Elam on Coworking in 2020

It’s that time of the year—time for recaps and predictions for next year.  One of the pundits to watch is Sensei Liz Elam of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference.

So, what’s on Elam’s mind this year.

Looking back, she sees a lot of girls in 2019.  As in female-oriented coworking operations and the Women Who Cowork alliance.  This is part of the continuing fluorescence of what Elam calls “niche” coworking, which I would just call “coworking”.

As a founder of GCUC Elam has been caught in the cultural struggles between “authentic” coworking and the “service office industry”.  She seems to be regaining her footing this year, flatly declaring:

To be clear: 

“Flex = Space-as-a-service 

“Coworking = Focused on community 

“You choose where you land.

“To be clear, GCUC is a coworking conference.

And, by the way, “WeWork isn’t coworking

So, take that!

Elam has also been a leader in advocating that community coworking is an antidote to lonliness, and therefore is a key part of health and wellness.

For 2020, she has some generic predictions (prices will either go up or down, coworking spaces will get larger and smaller).

Sensei Elam has her own views on what will drive coworking growth in 2020, and these are classic Elam:

  1. Real Estate Costs: Coworking allows you to take it off the books

  2. Worker Disengagement: 66% of their workers are disengaged. Coworking, on the other hand, makes employees happier, healthier and more engaged.

  3. Mental Wellness: The most expensive healthcare issue for all corporations globally is the mental health crisis. If connection cures the disease of addiction then community can cure the disease of loneliness. 89% of coworkers reported being happier in a coworking space.

  4. Attracting and Retaining Talent: Gen Z not only doesn’t want to work in your dated office, they won’t. They need space that they choose.

She predicts a recession someday, which will “hurt”.  My own view is that it will hurt fast and hard, because the gig economy is basically designed to shed workers in an instant.  Coworking will dive early and sharply, and I can’t help but think that many operations will fail.

Elam argues that “community” still is “is the secret sauce of coworking” (which it always was).  She also asserts that “community” “can’t be measured, seen or touched”.  She wants to “level up”, and “figure out how to measure community”.

Excuse me.  I was an Anthropology major, and have a degree in Social Psychology.  We actually can observe and measure community.  <<Call me.>>

She also wants to “scale it [i.e., “community”] in a teachable way”.  I’m not sure what that means exactly. However, I do have to point out that “community” is something that doesn’t actually scale up.  And, for my money, I wonder why you even want to scale up.  The point of community is that you know each other, which is generally limited to 200 people or less.

IMO, the goal is to go wide, not big.  We need lots of opportunities for small, local communities (i.e., niches).

Maybe that’s what Sensei Liz is thinking, I’m not sure.


My experience has been that Elam has her head screwed on right, so everyone should pay attention to what she says.

“How long have we as an industry been explaining that WeWork isn’t coworking?”


  1. Liz Elam, Coworking Megatrend Predictions for 2020, in GCUC Blog. 2019. https://gcuc.co/coworking-megatrend-predictions-for-2020/

 

Coworking Trends 2019

Sensei Liz Elam, founder of Global Coworking UnConference, has posted her annual “Coworking Megatrend Predictions

Looking back, she gives herself credit for a lot of predictions coming true in 2018.   As is often the case, her predictions were generally accurate, though not necessarily in detail.  For example, WeWork continued to grow, but a lot of the growth is taking the form of diversifying into other businesses.  It’s debatable whether these businesses are “coworking” or not.  And, by the way, WeWork is experiencing debt problems, so its growth will almost certainly be followed by contraction.

Anyway, Elam’s 2019 predictions are not all that different than 2018. I.e., more of the same.  Her headlines are:

  • Real Estate
  • Differentiation
  • Consolidation
  • Design
  • Wellness
  • Coworking Nomenclature
  • Tools for Coworking

“Real Estate” is “the sleeping giant” that has awakened to the concept of on-demand workspaces.  It’s pretty obvious that big real estate operations will want to get a big slice of coworking.  How well this will work out, is less than clear.  (And Elam’s comments are rather Delphic,  something about “as the power shifts from the owner to the tenant”.)

“Differentiation” and “Consolidation” are an interesting pair.  Big money is building large workplaces and buying up (or killing off) other operations, consolidating ownership.  At the same time, Elam correctly notes that a key to coworking success is “niche spaces”.  From the point of view of the real estate industry, a “niche” is a matter of clever branding.  My own view is that this is the heart and soul of community coworking, and there really are nothing except niches.  How you can consolidate and also be authentically community oriented is the great contradiction for Elam’s industrial trends.

Another “sleeping giant” is the design industry, which she notes is showing greater interest in coworking spaces.  This goes hand in hand with the entry of big money, of course, and an uncharitable observer might say that designers are simply marketing the same old stuff to a newly trendy market.

Elam has been advocating “Wellness” for quite a while.  Here she totally understands that wellness is not really about design (sure, natural light is great, etc.), but more about people.  This isn’t limited to coworking, of course, but a thriving coworking community is likely to foster the kind of “CheckYoMate”  action that she advocates. (I’ll comment that gigantic, corporate workplaces, and even fancy “luxury” workplaces are generally not so great for this kind of wellness.  Low cost, local community workplaces are going to be a lot healthier.)

Elam is Delphic about coworking nomenclature.  She has taken a strong stand on this in the past, but in this forum takes the co-opting of the term “coworking” by designers and real estate as a sign of victory for coworking, “an indication of a huge shift and a new emergence in the market where the power shifts to the tenant.”  I don’t know who is the “tenant” here, or what this supposed power shift might be.

Finally, Elam points out that there is a minor boom in “tools”, mainly for operating a coworking space.  This is a trend I predicted a long time ago, based on my observation that there are a lot of common tasks that could easily be automated.  But, putting my software developer hat back on, I’ll say that this looks like an area where it will be hard to make much money off the software.  So I’d be very surprised if this area grows very much.

Finally, Elam boasts a “bombshell” prediction: “Coworking will replace the office.”

I’m sure it looks this way from the perspective of the real estate industry (where Elam now sits), but it’s kind of obviously wrong.

OK, I guess if you define “office” narrowly, and by “replace” you mean, “make workers provide their own office space”, then, sure. A lot of companies will Uberize their desk workers, making everyone BYO.  (This will include the inevitable “mandatory optional” requirement to rent your desk from a specific coworking space. Not coworking so much as charging workers for their desk.)

But if you take “office” to mean “workplace”, then obviously there will have to be a lot of workspaces that are not “coworking” in any meaningful sense.  I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again:  there are broad swaths of workers and work that are not suited to coworking for one reason or another.  E.g., Work processes involving atoms rather than bits (think fabrication or lab work), work that involves human interactions (think medical services), work that is proprietary or otherwise highly secured (trade secrets? Record keeping?), or businesses that need a branded space.

Furthermore, I’ll point out the related fact that the number of Freelance and independent workers is small and not growing.  So it is far from clear how much coworking will grow.

I have tremendous respect for Sensei Elam, but I think this “bombshell”  will surely fizzle.


  1. Liz Elam, Coworking Megatrend Predictions for 2019 (and a Bombshell), in Liz Elam Articles. 2018. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coworking-megatrend-predictions-2019-bombshell-liz-elam/

 

What is Coworking? Architects Haven’t A Clue

What is Coworking?  Well, I literally wrote a book on that question [3], and I’m not really sure what the answer is.

But I’m pretty sure that the discussions at AIA reported by Carolyn Cirillo are totally wrong [1].

She reports that professional office designers think that coworking “needs a new definition”, essentially to match the thing that they do.

[Coworking is] about how the real estate, design and construction industry deliver that product in a more systematic or productized way.

Who cares what workers actually do?  Who cares what coworking actually is? The important thing is to “deliver that product” (in a “productized way”).

For these professionals, it’s all about building office space. So let’s redefine the whole world to fit the business model of the real estate industry.

Sigh.


I’m not the only one who strongly disagrees with this bogosity.

Sensei Liz Elam, founder of Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) replied, “Coworking Does Not Need A New Definition” [2].

She lists what Coworking really is about, with item number one being “Community”.

Exactly.

We would like to suggest that the Real Estate industry, AIA, and others that don’t like the term coworking stick to the always bland “flexible office,” or “serviced office,”

You tell ‘em, Elam!

I’ve had my differences with Sensei Liz, but she does know what she is talking about.  And she hasn’t forgotten the truly important things that make coworking coworking.


  1. Carolyn Cirillo, Why Coworking Needs A New Definition, in AllWork. 2018. https://allwork.space/2018/11/why-coworking-needs-a-new-definition/
  2. Liz Elam, Coworking Does Not Need A New Definition, in LinkedIn – Liz Elam. 2018. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coworking-does-need-new-definition-liz-elam/
  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, Self-published: Urbana. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.com/