What will Coworking Become?  Kane on “Productivity as a Service”

We’re all wondering just what coworking will look like after the pandemic shutdown.

The “flexible office” industry is stepping forward with pitches, including spiffy new jargon.

This fall Kenny Kane writes about “Productivity As A Service”, which he links to the future of coworking [1].

Huh?  What?

OK, the “as a service” tag has been popular for a while, riffing off the original breakthrough, “Software as a Service” (i.e., rent, not own).

So what in the world could “productivity as a service” even mean, with or without coworking?

I mean, productivity is a statistic, a number which can be computed for a person or a group.  You can’t buy or sell “productivity”, so how can it be rented as a “service”?  This makes no logical sense.  Or, more to the point, it is making up a new, trendier word for “renting office space”.

What I think Kane is talking about are the features of an office that help workers and groups be more productive.  Good connectivity, comfortable work areas, appropriate meeting spaces, etc.  These are things that operators do sell to their users, and I think the notion is that operators should be sure to provide the right array of features.  He’s thinking that you charge more for features that arguably pay off for the business, i.e., improve results, AKA “productivity”. So you are renting not just space but valuable infrastructure services.

The “as a service” part also suggests that the operator should provide these features as part of a menu that renters can select from.  I.e., they are not built to order, they are built in as standard parts of the workspace, though possible with options.

OK, this all makes sense, even if the term “PAAS” is an abuse of the historic sources.


What does this have to do with coworking?

I think Kane’s point is summed up in the section header, “Beyond Coworking: Physical Spaces Designed For Productivity”.

He focusses on the original format of coworking, the open plan shared workspace.  As he notes, workers need more than a desk and a chair.  Or at least, many workers, some of the time, want other things.  Such as a quiet space or private office.  So, Kane says, building managers should offer more than just desks-by-the-hour in a big “chatty” room.

“For this reason, we may start to see coworking evolve from chatty social hubs to productivity destinations.”

(From [1])

Kane also notes the important value to workers of having someone else run the office space.  As workers and organizations work back from Work At Home, everyone has a new regard for professionally maintained office and infrastructure.


Of course, Kane makes some good points here.  I’ve been making the same points for quite a while, long before the pandemic.

However, his implications that flexible office space is the future of coworking is dubious. 

For one thing, the idea of coworking emerged out of flexible office rental, so Kane is describing devolution, not evolution.  Coworking spaces have always provided a variety of features, including everything Kane describes here.

In fact, what Kane describes here is basically what I call “sprinkling community on rental office space”.

As I have argued for many years, the essential product of coworking is not office space, productive or otherwise, it is community.  That is why coworking spaces always have a “chatty social hub” at the core.  The social part is what the coworking space is selling.  The rest is just infrastructure.

Tellingly, Kane provides for this crucial function in the form of “Designated collaboration rooms to keep noise levels at a minimum.”  Let the hippies have their little room, he is saying, while the real workers hunker down alone in quiet, private offices.

Is this the future of coworking?  Hardly. 

A successful coworking space must be all about building and sustaining community, not about selling “productivity as a service”.   This requires community leadership (i.e. talented humans) and plenty of face to face interaction.  And, no, there is no such thing as “community as a service”.

Is this PAAS future of rental offices?  Maybe, but who cares?

The good news is that you can build a good coworking community on top of many variations of flexible office space.  So PAAS may enable coworking operations to build and sustain their communities.

“Community as a Layer on Top of PAAS”  There’s an Nth order buzzword!


  1. Kenny Kane, The Rise Of Productivity As A Service In The Coworking Model, in Forbes – Forbes Biz Council, October13, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbizcouncil/2021/10/13/the-rise-of-productivity-as-a-service-in-the-coworking-model/

Priya Parker on “How We Should Meet”

Parker has studied and written on what she calls “The Art of Gathering”.

Much of her earlier work was out the window during the pandemic.  Meeting in person was too dangerous, so we all improvised mostly with the Internet.  Overall, it worked better than I expected, but everyone knows meeting over small screens isn’t perfect. 

Now we are all struggling to figure out how to ease back into face to face activities, we are all wondering what to do.  Organizations of all kinds are trying to move to some kind of “hybrid” operation, with some activities remote, and some in person. 

As Parker writes this week,  “How should we meet?” [1] .

And, as she asks, “Who should decide?”

So, what does Sensei Priya have to say?

As usual, she has her head screwed on right. 

The basic answer is, “it depends”.  It depends on what the group needs and wants to do.  And the answer may be tricky, because different participants may have different wants and needs.

One of the best points she makes is that the best meetings, regardless of format, have a known purpose, and are designed to fit that purpose.  This means that the way to meet might be different each time.

As a student of meeting-ology Parker is eager to see organizations experiment.  If ever there was to time to try new things, it is now.  Don’t ask how to “return to the office”, she says.

“What did you long for when we couldn’t physically meet? What did you not miss and are ready to discard? What forms of meeting did you invent during the pandemic out of necessity that, surprisingly, worked?”

(From [1])

One kind of experiment she sees is for groups meet in person sometimes mainly for bonding with each other.  Besides creating work for meeting planners like Parker, this calls for flexible meeting places, and flexible organizing strategies.  Meetings do not have to always be in the office, nor always doing the same thing.

Coworking spaces are yet another way we gather.  Parker does not mention coworking spaces in her essay, but I’ll point out that flexible coworking spaces located near workers are ideal for off-campus meetings as well as remote working.  “Flexibility” is coworking’s wheelhouse!

Of course, coworking spaces are mainly about social support, about having other humans around even as you work remotely with others.  Routine coworking is a way we gather that is a shared experience of the workers, but not confined within the organization.  In fact, workers “meet” in order to create their own community, independent of companies or bosses. 

“Who decides?”  In a coworking space, the workers themselves decide.

“We have an unusual moment to experiment with the workplace. These moments don’t come along often and don’t stay open long. Let’s seize this occasion to reinvent.”

(From [1])

I would encourage organizations to think about how coworking spaces might best fit into their new “hybrid” office concepts.


  1. Priya Parker, How Should We Meet? And Who Decides?, in New York Times. 2021: New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/20/opinion/meetings-remote-work-covid.html

Digital Nomads In a Pandemic World?

The pandemic has pushed many workers to remote work, and many workers will continue to work remotely at least some of the time.

Remote workers are, of course, the folks who invented and populated the first wave of coworking spaces.  For many, remote work was a necessity, or at least a choice driven by circumstances.

But for some workers, remote working has been a lifestyle choice / philosophical stance.  These digital nomads eschew not only conventional offices, but the very concept of a permanent residence.  These transient workers are happy to work from anywhere, including coworking desks.  Of course, they prefer to be somewhere cool (or warm in the winter).  Some just like like to travel, some are seeking to live permanently “off shore”, independent of “the man”.

So, are we going to see a lot more digital nomads in the post-pandemic “hybrid” working environment?

The technology is here, as it has been for a while.  Many workers need little more than power and wifi, which they can get a lot of places.  And if you already work remotely, you can work just as well from Hawaii or Bali or Croatia as from you kitchen table.

So, is nomadism going to take off?

This summer Bryan Lufkin discusses the not-so-clear future of digital nomadism [1].

First of all, there are different levels of “nomadism”.  Lufkin notes that during the pandemic, some workers were able to retreat out of the city, to work from relatively healthy rural abodes.  If the clubs are closed, why put up with living in the city?   These remote workers may or may not be especially mobile, so this may or may not be a nomadic lifestyle.

Lufkin points out that true nomadism is a very privileged situation.  You not only need a high paying remote career, you need political and social capital.  Blithely bebopping around the world is fine if you have money and a passport, but a lot harder for poor people, AKA, “illegal immigrants”.  And in a lot of places borders are closed and will remain closed.  Good luck trying to work remotely from New Zeeland if you aren’t already there. Heck, I can’t even go to Canada from the US these days.

(Some digital nomads have surely been trapped in place by the pandemic, spending a year or more in what was supposed to be a short visit.  That was not so fun, and could happen at any time in the future.)

In any case, most jobs involve real world, physical activities.  Most workers have to show up at work. And even in the commonly envisioned “hybrid” workplace, workers have to come to the office some of the time.  Maybe they will have fewer but longer commutes, but how many workers will be allowed to just phone it in from anywhere they want? Not many.

This is really a highly privileged lifestyle.

So yeah, rich kids may continue to bebop around the world, “working” remotely.  But most workers won’t.

I’ll also point out that the entire mind set–eschewing a permanent home, living a permanent spring break–is a whole lot more prevalent among young adult (rich and poor) than older people.  Soon enough, kids grow up and want a family and a home. 

OK, some retirees go nomad at the other end of the lifespan : – ) 

But the point is that a lot of the noise about digital nomadism is from Internet media that are written by and for twenty somethings.  It was never, and will never be, a thing for most workers.


  1. Bryan Lufkin, Is the great digital-nomad workforce actually coming?, in BBC News – Worklife, June15, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210615-is-the-great-digital-nomad-workforce-actually-coming

The Future of Work: Office of the Future (Some thoughts)

As we go back in to work after the pandemic, everybody, including me, says ‘hybrid’ offices are the next thing. The idea is that offices closed by the pandemic will not reopen as they were.  Basically, some workers will be in the office some of the time, working remote other times. 

This spring, John Seabrooke discusses what office designers are thinking, and how this might actually work [2].  His piece has inspired me to think a bit more about work space “design”.

The main goal of the ‘hybrid’ model is to use the in-person office time for what it is necessary and/or good for, e.g.,:

  • Some meetings, especially with clients and stakeholders
  • Group culture
  • Training of new hires
  • Serendipity

Other activities, including many routine meetings, can be done remotely, or with some workers collocated and others remote.

  • Many solo activities, including research, coding, and writing
  • Routine checkins and team meetings
  • Some conversations and collaborations

What Should We Shoot For?

So, what kinds of things should the office and remote try to optimize?

In my view, an in-person office space should try to maximize (in no particular order):

  • Visibility and equity in decision making
  • Promote group cohesion
    • Positive feelings, especially in public
    • Private channels for negative communication
  • Hi security/privacy
  • Specific facilities, i.e., shop/lab/kennels/etc.,
  • Hospitality (e.g., for clients, customers)

And a remote work experience should emphasize:

  • Productivity (individual and group)
  • Work/life balance
  • Reduced commuting, etc.
  • Reduced cost of office space

What can go wrong?

Well, as Seabrooke makes clear, you can always manage to get the worst of both worlds. : – (

Remote workers can easily become isolated, lonely, and depressed.  Distributed work groups can become unmotivated, disorganized, inequitable, and prone to the special digital hell of what we used to call “flame wars”. 

At the same time, the in-person part of a hybrid work environment is prone to all the woes of any conventional workplace, made worse by low and inconsistent attendance. 

There can be crappy work conditions, bad meetings and that special analog hell of antisocial behavior. And, these days, people sit in office working remotely with headphones on.

I would say that any in person office, but especially partly occupied ‘hybrid’ office is prone to anti-serendipity–i.e., random acts of social disfunction.

What does this tell us about the future of coworking?

I note that the coworking “industry” is whole-heartedly embracing the ‘hybrid’ space concept.  This make sense because this is what coworking has always been about.

Coworking spaces are actually pretty good models for what a ‘hybrid’ office should look like.  And, as I have written, it’s not the layout of the space, or any specific amenities that matter.  What matters is the people and how they get along [1].

And successful coworking communities are generally no larger than 200 people, which stands as a guide for all office design (which Seabrooke notes, too).

A coworking space (at least pre-pandemic) has one interesting feature that designers should pay attention to:  participation is optional.  Unlike corporate offices, workers inhabit coworking spaces that they like, and leave when they don’t like it.  This means that a coworking space succeeds by meeting the needs of its workers, whoever they are. 

There can be (and have been) many different coworking spaces, meeting the needs of different groups of workers.  But each one needs to work hard to recruit and satisfy a community of workers, and this is what successful coworking spaces do well.

In contrast, a company can only have one or a few in person office spaces, and workers generally don’t have a lot of choice about where to work.  And this is a challenge, because everyone is different, and no single office can be perfect for everyone.  (It is quite possible to be awful for everyone, of course.)

So, I would say that an organization needs to understand how its workers work, and what they like, and try to do that. 

There is some circular logic here, because organizations select and shape their workers to their own ways.  So there is tangled feedback of what workers are used to and what workers want.

Worse, people who don’t fit the official or most dominant ‘culture’ face marginalization and can be driven out.  This isn’t good for the workers or the organization, and can easily be flat out illegal when any group is treated unfairly.

Coworking spaces deal with these issues with strong community leadership (see Chapter 5 of my book [1]). In a conventional office, “culture” is promulgated by managers and HR who work for management.  Coworking “culture” is promulgated by leaders who work for the space, which means that the workers are their customers, not their employees.

This seems like a very significant psychological difference to me.  Corporate “culture” is too often something that arrives via email from a boss.  Coworking community culture is something that arrives via personal conversations and introductions.

Hmm.  Which one would you like better?

So, here’s a thought. 

Don’t worry too much about the layout of the office.  Instead, hire people whose job is to make workers happy in the space, and specifically, to get people to like each other.

This role is inspired by coworking ‘community managers’, but can’t be quite the same.  The really tricky bit is to make these people mostly responsible to the workers, not to management.  I.e., this cannot be a classical HR position (concerned with enforcing policies) or line manager (concerned with meeting goals).  This is something different, and it doesn’t even have a name.

Can this be done?  Will it work?

I dunno.

But I think it might be the right way to go.


  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. John Seabrooke, Office Space: The Post-pandemic Future of Open-plan Work, in The New Yorker. 2021, Conde Nast: New York. p. 40-49. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/02/01/has-the-pandemic-transformed-the-office-forever

My Book Is Obsolete

This blog has slowed to a crawl this year.

The pandemic has been a brutal blow to the global economy, and no sector has been hit any harder than coworking.  A coworking space has only one business, bringing workers together in a face-to-face community.  And that’s the one thing that just isn’t safe to do.

In addition, the customers of coworking spaces, freelancers and independent workers, have been pounded by the shutdown.  And, worse, these independent workers generally work at home part of the time, so they are positions to WAH 100% if needed.  So the customers of coworking spaces are uniquely prepared to forgo the service for extended periods.

Coworking spaces have closed, and many will never reopen.

All this means that my book, “What is Coworking?” (2018) [1] is pretty thoroughly obsolete.

“What is Coworking?”  It’s over, is what it is.

What’s Next?