Coworking will be popular, but will it be “diverse”?

Pretty much everyone agrees that as we return from pandemic isolation, most office work will be done in “hybrid” spaces, with workers splitting time between in-person and remote working.  The trick will be to figure out how to do this well.

This make for an interesting time for coworking spaces.   Coworking has always been a “hybrid” workplace, and generally aims to be a sweet spot for workers and work:  just the right amount of and kind of in-person working.

The most successful coworking spaces have built communities of workers, or have been built by communities of workers (or both).  The best thing is that there can be multiple “communities” in the same area, so different independent workers may find a good fit.  As I have pointed out, unlike conventional organizations, independent workers therefore may choose their workspace and coworkers.  No wonder people like it!

This does raise an important question, though.  The flip side of multiple communities and “good fit”, is the relative homogeneity of the communities, and the separation between them.  Self-selection may make people happy, but it also leads to fragmentation and segregation.  If being “comfortable” means being around “people like me”, this leads to non-diverse workplaces.

This is not just a hypothetical issue.  There have been serious problems in coworking communities.  Shockingly enough, self-selection alone is not a cure for the problem of getting along with others at work.

So, if coworking spaces have raised this question, what does it say about the future of “hybrid workspaces”.   With some workers in and some out of the office at a given time, and people cycling through the office on different schedules, how does this affect worker relations and decision making?

This month, the Deskpass Blog argues that hybrid work can help foster a diverse workplace [1].

First of all, they hit the nail on the head, “company culture has taken a hit since the pandemic”, because proximity is a huge factor.  And continuing with a “hybrid” model retains this fundamental challenge to creating and maintaining the much talked about “company culture”.

The main point of the post is that there is opportunity here, specifically to foster “diversity” as a base for a strong group culture.  So what are the opportunities?

One positive is that a hybrid workforce “widens your talent pool to different locations, economic backgrounds, cultures and skill sets”.  If you can really recruit anyone from anywhere, then, yeah, that’s certainly as diverse as you can get!

Second, hybrid work makes at least some workers happy.  What a concept!  Happier workers are, besides happier, often more effective, and generally stick around.  (Happy workers are not necessarily “diverse”, however.)

A third point is that hybrid work helps mitigate “location biases”, especially in expensive metro areas.  Reducing the need to live near and commute to work is an opportunity for people who can’t afford the cost of living or long commutes.  

In fact, workers are tending to move out of cities this year, finding a better quality of life, yet still able to work remotely.  So even workers who were managing the pain, geographical flexibility is potentially beneficial.

But, as the article sort of points out, none of this actually matters for “culture” or “diversity” unless the organization focuses on those things.  You can have a completely monocultural hybrid workplace just as easy as not.  And you can certainly have dysfunctional culture in a hybrid work situation. Many would say that a hybrid workforce is dysfunctional by default, because people can’t get to know each other.

But…the Deskpass people do have a point that their “flexible offices”, the corporate version of coworking spaces, can be used to build a diverse and vibrant work group.

So I say, make the most of the geographical flexibility and spread your net wide. 

But I would also say that you need to make the most of the in-person part of the hybrid.  Bringing people into the office, only to have them not talk to each other, or only have boring meetings will be a huge mistake.  It’s a waste of very expensive rent!

Learn from coworking communities.  Use the space for networking, for socializing, and for talking to people other than your closest colleagues.

I know that one of my own tools as a team leader was “going walk about”.  Just walking around and being available to anyone who wanted to talk, show me what they were working on, tell me what they were thinking—this is really valuable.  And you can’t do it remotely. This would be one of the things to do in-person.

Another thing missing from the article was child care.  Families with kids, especially mothers with kids, need child care, period.  Working remotely does not solve the problem—unless they can find “flexible office space” that has child care.  And whatever in-person workspace is available must have child care.  Child care way, way more important—especially for “diversity”—than free coffee or game rooms.

(Thanks to Cat Johnson for the pointer to this article via her newsletter.) 

  1. Deskpass, How Hybrid Work Helps Foster A Diverse Workplace, in
  2. May 6, 2021.

What Will Coworking Become?