GCUC Coworking 2019 Projections

It’s Global Coworking UnConference (GCUC) USA time again, and that means this year’s  round of of reports and surveys.

As I commented after attending the 2016 GCUC, this conference has mutated into mainly a trade meeting for operators of “social office” spaces, which is certainly not the whole, or even the most important aspect of coworking.  (For a fuller picture, see the book, What is Coworking?)

This focus is on clear display in the pre-conference (or pre-un-conference) release of a study of “the future of the flexible workspace industry” [1].   (This report was prepared by The Instant Group [2])

The study reports “33,072 centers” world wide, and project 14% growth. (I’m not sure what a “center” is.)  Much of the growth is expected to be in “secondary and tertiary” cities, AKA, fly-over country.  (I have advocated for this move for quite a while.)

There is also projection of strong growth outside Europe an North America.  Basically, it’s last year’s trend, so it’s going to be big in the hinterland, no?  (Not that China, Africa, or Latin America are secondary except in the minds of US and European analysts.)   Also, this reflects not only saturation, but also real estate prices.  There ain’t any such thing as affordable real estate in major cities, so even “tertiary” cities look interesting.

The most telling part of this report is what they consider to be the topic of the survey: “Flexible workspace industry”. This actually refers to a business model for real estate operations, not how workers work or anything else.   From this point of view, the growth is driven by “awareness among clients of all sizes of alternative ways to occupy office space”:  the “client” is someone who “occupies office space”.

If you wonder where the “community” or even “work” went, so do I.

The report discusses the growing interest in “hybrid” spaces, which “cater to a mix of SME businesses that want privacy, alongside start-up, freelancers”.  Conventional companies rent a block of space, but share common areas with un-affiliated  workersand other companies.  “The key for operators of these spaces will be to provide services that cater to both groups while creating a sense of community that encourages all occupiers to mix and feel part of something bigger than just themselves.”  (It’s telling that the workers are characterized as “occupiers”, no?)

I’ve heard that this arrangement is popular with workers, though I have yet to see any evidence of its effects for either the conventional employees or the independent workers.  I can see the benefits of getting outsiders to motivate, help, and “share” with your company’s employees—for free.  But  I have difficulty imagining how employees of a company can “share” with outsiders.

I think it will be interesting to see how this hybrid model actually works out.

In every survey of coworkers, the workers rate “a community of like-minded workers” high on the list of benefits.  Are these hybrid groups “like-minded”?  I doubt it.  This hybrid model does not seem very “peer-to-peer” to me—some of the workers are part of a hierarchy, and others are not.  And some are “inside” and others “outside” the companies.  And what independent worker would donate intellectual property or anything to a company that doesn’t pay her?

The report also contains the same bad news as last year: “we can expect to see increased investment into the industry, potentially leading to increased consolidation from larger scale providers, while smaller independents continue to look towards niche sectors to carve out sustainable business communities.”  Classic, community-based coworking suffers from competition from the massive build up of “flexible office space”.

As the report says, “smaller independents” will continue to exist, but not by competing on price or scale.  “Carving out a niche” simply means “crating a real, local community”, which is kind of the whole point of coworking.

The good news is that this kind of community has been the essence of coworking from the start, and is the very stuff that the giant corporate spaces are selling to their cold soulless face sucking corporate clients.  So I say, pay more attention to the community and the workers, and less to the “clients” who “occupy office space”.  You may not conquer the world or make millions, but you’re community will be happy and successful.

  1. Global Coworking Unconference Conferences (GCUC), The Future looks Juicy – What can we Expect from the Flexible Workspace Industry, in GCUC Blog. 2019. https://gcuc.co/the-future-looks-juicy-what-can-we-expect-from-the-flexible-workspace-industry/
  2. The Instant Group, Flexible Workspace Trends – 2019 and Beyond, in Instant Offices Blog. 2019. https://www.instantoffices.com/blog/featured/flex-workspace-trends-2019-beyond/



What is Coworking? It’s Hard To Have Plants

Just in time for Spring, Geoff Gohlke writes in the Freelancers Union Blog about “7 plants that will brighten your workspace and boost your productivity” [1]/

OK, first of all, I love plants, indoors and out.  And it’s a great idea to have some plants around your workspace.  It’s a good idea for Freelancers and, I believer, for everyone.  There is nothing specifically freelancy about this suggestion.

His list of plants is scarcely new.  These old favorites have been on desks and windowsills for a generation or more.  It’s a good selection, though anyone who knows botany knows that these are nothing compared to a real plantscape, let alone a natural ecosystem.  But anything is better than nothing.  (And go outside where there are plants as much as you can, anyway.

So, yeah.  Plants are good.  Personally, I don’t think you need a lot of explanation or justification for wanting to be surrounded by plants.

But Gohlke wants to make a case.

So he tells us that “botanicals” (which seems like a rather insulting taxon-ist word–are we “zoologicals”?) aren’t just pretty, “they can also freshen up the air and boost your productivity”.  That sounds great.  And, sure, plants do filter the air, though a couple of potted plants on a desk don’t process all that much air.

“Boost your productivity”?  What does that even mean?  Compared to what?  He gives no evidence for this claim.  But, as I said, plants are good regardless of alleged productivity boosts.

Gohlke’s discussion suggests a couple of other points that I’d like to pull out.

First, he discusses the rudiments of caring for these plants, which means light and water. These standard desk plants are popular because they can stand and/or prefer low light, and do not require a lot of water, and generally can survive periods of neglect.  Fussy, they are not.

Unstated in this discussion is the fact that you still must take care of these plants, however forgiving they may be.  My own view is that part of the benefit of having living “botanicals” in your space is the psychological benefit from taking responsibility and tending them over the long, slow life of a plant.  Pay attention to them, and they will thrive.  That feels good.

Second, Gohlke makes some unstated assumptions about working conditions that are worth examining.  He imagines that  “you have a well-lit corner in your apartment or a windowless room,” but he definitely assumes that you have “your workspace”.  While he mentions “digital nomads”, it seems clear that plants are for a place that you “own”, even if you wander a lot.

You don’t carry around your plants, nor do you set them around your open plan work table that you rent by the hour.

Which suggests that, while a coworking space might have plants (and really nice ones also have gardens), coworkers generally don’t have a permanent space to put plants in.

So this article is for Freelancers, but not particularly applicable to Freelancers who Cowork.  You really have to have at least a permanent desk before you can have plants.  It isn’t easy to have plants when you cowork.

And this is certainly a downside of coworking for me.

  1. Geoff Gohlke, 7 plants that will brighten your workspace and boost your productivity, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/03/28/best-indoor-plants-for-productive-workspace/


What is Coworking? Nookpod Thinks It Is Huddle Pods

Nookpod – New ways of working”.  Hey!  That’s my line!

For several years now, I’ve been very interested in freelancing and coworking because they are some of the important things at the heart of the “new way of working”.  So, Do company caught my attention with their “new ways of working”.

It turns out that what they are talking about is modular furniture, in the form of a self-contained, wheeled mini-office, which they call “mobile modular huddle pod,”. Each nook has room for about four workers, a table, lighting, connectivity, etc. [1]

Notably, this piece provides a closed workspace, and is kind of a reply to the supposedly universal “open plan” office.  They offer a succinct critique of the open plan office, “Nooksters benefit from increased productivity through better focus; experience more effective phone & Skype calls; and hold more powerful small meeting.

They make the interesting remark that the original design was to meet the workplace needs of “those on the autistic spectrum”.  But apparently, almost anyone might actually need an office, at least some of the time.

Of course, these units are marketed to coworking space operators rather than the workers themselves.  From that perspective, they offer flexibility for the workspace.  The pod is on wheels and they can be connected into larger groupings.

The company claims (without evidence) that “Nook helps everyone to improve their personal wellbeing, as well as adding efficiency & flexibility of space while creating greater engagement between people.”  I’m not sure how these boxes achieve any of those purported benefits, especially compared to alternatives such as permanent offices (including the “booths” becoming common in coworking spaces), open plan spaces, are any of the other ways people might organize a workspace.

And obviously, there is nothing particular “new” about this way of working, though it looks like it’s kind of convenient for a workspace operator who wants to change the configuration of the space from day to day.

I admit that these look kind of cool.  But they don’t look like particularly good workspaces to me. They are pretty small, and the seating looks horribly uncomfortable (and, by the way, not ADA accessible).  The whole “huddling in a pod” thing seems to preclude natural light and air circulation.  And it’s temporary and insecure, so you can’t really do anything confidential.  And so on.

There isn’t anything wrong with this product. In fact, I kind of like it.

But to me, the essence of the “new way of working” is in the interaction of workers (and others).  In the case of coworking, the essence is the development of a community of “like minded” peers.

These social things are the special sauce and “the big idea” of contemporary coworking.  And they can happen in pretty much any environment.  So “huddle pods” or any other clever furnishings can be used for successful coworking, but they are neither necessary or sufficient to create the community spirit that is so valuable.

  1. Do Company. Nookpods -New Ways Of Working. 2019, http://nookpod.com/.

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