) Almost exactly three years ago, I called this the mountain we have to climb.

Child care for working parents is a hard problem for everyone, so it isn’t surprising that many coworking spaces do not tackle the problem. But I’m glad to see that more and more are doing so.

This month, Sensei Cat Johnson interviewed Shazia Mustafa of Third Door coworking in the UK. Open since 2015, this is reported to be “The World’s First Coworking Space With Full Childcare” [2].

One reason why this is very hard is that it is really two different businesses, and you need to get both right.  My general rule of thumb is to focus on being good at one thing, but that’s not an option n this case.

Mustafa reports that they designed the space from the start as “childcare with a place to work”. She comments that, “I don’t know if having a coworking space then slotting in the nursery is going to work as effectively”.  I tend to agree that the childcare part is harder, and the workspace part is a lot more flexible–there are lots of ways to get the workspace right, so it is more likely that you can adapt to the childcare.

She also notes that working parents often can benefit from some psychological boost. (Moms and dads both have challenges, though not always identical or symmetric ones.) It is interesting to think of this kind of childcare+work community as an especially potent way to help both work and childrearing.

It’s hard to know if Third Door really was the first, but it certainly won’t be the last. New ones crop up every day  (E.g., here, here).  And locally to me, Moose International has opened an exciting new space with childcare+coworking(+food+fitness).

I would see this trend as possible a step toward a more general multi-generational, life+work spaces,  and there are more of them every day. I also find some indigenous themed Canadian spaces interesting, because they include space for elders.

It seems to me that there would be advantages to having elders and kids and workers in the community. (Don’t you think having some aunties and uncles would be a real good thing?) Basically, a whole village.

Now there’s a mountain to climb.

  1. Catie Dixon, Working From Home Never Looked So Good, in Bisnow. 2018. https://www.bisnow.com/national/news/multifamily/a-must-have-coworking-in-apartments-isnt-quite-like-in-offices-94020
  2. Cat Johnson, Inside The World’s First Coworking Space With Full Childcare: A Q&A With Third Door’s Shazia Mustafa, in Allwork.Space. 2018. https://allwork.space/2018/12/inside-the-worlds-first-coworking-space-with-full-childcare-a-qa-with-third-doors-shazia-mustafa/


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