Preface To The Book

Here is an excerpt from the Preface of “What is Coworking?”

0.1 How I Came to Write the Book

In the last two decades, we have seen accelerating changes in the global economy and an emerging “new way of work.” Enabled by technology and driven by contemporary capitalism, the new economy is characterized not only by massive concentration of wealth [12, 1] but an “on-demand” or “gig” economy [2, 11]. Increasing numbers of workers are classified as independent contractors or freelancers, working from contract to contract.

Seismic shifts in our economy have moved us further away from the conventional 9-to-5 job—when people worked for a single employer, sometimes for their entire career, and relied on their employer for benefits like health insurance and retirement savings. Instead, as the 2016 Freelancing in America survey finds, a whopping 55 million Americans have joined the independent workforce. ([4], p. 6)

This may be “the future of work” ([7, 6, 10]), but I worry about the future of workers.

As I explored the “new way of working”, I learned about coworking spaces, local workplaces where the gig economy happens.

It appears that, coworking spaces are one of the principle places where the “gig economy” happens. In their local coworking space, independent workers find the support and inspiration of a community of peers that cannot be found working alone in a home office or café.

With a background in academic computer science and social science, I was intrigued by these new, technologically enabled workspaces. It seemed to me that these contemporary workspaces did not seem to fit conventional models of work, organizational psychology, or office technology. But coworking spaces and coworkers have received surprisingly little attention in academia.

My interest was further piqued by the development of several such spaces in my relatively small hometown. With a plethora of other workspaces available, why would we want or need a coworking space? Even more interesting, it was obvious that these local spaces were significantly different from each other, and seemed to serve different populations of workers.

As I looked at these diverse workspaces, I wondered what exactly is coworking?

As I began to explore the question, I discovered that coworking spaces are designed and organized in many ways, creating substantially different “vibes.” Notably, it doesn’t seem that the physical space itself or specific attributes of the space are critical, and neither are the spaces necessarily physically different from conventional office spaces or from public spaces such as libraries or coffee shops.

Examining the technical infrastructure, I discovered that digital technology and networks are necessary, but hardly defines coworking.  So, coworking is technologically enabled, but it certainly is not technologically driven or determined.

Coworking operations are organized in many ways. There are large, international chains, smaller locally run spaces, and tiny (literally) kitchen-table spaces. Some coworking spaces are noisy, nerf-gun-battling, high-tech play spaces a la Silicon Valley. Some are business incubators full of tech startups, others are filled with writers and artists, and yet others are social enterprises dedicated to local community development.

How can these disparate social spaces all be coworking spaces? What are the essential features they share?

The most important part of the answer turned out to be community, community, community.

The secret ingredient that makes coworking different from just renting a desk is the development of a community of independent workers who work in the space. This community is a replacement for a collegial corporate culture found in a conventional workplace.

Essentially, coworking is an antidote to the social isolation of independent freelance workers. This intervention has been astonishingly successful and deserves serious attention.

For one thing, it is abundantly clear that many coworkers like coworking; coworking seems to make workers happy. Workers also report other benefits, including increased productivity, creativity, and serendipitous collaboration. Far from being a second choice, many workers find coworking is much more desirable than working in a conventional office

Another intriguing observation is that coworking communities are usually consciously created and maintained by a cadre of professional community leaders, who have developed a growing body of knowledge and practice. These leadership practices seem to be drawn from many sources, including conventional human resources, hospitality industries, community organizing, psychotherapy, and even theater. These leaders and their leadership practices have not, so far as I know, been carefully studied.

Clearly, there is something interesting going on here. In 2014, I began to blog regularly about coworking, which has led to this book.

0.2. Whom Is This Book For?

First, this book is intended to be a source of important questions to be considered by ambitious academic researchers.

Coworking spaces and coworking are an interesting contemporary sociotechnical phenomenon, well worthy of study by social scientists from several disciplines, including anthropology, social psychology, organizational behavior, labor economics, architecture, and even applied computer science. Unfortunately, I have found little academic literature and little interest. For academic researchers, this appears to be a “blue ocean” topic of study.

This book should also be of interest to policy makers, activists, and anyone who is interested in the future of workers and the organization of society. There are many important ideas here and possibly some inspirational lessons as well.

Coworking is quite diverse and can be viewed from many perspectives. Much of what has been said and written about coworking is valuable but limited to a relatively narrow viewpoint. This book attempts to correct this tendency, providing a broad and multifaceted view of coworking. I also raise and try to answer some deep questions that are seldom considered, such as why does coworking seem to make workers happy?

I hope that this book will be of interest to coworkers, operators, and especially coworking community leaders, who seek a wider understanding of what coworking is and can be.

0.3. What You Will Find Here

This book offers a broad view of coworking, exploring a number of perspectives. I think this is one of the broadest and most thorough examinations of coworking to date.

I review what has been said and written about coworking and coworkers. I point out connections and relationships to social science research and show where coworking has drawn upon practices from a number of fields to create something new.

I also offer some of my own theories to understanding aspects of coworking. These may suggest directions for future investigation.

There are some key topics and questions to consider:

  • What is the role of technology? coworking is technologically enabled, but not technologically “determined”. The ubiquitous technology is put to use to create a diverse array of communities.
  • How does it work? How are coworking spaces organized, and how are they sustained? What do people do in a coworking space?
  • How well does it work and why? Coworkers consistently report that they are highly satisfied with coworking and generally “thrive.” What makes coworkers so happy and successful (assuming they really are)?

0.4. What You Won’t Find Here

I certainly hope that this book offers interesting and useful perspectives for anyone interested in or involved with coworking. However, there are several things that this book might have been but really isn’t.

This is not a personal testimony about coworking, and neither is it a how-to guide for operating a coworking space. There are plenty of such available, and I point toward many of them.

Neither is this book a shopping guide or survey of coworking spaces. I do not attempt to rate, rank, or recommend any specific coworking spaces. There are already many such surveys and guides.

0.5. Sources and Methods

There are tens of thousands of coworking spaces around the globe, and I could not possibly sample more than a few. The examples I discuss in this book are interesting and instructive cases, but my sample is not scientific, complete, or necessarily representative.

This book is primarily based on exploration of the Internet and academic literature, as well as brief and certainly unrepresentative personal encounters with individual coworkers and operators. I have visited a very few spaces and attended one large conference (the Global Coworking UnConference 2016 [5]).

This is admittedly a limited and incomplete methodology. This book is not a survey of coworking spaces or coworkers, and it does not present firsthand ethnographic data or interviews with practitioners and community members.

Even so, I have found an overabundance of materials on the Internet sufficient for this and several additional books. (How did we do research before we invented the Internet?) This book has grown out of a critical analysis of these diverse materials, seeking to synthesize some general views.

My sources include

  • Home pages—Every coworking space has a web presence, which is intended to advertise and recruit members. These materials reveal much about the culture and “vibe” of the workspace and its community and tell us much about the diversity of coworking.
  • Documentation—Many coworking spaces have extensive blogs and other digital materials that explain everything from philosophy to profiles of coworkers (e.g., WeWork [15], NextSpace [9], Seats2Meet [13]).
  • Anecdotes—There are many testimonials by coworkers describing their experience and evaluations of coworking.
  • Tutorials—There is a growing body of how-to guides for coworking community operators and leaders.
  • Trade publications—There are blogs and digital magazines (e.g., New Worker Magazine [8], Deskmag [3]), as well as coverage in related publications about Freelancing, the sharing economy, digital nomadism, and so on.
  • The coworking movement—The global coworking movement [14] is an Internet phenomenon styled after open-source projects and internet campaigns.
  • Conferences—The Global Coworking UnConference meets several times per year, and dozens of regional conferences happen each year.

In addition, there is a small but growing amount of academic literature on coworking, including ethnographic observations and a few surveys.

0.6. Plan of the Book

The book is organized into five sections that examine coworking from different perspectives.

The first chapter introduces coworking with a brief history and definitions and a handful of illustrative examples of contemporary coworking. Chapter 1 concludes with some deep and important questions that will be explored throughout the book.

Part I. Space + Community

The first part considers the fundamental “equation” of coworking:

Coworking = Space + Community

Chapter 2 surveys the common elements and diversity of the physical coworking space, including technical infrastructure and “amenities.” Chapter 3 examines the critical social features of coworking, namely the community. This leads to questions of who are coworkers, and what do they do in their coworking space?

Part II. Organization and Leadership

The second part considers the organization and leadership of coworking spaces. Chapter 4 looks at the diversity of business models and organizational strategies used in coworking spaces. Chapter 5 explores the fascinating role of community leaders, who play a crucial role in the success of the community and its workers. These professional community leaders draw on techniques from a number of fields, including human resources and social psychology.

III. How Well Does It Work? And Why?

Part III examines what is known about the benefits of coworking for workers and their work.

Chapter 6 looks at provocative research findings that coworking makes workers happy. The research also suggests that coworkers thrive and experience improved productivity, creativity, and business networking.

Chapter 7 considers possible explanations for these findings. Are the results to be taken at face value? If so, how well do they extend to other workers and places? Alternatively, are there confounding factors to consider, such as poor sampling, self-selection, or placebo effects?

Chapter 7 also outlines my hypothesis that coworking can be described as a form of “participatory improvised theater”: the idea that a coworking space is the stage upon which workers are invited to enact a narrative about “the new way of work.”

Part IV. Coworkers of the World, Unite!

Part IV describes the global coworking movement and the evolution of ideas about coworking as a global phenomenon.

Chapter 8 considers the history of the idea of “the coworking movement,” and The Coworking Manifesto [14]. In recent years, some have sought to rewrite this narrative, declaring coworking to be a segment of the emerging “service office industry” or as a “platform” for the new economy.

Part V. Conclusion: What Is Coworking?

The last part concludes with a return to the original question, “what is coworking?”

Chapter 9 summarizes what we know about coworking: coworking is all about community, which is what delivers the benefits and attracts workers. The physical space itself is essential as a stage upon which the community is acted out. Chapter 10 wraps up with some speculation on the future of coworking. Coworking can be sustained and will grow but only by diversifying.

Chapter References

  1. Boushey, Heather, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum. 2017. After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Chase, Robin. 2015. Peers, Inc.: How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism. New York: PublicAffairs.
  3. Deskmag. 2016. “Deskmag: The Coworking Magazine”, accessed January, 2018.
  4. Freelancers Union. 2016. Freelancing in America: 2016. New York: Freelancers Union and Upwork
  5. Global Coworking Unconference Conferences (GCUC) 2018. “Global Coworking Unconference Conferences (GCUC) ”, accessed January, 2018.
  6. Horowitz, Sara. 2012. The Freelancer’s Bible. New York: Workman Publishing.
  7. Liquid Talent. 2015. “Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it.” (accessed January, 2018).
  8. New Worker Magazine. 2016. About. Accessed January, 2018.
  9. NextSpace. 2016. “NextSpace”, accessed January, 2016.
  10. Olma, Sebastian. 2012. “The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0.” (accessed January 2018).
  11. Oxford International Institute. 2016. “Introducing the iLabour Project”, accessed January, 2018.
  12. Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  13. Seats2Meet. 2016. “Seats2Meet – Connecting and empowering you to excel”, accessed January, 2018.
  14. The Coworking Wiki. 2015. “Coworking Manifesto (global – for the world) ” The Coworking Wiki.
  15. WeWork. 2015. “WeWork: Create Your Life’s Work”, accessed January, 2018.