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? Johnson says it makes you smarter

This month Sensei Cat Johnson reports that “Coworking is Making Us Smarter”. [2]

OK, I’ll bite.  Explain that to me.

First, she refers to an old survey of coworkers to presented at GCUC in 2015. As in following years, this self-report survey finds that coworkers say they are “happier” and “less lonely” (than working alone, I assume), and that coworking “keeps them sane” (whatever that means).  I have discussed these findings in the past, and there are several chapters in my 2018 book about this topic [3] . (And see my Pecha Kucha talk.)

So how does this make us “smarter”?  This once-was-a-Psych-major wants to know.

Johnson testifies, as many other coworkers have reported, that coworking improves professional skills and opportunities.

She also refers to a 2009 study reported by Ron Friedman, and colleagues [1] which shows that, as Johnson puts it, “emotions, such as motivation, are contagious.”  The study itself has a limited scope, but many studies find that emotions and lots of other behavior are strongly influenced by being part of a group, especially a group with which you identify.

I would say that a coworking community is certainly likely to generate this kind of “contagion”.  Workers are free to choose to join a community of “like minded peers”—people both friendly and attractive, and also recognized as a peer group, and hence socially relevant and worth emulating.  (Note to coworkers:  this means you should be careful about your “attitude”.  A bad attitude will spread as much as a good one.)

So, I can see that coworking makes workers happy, less isolated, and with the right community, might make you more successful and better motivated.  These are all potential benefits of coworking.

And I think that Sensei Cat means to say that (a) it is “smart” to get yourself some of that good stuff, and( b) these good things make you “smarter” by some definition of “smart”.

“By joining a coworking community, you do far more than simply expand your professional network.

“You expand your mind, intelligence and career.” (From [2])

I’m OK with this general idea, though I can’t say that the research supports the claim or not.  With my psychologists hat on, I really don’t know what “smart” (or “intelligent”) means in this context, so I have to leave it as Johnson’s hypothesis.

But, look:  workers like coworking, and participating in a coworking community probably has many social and psychological benefits. (At least some workers, some of the time.)  It really isn’t important whether it makes workers “smarter” or not, it’s probably good for workers, and certainly better than working alone all the time.

  1. Ron Friedman, Edward L. Deci, Andrew J. Elliot, Arlen C. Moller, and Henk Aarts, Motivational synchronicity: Priming motivational orientations with observations of others’ behaviors. Motivation and Emotion, 34 (1):34-38, 2010/03/01 2010. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-009-9151-3
  2. Cat Johnson, Good News! Coworking is Making Us Smarter, in Coworking Out Loud. 2019. https://catjohnson.co/coworking-makes-us-smarter/
  3. 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 Coworking? Ashley Procter Still Believes It Can Transform Communities

This month Sensei Cat Johnson interviewed Canadian “coworking powerhouse” Ashley Proctor about “the potential of coworking to transform neighborhoods, cities, regions and beyond.”  [1]

The “future of work”, hell!  It’s the future of everything!

I have asked whether anyone still believes in the Coworking Manifesto.  Proctor and Johnson clearly do.

Sensei Ashley is very clear about what “genuine” coworking is and is not.

“A genuine coworking space has nothing to do with desks or wifi or space rental—it’s about bringing people together, and dismantling loneliness. We see people focused on building and strengthening communities, and inspiring and empowering members.”

Amen, Sister Ashley!

Proctor looks beyond coworking per se, to other just as valuable activities that “can make an impact on a local economy, and have a social impact“. What does this mean in practice?  If she isn’t specific, it’s because every case is specific.  Her own example is a repurposed building (a disused polices station) in a poor neighborhood.  In this case, improving the community means dealing with poverty right outside the door.

Other cases will be embedded in other communities, and thus have other possibilities and necessities.

Her guiding principle is “lead by example”.

It’s really just that simple, actually.

“Any coworking space can make an impact on a local economy, and have a social impact, as well. Every coworking space can be dismantling loneliness and helping people connect within their community. Whether or not that’s their focus, that’s happening in each space. Every space is empowering neighborhood residents.“

Proctor gets extra points from me with a call for collecting data to demonstrate the (alleged) benefits of coworking.  I see lots of claims, but little evidence to back them up.

Getting decent evidence isn’t easy, but, as she notes, there are (or should be) people who are very interested in these questions.  Find allies, she suggests.  (My own experience has been that there is very little interest is seriously studying these issues.  But there should be.  Keep trying.)

Unfortunately, Procto’s philosophy seems to be a minority in the overall coworking world.  Many workers and operators are focused on business development, of workers and of the workspace enterprise itself.  If “community” is defined to be “the (paying) members’ of the workspace, there is little impact on the street outside.  Coworking makes workers happy, which is good.  But Proctor would say that it can do a lot more than that.

And, of course, there are many people who are focused on furniture and layout , which I think is irrelevant to “community” of any sort, and certainly contributes nothing to any wider social impact.  Furniture doesn’t change the world, people change the world.

To be fair, there is an inherent tension between the needs of independent workers and the desire to serve the whole local community.  Workers need infrastructure, companionship, and child care, among other things.  A community needs jobs, public space, and decent places to live, among other things.  It is difficult to meet all the needs of everyone, in one operation, and not necessarily wise to try to do too many things at once.

Clearly, Sensei Proctor has her head screwed on right.  She has an inspiring vision, and seems to still be living out the “Coworking Manifesto”.

  1. Cat Johnson, The Social And Economic Impact Of Coworking: A Q&A With Ashley Proctor, in allwork. 2019. https://allwork.space/2019/03/the-social-and-economic-impact-of-coworking-a-qa-with-ashley-proctor/