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

Katz on the Value of Learning Stand Up

This month Michael Katz writes about “What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing” [1].

He makes several good points

1. Content and delivery are not the same thing.

2. The audience decides what’s funny.

3. The only way to get better is to practice.

And, of course, “The most important, I think, is to just get started.

On the first point, he emphasizes that you need to decide “who you are”, what he case “voice”, for purposes of a specific message.

And the second point is, of course, you need to pay attention to your audience.  And, as they say, the customer is always right, and you have to pay close attention.

The third point is obvious.  But he also notes that there is always more to learn, and a humble, beginner’s attitude goes a lot way toward getting better.

And, of course, doing something out at the edge of your comfort zone is scary.  Screwing up the courage to do stand up to a bunch of strangers is really hard.  But, compared to that, pitching your own stuff, stuff that you really know and care about, should be easy, right?


This is all good advice.

I’d add a deeper point.  Stand up comedy and improv in general not only force you to put your self out there, they force you to act.  Whatever you try to do, but especially something multifaceted like freelancing, you will do well to act the part.   If you act like a talented, confident professional, then people will treat you like one—and you’ll be a step closer to being good at doing whatever you are trying to do.

Speaking as a psychologist, I’ll note that you are acting out roles in improvised little plays all the time anyway.  It’s called life.  So why not study and practice to be good at this skill?

Furthermore, as I have pointed out many times, coworking can be viewed as a form of improvisational theater, in which workers enact “the future of work”, making it up for themselves.  (See the book!)

So yeah, improv is something I would recommend to everyone*.

By the way, I also recommend pretty much everyone learn a bit origami, just because there are so many useful design insights, and it’s 3D and it’s self-organizing and it’s parsimonious with materials and…  You get the idea.


  1. Michael Katz, What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog, June 23, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/06/23/what-stand-up-comedy-can-teach-us-about-freelancing/

 

* Of course, I am far, far too shy to take this advice myself.  But then, I am not a successful freelancer, am I?  Do as I say, not as I do.

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

What is Coworking?  Let’s Think About What Coworking Will Be

I have been observing and investigation coworking since 2015 or so.  From my earliest explorations, it was very clear to me that the key feature of a coworking space is that it is a face-to-face community.  As Zachary Klaas put it in 2014, coworking is “a respite from our isolation” [1].

As I have put it more than once: “Community, community, community

Furthermore, I have argued for more face-to-face time, and less digital “community” throughout all aspects of life.  “Turn It Off”.

I stand by these arguments.


But, of course, in the face of a global pandemic, we are all forced to isolate.  All we have at this moment is digital community, for better or worse.  (And we should all be thankful that back in the day my generation was down in the basement booting up the Internet designed to survive a nuclear war.  We sure need it now.)

It is impossible to know for sure, but I’m pretty sure that coworking as we knew it has completely halted along with practically everything else.  Freelance workers and coworking space operators are facing extreme losses, no one can work together.  It just isn’t safe.

So whatever coworking used to be, it sure isn’t that right now.


We will make it through this.

But for a blog about “What is Coworking?”, we must surely turn to the question, “What Will Coworking Be Next?

I can’t answer that question today.  But here are a few thoughts.

The gig economy will likely reboot, and there will be plenty of freelancers.  (Who knows whether there will be a living wage, though.)  These workers will still need and want places to work.

Absolutely everybody knows about digital remote working now.  A lot of people are going to be (indeed, already are) hungry—starving—for face-to-face community.

So, yeah, the basic psychological drivers for coworking is and will be there.

The big question is, how will this demand be met?

Another interesting question is how existing coworking communities may weather a period of digital only contact.  One scenario would see communities coming back together in person as soon as it is safe to do so.  But it is also possible that community will disintegrate if the separation is too long.

So, we’ll all stay tuned.


Stay safe.  Be good to each other.  Hang in there.

Peace.


  1. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  2. 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/

 

What is Cowworking?  What Will Coworking Become?

 

How Digital Technology Enables Freelancing

For the past twenty five years or so, many people point out how digital technology, especially digital networks, enable remote working, including freelancing, coworking, and general digital nomadism.

My own view is that the technology is necessary but not sufficient, it enables but does not really drive these trends in work.  (See the book!)

This winter Anna Medina reiterates this case, explainingwhat the cloud means for freelance workers” [2].  Writing in the Freelancers Union blog, she declares cloud technology to be “a game-changer”.

Cloud-based technology has been a significant game-changer responsible for propelling the growth of the freelance industry.” (From [2])

Now, to me, “cloud technology” is as much a business model as a technology.  The stuff in the cloud is pretty much what we had all along in large organizations (and which I helped pioneer).  The new thing is who owns it, and the fact that you basically rent your critical infrastructure rather than try to run it yourself.

I think Medina’s basic point is that this approach (renting form the cloud) is especially beneficial for freelancers.  I would say that it levels the playing field, making it possible for an independent worker to have the same high-quality infrastructure as a member of a large organization.

She lists the kinds of tools available, including Communication, Sharing, and Payments.

I think Medina is completely correct that a lot of contemporary freelancing and coworking would be infeasible without access to these cloud services.  Technologically, the array of services cited would be “the easy ones”, services well perfected long before “the cloud”.  She doesn’t even mention virtual machines specifically, which make possible a variety of “on demand” computing, including software development, simulation, large computations, and lots more.

From my point of view, cloud computing makes a kind of “average” infrastructure available at low cost to even an individual worker.  “Average” isn’t perfect or ideal, but it definitely places a solid floor on the quality of infrastructure, raising all boats.  Only the wealthiest organization could afford the quality that you or anyone can get in the cloud.  That’s good, for sure.

Now, the cloud does not provide everything you need.  For one thing, you need a physical place to work, and most people need other people.  That’s what coworking spaces are for.

But even technologically, cloud users have to “bring your own” stuff: computer and networks, and users have to take care to use the cloud well.

For example, earlier in February in the same blog, Samuel Bocetta discussedHow to secure client data when you work remotely” [1]. The essential point is that, no matter how great and how “secure” cloud services may be, you, the worker, must still take responsibility for protecting you clients and your own information.

Obviously, using well designed cloud services is a good foundation.  But, as Bocetta outlines, you still need to operate defensively and practice safe computing:  passwords, cryptography, and policies.   You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again.

The good news is that the steps he outlines are little different from any Internet user.  The bad news is that they aren’t any more fool proof than general Internet security.  So watch out.

To me, one of the scary parts of freelancing is that, as an independent freelance worker, you are on your own, both responsible and liable for protecting you clients.  One of the great benefits of belonging to a large organization is when you are helped by and at least partly shielded by the larger group.  A big company or university has lawyers on retainer, and also has experts who work hard to defend your systems.  You are not alone.

Yes, cloud computing is certainly a good thing for freelancers.  My own view is that it is an enabler, but not exactly “responsible for propelling the growth of the freelance industry.”  It also is hardly the whole picture.  Freelancers are still “on their own” in many ways.  This is why coworking spaces and communities are so important and valuable for freelancers:  so you aren’t all alone.


  1. Samuel Bocetta, How to secure client data when you work remotely, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 18, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/02/18/how-to-secure-client-data-when-you-work-remotely/
  2. Anna Medina, What the cloud means for freelance workers, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 28, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/02/28/what-the-cloud-means-for-freelance-workers/