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.

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.

It’s Coworking Day – Surface Your Purpose

September 9 is International Coworking Day (not to be confused with National Coworking Day, 6 June). 

Over the last 18 months we all have learned to work remotely, like or not.  This year coworking is celebrating a rebirth of interest in coworking spaces, as people ease back into offices, and organizations contemplate a future of “hybrid” work practices.

As I have argued before, coworking is potentially just the right thing for workers who sometimes commute to the office, sometimes work from home, and sometimes want to work near home but not in the main office.  And frankly, if a coworking space is a good fit, you might want to spend a lot of time there, rather than home.

What are the variables that might determine a good fit?

Well, Sensei Cat Johnson has a little list [1]. Sensei Cat has always had her head screwed on right, so pay attention.

Her top three items are WiFi, coffee and creamer.  I’d say these are is necessary but not sufficient, especially since a good coffee shop covers these bases, no?

The core is items 4-7:  Connection, Belonging, Professional development, Professional connections.  Community, community, community.

And the rest is mere infrastructure….  Chairs, sanitation, provision for separating phone conversations from quiet work.  And so on.

This is a great list, and I know it is based on years of experience.

My own summary would be this.  Without WiFi and coffee, it’s not actually usable office space.  The key is, as it always has been, Community, Community, Community.  “Belonging” is basically the whole point.

If you’ve got that Wifi, coffee and community, everything else can be worked around.

And if you don’t believe me, Sensei Cat included two last points, to cement the point: “Purpose” and “Community”. 

“A strong community is the intangible that money can’t buy and data can’t pin down. “

From [1]

“Purpose” is an interesting one, and very definitely Cat Johnson-y:  “People want purpose in their lives and work.”

In my view, this is something that coworking leadership helps enunciate, and both creates and emerges from the development of a community. Sensie observes that “coworking spaces are full of people living a life of their design, digging deeper into their best self, and finding purpose in their days” .

And so, an important goal for coworking leaders is to, and I quote, “Surface this”. 

So there’s a motto for 2021:  Surface your Purpose.

From Rene at da.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Surfacing Our Porpoise….
From Rene at da.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Cat Johnson, 25+ Things Members Want From Your Coworking Space, in Cat’s Blog, August 3, 2021.

In Coworking, A Thousand Flowers Are Blooming

As I predicted coworking is coming back, and there are plenty of seats available. As Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner’s headline says  “Co-Working Spaces Are Back. And There Are Many, Many Options [2].  As she reports, there is pent up demand for face to face interaction and a vast oversupply of office space.

This means workers have many more choices (and who says you have to pick only one coworking space?)  Not only the old, pre-pandemic spaces, but new options including restaurants open for workers in the daytime, hotels, spaces in residential buildings, and many “smaller, resourceful co-working initiatives”.

As predicted here.

Let a thousand flowers boom” has always been my mantra for coworking.

Some of the new initiatives are things that I’d like to see succeed.  For one thing, some of the coworking spaces are near where the people live, i.e., instead of commuting, go to a coworking space near home.  This is surely a good thing, especially if you get to meet a bunch of other people who are also not commuting. This is the close in version of “zoom towning”.

Of course, the current crop of daisies has some dubious sprouts in the mix. 

One so-called “coworking” space rents you a pod, with no human contact at any point.

How is this “coworking” at all?, I ask.  This is a capsule hotel with a desk instead of a bed.

Another venture (in the Bay area naturally) is doing the Airbnb thing, renting you space in someone else’s apartment [1].

I’m not really seeing why I want to work at home in someone else’s home?  (OK, I guess you leave your kids at home, and the rental better not come with kids included.)

My own view is that these concepts will probably fail because they misunderstand the essential point of coworking:  to find a community of like-minded workers

So, work pods are basically pointless as far as I’m concerned.  About as useful as a phone booth—which is useful when you need it, but probably not if you have to pay by the hour.

Home coworking has been around for quite a while (remember Jelly?)  It can be really, really cool, bringing together a neighborhood, making friends, knitting, baking cookies.  But inviting strangers to use your home while you are not there is really not building community. So I really dunno about this app–it depends on how you use it.

We still don’t know how the new hybrid office will work out.  But remote workers will not be short of places to work.

The bottom line is, there are lots of choices for workers right now, which is a very good thing. 

And I hope remote workers will be able to find comfortable and mutually helpful communities of fellow workers, whatever that means to each of them.

  1. Aayat Ali, Bay Area Startup Is The Airbnb Of Coworking Spaces, in Allwork, May 16, 2021.
  2. Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner, Co-Working Spaces Are Back. And There Are Many, Many Options, in New York Times. 2021: New York.

Coworking Spaces Will Be Important in “Zoom Towns”

I have noted the pandemic driven trend to dispersed, hybrid workspaces.

This summer, Aayat Ali gives me the word we didn’t know we needed:  Zoom Towns [1].

Forced to work from home, some workers have moved out of city centers to suburban or exurban homes.  Remote work works fine as long as you’ve got connectivity, so why not get out of a depressing shut down city? 

And some places have been trying to entice workers to move there, with subsidies and other presents.  These “Zoom Towns” hope to beef up local economies with a slice of the talent and jobs that have been concentrated in the major cities, especially on the coasts.

As Ali’s title suggests, it’s not clear how long this trend might be sustained.

On the plus side, this is certainly a trend that has been growing slowly, even before the pandemic.  And it seems that many organizations have discovered that they can function without everyone being in the same office all the time.  So there is a lot of talk about “hybrid” workspaces, with only some workers in the office some of the time. 

On the other hand, some organizations either can’t or won’t go this way. So workers may soon face either longer commutes, relocation back to the city, or a change of job.  (This summer is certainly seeing a lot of job changing.)

Coworking spaces might play a role in this hybrid working model.  Remote workers have always been key customers for coworking spaces, in fact they are literally what coworking was invented for.  So a successful “Zoom Town” will likely have quite a few coworking spaces, and, I would say, a variety of different coworking spaces. (With childcare.)

These spaces could provide a local community of “zoomers”, as well as on-demand meeting spaces for remote corporations and other features we haven’t realized we need.

Even better, the remote zoomers can mix and meet and collaborate with local workers, companies, and start ups; spreading knowledge and human networks out into the talent pools out here in flyover country.

So, if you want to try to succeed as a Zoom Town, I suggest you look to create a rich mix of coworking spaces.

  1. Aayat Ali, Zoom Towns: Fad Or Future?, in, July 12, 2021.