What Will Coworking Become?  “All Ages Coworking”

It’s inevitable.  Workers get older every day, and, as most workers discover, new hires get “younger” every day.  Colleagues can be decades apart in life and in work experience.

Coworking spaces have historically skewed toward younger workers, but that isn’t inherently necessary.  Self-selected coworking communities do tend toward peer groups with similar age ranges, which has a feedback effect of attracting more “workers like us”, perpetuating the pattern.

But in the bright new world of post-Covid “hybrid” working, remote working and coworking are for everybody.  Including workers of all ages.

This spring Will Kinnear writes to ask “How Do We Create Space That’s Attractive To All Ages?” [1]  It’s a good question.  What does Kinnear suggest?

“The problem for workspaces is age.”

(from [1])

(Well, a problem is age.)

First of all, I have to say that Kinnear’s analysis of the problem is shallow and mostly wrong.  He imagines that older workers date back to some stone age “without computers, mobile phones or any of the digital technology”.  I hate to break it to you, but these older workers are, in fact, the ones who invented that stuff, and have been using it since before you young whippersnappers were born.  So, no, it’s not about grandma who doesn’t know what a computer is. It’s about workers with a decade or two experience using multiple generations of technology.


Anyway, Kinnear is correct that different people have “different expectations for what a workplace should be like, and their needs vary”.  But this is not about technology, it is about culture and experience.  And it is not about age per se.  There are many sources of individual differences in expectation and desires.  (I’d also note that the needs and expectations change according to task and over time—there is no one right answer for all time, even for one worker.)

Kinnear then poses the question,

“So how do you create offices that can suit young talent but also the generation more used to traditional styles of working?”  

Humph.  So there are two kinds of workers, “young talent” and “traditional” non-talent? Right.

Anyway, again.

The main point is, how do you create a workspace in which workers can find a variety of ways to work, to suit their own preferences? 

This is, indeed, the right question.

Unfortunately, Kinnear gives us no answer, except to pay attention to what workers want.  In particular, “Unless a business is only interested in recruiting 25-year-olds, the office space has to appeal to the majority.” (You may wish to consult your legal department about the ramifications of only recruiting people under 30.)

My own view is that this challenge is actually about the social dynamics of the community, not in technology or furniture layout.  Sure, there are features that might attract older workers (child care, for starters) and features that likely won’t (e.g., all night videogame tournaments).  But the thing that will keep older workers is a comfortable set of friendly colleagues of whatever age.  Sound familiar?   That’s what keeps workers of any age.

So focus on the culture, not on the décor and technology.

And, if I might be so bold to suggest:  don’t just hire freshouts as “community managers”.  Include some grey hairs in community leadership.

  1. Will Kinnear, Generational Shift: How Do We Create Space That’s Attractive To All Ages?, in Allwork, April 27, 2022. https://allwork.space/2022/04/generational-shift-how-do-we-create-space-thats-attractive-to-all-ages/

What Will Coworking Become?  Many Workers Do Not Want To Return To The Office

The pandemic closed most offices and pushed office work to remote and at home.  As the pandemic eases, this unplanned experiment continues, as organizations try to move to a new normal.  Many organizations are going to “hybrid” work, with workers in the office part of the time, and remote part of the time.  Or some workers in the office, and some remote.  Or some other combination. No one is quite sure.

Obviously, the persistence of large numbers of remote workers is an opportunity for coworking spaces, which for many workers potentially can be a better workspace than home.  Is “hybrid work” the future of coworking?  If so, what does it mean for workers, organizations, and coworking communities?   How does coworking work with hybrid work?

Of course, things are still very fluid.  For one thing, it seems that many workers don’t want to go back to the office.  So, when bosses require everyone to come in, workers are resisting.  As Peter Sayer puts it, leaders and workers “don’t see eye to eye” [2].

Leaders have good reasons to want folks face to face, including equity and morale.  (They also have dubious reasons, including “that’s how we’ve always done it”.)  Workers have good reasons to not want to burn time commuting in order to enjoy distractions and lousy work conditions.  (Workers also have dubious reasons, including pure self interest.)

Sayer is report in part on a Microsoft “Work Trends” report, which finds that “making hybrid work, work” requires leaders to consider what workers want [1]. What a concept! 

I’d say the top two challenges for organizations and workers would be:

  1. making “flexible” work not “always on”, and
  2. creating social bonds within the organization

The former is critical for remote workers, and the latter is critical for organizations.

Working remotely in a coworking space might actually help on both these fronts.  If the organization defines remote work as mostly done in a remote coworking space rather than home, then it can help everyone keep guardrails.  And if groups of remote workers can gather at coworker spaces, they may be able to build social bonds with colleagues without always going to a central office.

Now, I have to say that this is not quite the original, classic model for coworking, which is 100% flexible on the part of the individual worker.  In fact the coworking space would be operating as a form of satellite office for the organization, rather than a space filled with independent gig workers. 

This means, for instance, that there might well be mandatory in-person meetings at your a coworking space–dictated by your boss.  There might also be limitations on how the workers interact with other workers in the coworking space.  Synergy is great within the organization, but not necessarily with competitors!

For coworking operations, it seems clear that there will be demand for this kind of remote satellite office.  This might require, for instance, standing reservations for offices or suites, and as well as support for high end digital infrastructure.  (Laptops and commodity wifi might not be enough for serious collaborative work.)  There might also need to be provisions for meeting clients and for drop in (non-member) workers at meetings.  All this means that there will have to be contractual arrangements beyond the simple membership and desk rental.

Coworking operations will also need to explore the social dimensions of how to get the most out of a community that includes both independent workers and groups that are part of persistent remote teams.  Obviously, having other workers around is probably very good for the mental health of the workers.  But it may not be possible to have unconstrained sharing. Some projects need to lock the door.

In short, we want everyone to interact as much as possible, but not too much! : – )

Just as a ‘for instance’, I can imagine that the old coworking community classics such as social hours might need to be refined.  Workers on a remote 9-5 satellite office may not be interested at a late night kegger with video games.   But they might be very interested in good child care options.

The idea is, of course, to make coworking something that organizations and workers can use to “make hybrid work, work”.  No one knows exactly what that means or what should be done.

But coworking spaces have one huge asset:  they are designed to be better than working at home.  And lots of people now know they want that, at least part of the time.

So we shall see. Fun times.

  1. Microsoft, Work Trend Index 2022: Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work, in Microsoft – Worklab, March 16, 2022. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/great-expectations-making-hybrid-work-work
  2. Peter Sayer, Return to office? Leaders, workers don’t see eye to eye, study says, in CIO, March 16, 2022. https://www.cio.com/article/306764/return-to-office-leaders-workers-dont-see-eye-to-eye-study-says.html

Book Review: “Out of Office” by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

Out of Office by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen

I’ve been looking at the New Way of Work for a while now, particularly the development of coworking spaces, along with the overall gig economy and remote working.

This new book is a response to the sudden, unplanned pandemic-induced experiment in mass remote working.  Millions of office workers were suddenly required to work from home, ready or not.  And mostly we weren’t ready.

I’ve pontificated on this topic myself, so, yeah, this is something I kind of had to read.

Warzel and Petersen’s basic findings are sort of a mash up of Why We Gather, How To Do Nothing, and The Sum of Us.

So–no real surprises here to anyone who is paying attention.

Though, I must say that none of those books above were sold as business advice, or as “the future of work”, which W & P seems to be.  So it’s interesting to see W & P tie these themes together in a book of business advice about the future of work.

First of all, the authors discovered that this isn’t really about remote work, per se.  It’s about how people work.

“The true issue at hand is not where we will work but how we will work.” (p. 232)

The main theme throughout is that work is broken, and that “flexibility”—at home or not—has generally come to mean working all the time.  This is bad for workers, obviously, and for families and communities. W & P argue that it’s mostly bad for organizations, too. 

This book is a useful survey of the ways that “flexible” work is broken.  Even after decades in the workforce, I learned stuff, including the terms “Hustle Porn” (p. 86) and “LARPing your job” (p. 169).  (These have nothing to do with “gamification”, although, worst case, I guess they could.)

But it’s hard to break out of these patterns, to get off “the treadmill” of continuous, precarious, work.

“We are trying to get off the treadmill so we can remember all the purpose and dignity that can come from the whole of our lives.” ( p. 239)

W & P argue that real flexible work means working less, not working more.  And workers must be allowed to choose when and how to work. 

Achieving this requires guardrails: real rules and norms that prevent “flexible” from becoming “infinite” work.  This also requires trust, between workers and managers, and among workers.  We have to trust each other to get things done well, in the ways they choose, without penalties for taking time for other things.

What do W & P  have to tell us about the future of coworking?

From W & P’s POV, much of the coworking and freelancing propaganda is definitely the wrong stuff

‘Flexibility’ (e.g., renting a bare bones desk by the hour) that mainly enables more work rather than less work is bad for workers, bad for everyone.  From this  point of view, freelancing is mostly the wrong thing for workers, organizations, and society.  The whole gig economy is the logical end of a long history of negative trends.

On the other hand, as I have consistently argued, real coworking is about community, which is mostly the right stuff.  Especially when the solidarity is real, not just rhetorical cover for reduced pay, benefits, and security.

On the other other hand, a coworking community may or may not be connected to the wider surrounding community.  To the degree that coworking communities are self-selected groups of people with similar interests (which is a big part of why workers like them), they are hardly representative of all workers, let alone everyone living in the area. So that’s not good. 

The book discusses the rise of “Zoom Towns”, including the rather lavishly intentional Tulsa project which curated and paid workers to move to Tulsa to work remotely.  (I had not heard of this project.)

It is important to note that, while coworking spaces were involved in Tulsa, and were probably very valuable to some workers, they were only a tiny, relatively insignificant part of the overall effort. Most of the work went into selection of candidates, housing, child care, connecting to non-work activities, and so on. Working at home or in a coworking space or any other workspace was nearly irrelevant to the big picture.

At the moment, it’s still far from clear how coworking mixes into the ‘hybrid’ organizations emerging.  Obviously, remote workers might benefit from working in a coworking space at least some of the time. 

But what happens when your company selects and assigns you to a coworking space?  This is increasingly popular. Is this anything other than a poorly resourced satellite office?  

And to the degree that the worker participates in the culture of his or her local coworking space, they are not participating in the culture of their own organization.  Is this dual loyalty good or bad for workers and  organizations?  I dunno.

In any case, a coworking space, per se, hardly addresses the issues of guardrails and the flexibility to not work.  There are no guardrails in coworking, and the trust, if any, is between otherwise unaffiliated co- workers, not within working groups. 

So, coworking as conventionally designed seems largely irrelevant to W & P’s program to improve work and life.

Hmm.  I didn’t expect that.

  1. Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, New York, Alfred A. Knopft, 2021.

Sensei Elam’s Megatrends 2022

It’s time for end of the year round ups and predictions.

Once again Sensei Liz Elam, long-time leader of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) offers her “Megatrends” [1].   As I have said before, actually she does know what she is talking about, so I always pay attention to these prognostications.

I was happy to see her push back against the tendency, even within GCUC itself, to misdefine coworking to be nothing more than the office rental industry.  “Welcome to Coworking Megatrends 2022! Notice it’s not the flexible workplace trends? (wink, wink)”, she says.

As Liz and me have been saying for years now, coworking is all about community, not desks.

“Coworking is not simply a place to work. Coworking embraces a community and believes that together we are better and will thrive in shared space.” 

So what trends does Elam call out? 

For one thing, “Home should be your haven, not your workspace.” (I strongly agree.)

Like everyone, she is looking at the evolution of working, as organizations try to figure out hybrid working practices, with both in person and remote working.  In this unfolding situation, coworking spaces have the possibility to be a third option between “in the office” and “at home”.

As noted in this blog, Elam sees a great expansion of coworking in “Suburbs and Rural” settings.  Remote working enables geographical distribution of work groups, but workers still need office space some of the time.  So coworking spaces should be located where ever workers live, including outside city centers.  In fact, coworking makes even more sense located near residential areas than in the middle of business districts.

So what should a good coworking space offer? What to workers need and want?

Culture is King”, says Elam.  As noted in this blog, the strength of coworking is a community with a culture.  Each coworking space should serve some workers, expressing an authentic work culture that workers want to enact. 

Different coworking spaces can and should have different cultures—”Choice is the New Black”. (Actually, “choice” has always been the critical ingredient.)

Is coworking the be all and end all?  Definitely not.  Work will be happening in offices of different design, in home offices, unofficial settings, and various coworking spaces.  Elam calls this, “Boundaryless Work”. 

In this article and her other writing throughout the year, Sensei Elam continues to outline her own ideas for what workers want and how to do coworking right.  We may have our own ideas about that.  But you probably should pay attention to what ol’ Liz has to say.  Cuz she definitely has her heat screwed on right.

  1. Liz Elam, Coworking Megatrends 2022, in GCUC Blog, December 7, 2021. https://gcuc.co/coworking-megatrends-2022/

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/