What is Coworking? It Can Be Out In The Country

Living out here in the flyover states, I have been watching how coworking might happen outside cities.

This month Sensei Cat Johnson interviewed Torill Bye Wilhelmsen about her coworking space Fjellflyt (“mountain flow”), in the Norwegian countryside [1].

In a small town (pop 3500), “there are not a lot of entrepreneurs to recruit”.  There actually was shared office space available, but Wilhelmsen wanted to create a community of coworkers, not just offices.

How did she do it?  She spent a year getting to know here neighbors.  The coworking space opened only after she created the community.

We invited people for dinner in our home, we’ve had wine and cheese evenings, we’ve gone on trips together, we’ve taken our families on outdoor adventures, we make dinner in the evenings, the adults have gone on mountain biking or kayaking trips, or other social activities.”

Now that’s what I call “community leadership”!

Her coworking space is also kind of “destination” coworking.  Located in a wonderful area of National Parks, many of her community have moved out from the city to find a nice life.  Obviously, not every rural area is as attractive to refugees from the smoke.

Her community is also focused on “creatives”, including actors, writers, designers, programmers, and, she says, one “ecological, small-scale” farmer.  With the exception of the farmer and mountain lodge business, this is not that different from many urban coworking communities, is it?

Wilhelmsen also says that her coworkers were remote working from home.  This is the classic use case for coworking:  a respite from the loneliness and isolation of working at home.  This, too, is pretty much the same as urban coworking.

Special challenges, aside from low population?  Connectivity cannot be taken for granted, and is actually an important asset for the workers.

Special advantages?  Well, most coworking communities are not recruited one by one over the dinner table, are they?

One open question is how this fits with the “native” residents and the long term health of the rural communities.

Reading between the lines of the interview, it seems that most of the interest is from “immigrants” up from the city.  The locals are involved in their own businesses, such as tourism.  I suspect that young people who want to be “creatives” probably leave town to go to the bigger city.  So, with a local coworking community, will more local kids stay home, or maybe come back home?  If so, that would be a huge benefit to the rural area.


  1. Cat Johnson, Bringing Coworking To A Norwegian Mountain Town: A Q&A With Torill Bye Wilhelmsen, in AllWork. 2019. https://allwork.space/2019/07/bringing-coworking-to-a-norwegian-mountain-town-a-qa-with-torill-bye-wilhelmsen/

 

What is Coworking? It might be at a Hotel

Many view a coworking space as a sector of the hospitality industry, and, indeed, hotels have provided temporary workspace for many years.   Now some hotels are opening “coworking spaces” [1].

Coworking is in demand, and hotels already have the space and service infrastructure to cater to the needs of flexible workers.

As Sensei Cat Johnson says, “Coworking in hotels is a thing, and it’s not going away.”

So what does coworking at a hotel mean?  And what does it have to do with coworking in general?

Jo Meunier describes a variety of business models [1].  Within a hotel, a coworking space is available as temporary workspace for guests and, potentially, for local workers.  Hotel guests are often working “alone, together”, and the coworking environment presumably makes this a bit nicer and, ideally, less isolated.  I have spent a lot of time feeling alone in hotels, so I can see the point.

For local workers, the hotel offers glitzy surroundings, if you like that kind of thing.  (Personally, I am just nauseated by the “luxury” décor of fancy hotels.)  In some cases, the coworkers may get access to the “amenities” of the hotel as part of the deal.  So, maybe you would like working at the Ritz, and getting access to the spa, room service, etc.

The space might be “branded” for the hotel.  Or, a local or global coworking operation might to operate a branded space within the hotel.  In the latter case, workers would presumably be able to connect with other workers in the area as part of a coworking community.

What about community?

Which brings us to the 64 million dollar question, “what about community?

“The big question for coworking operators is, what about community?”

If you think that coworking is all about community, community, community (as I do), you have to wonder just how the transient population of a hotel will foster a feeling of community.  After all, these workers may share nothing except that they don’t live here.  These are peers, perhaps, but not necessarily “like-minded”.  (One reason why I feel so isolated at hotels is that I really have nothing in common with most business travelers.)

Meunier notes this challenge, but notes that hotels have strong offers of customer oriented service and amenities [1].  Frankly, I don’t think these things make up for a lack of community.

It is clear to me, then, why contracting with a coworking operation might be a good way to go.  The hotel’s space can be an outcrop of a local community, which could be quite attractive especially compared to sitting along in your room.

Is This Really Coworking?

I suspect that some of these operations will be basically just short-term office rental.  Probably pretty expensive office rental, considering the venues.

Other operations might really be a corporate coworking space, with a bit of added glitz.  Not my cup of tea, but maybe good for some (well funded) workers.

I would be very surprised if much in the way of long term community develops in such a space.  In that sense, it isn’t going to be very successful coworking, however “nice” the amenities.

I guess we’ll see.


  1. Jo Meunier, Everything You Need To Know About Coworking In Hotels, in AllWork. 2019. https://allwork.space/2019/05/everything-you-need-to-know-about-coworking-in-hotels/

 

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/