What Will Coworking Become?  Many Workers Do Not Want To Return To The Office

The pandemic closed most offices and pushed office work to remote and at home.  As the pandemic eases, this unplanned experiment continues, as organizations try to move to a new normal.  Many organizations are going to “hybrid” work, with workers in the office part of the time, and remote part of the time.  Or some workers in the office, and some remote.  Or some other combination. No one is quite sure.

Obviously, the persistence of large numbers of remote workers is an opportunity for coworking spaces, which for many workers potentially can be a better workspace than home.  Is “hybrid work” the future of coworking?  If so, what does it mean for workers, organizations, and coworking communities?   How does coworking work with hybrid work?

Of course, things are still very fluid.  For one thing, it seems that many workers don’t want to go back to the office.  So, when bosses require everyone to come in, workers are resisting.  As Peter Sayer puts it, leaders and workers “don’t see eye to eye” [2].

Leaders have good reasons to want folks face to face, including equity and morale.  (They also have dubious reasons, including “that’s how we’ve always done it”.)  Workers have good reasons to not want to burn time commuting in order to enjoy distractions and lousy work conditions.  (Workers also have dubious reasons, including pure self interest.)

Sayer is report in part on a Microsoft “Work Trends” report, which finds that “making hybrid work, work” requires leaders to consider what workers want [1]. What a concept! 

I’d say the top two challenges for organizations and workers would be:

  1. making “flexible” work not “always on”, and
  2. creating social bonds within the organization

The former is critical for remote workers, and the latter is critical for organizations.

Working remotely in a coworking space might actually help on both these fronts.  If the organization defines remote work as mostly done in a remote coworking space rather than home, then it can help everyone keep guardrails.  And if groups of remote workers can gather at coworker spaces, they may be able to build social bonds with colleagues without always going to a central office.

Now, I have to say that this is not quite the original, classic model for coworking, which is 100% flexible on the part of the individual worker.  In fact the coworking space would be operating as a form of satellite office for the organization, rather than a space filled with independent gig workers. 

This means, for instance, that there might well be mandatory in-person meetings at your a coworking space–dictated by your boss.  There might also be limitations on how the workers interact with other workers in the coworking space.  Synergy is great within the organization, but not necessarily with competitors!

For coworking operations, it seems clear that there will be demand for this kind of remote satellite office.  This might require, for instance, standing reservations for offices or suites, and as well as support for high end digital infrastructure.  (Laptops and commodity wifi might not be enough for serious collaborative work.)  There might also need to be provisions for meeting clients and for drop in (non-member) workers at meetings.  All this means that there will have to be contractual arrangements beyond the simple membership and desk rental.

Coworking operations will also need to explore the social dimensions of how to get the most out of a community that includes both independent workers and groups that are part of persistent remote teams.  Obviously, having other workers around is probably very good for the mental health of the workers.  But it may not be possible to have unconstrained sharing. Some projects need to lock the door.

In short, we want everyone to interact as much as possible, but not too much! : – )

Just as a ‘for instance’, I can imagine that the old coworking community classics such as social hours might need to be refined.  Workers on a remote 9-5 satellite office may not be interested at a late night kegger with video games.   But they might be very interested in good child care options.

The idea is, of course, to make coworking something that organizations and workers can use to “make hybrid work, work”.  No one knows exactly what that means or what should be done.

But coworking spaces have one huge asset:  they are designed to be better than working at home.  And lots of people now know they want that, at least part of the time.

So we shall see. Fun times.

  1. Microsoft, Work Trend Index 2022: Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work, in Microsoft – Worklab, March 16, 2022. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/great-expectations-making-hybrid-work-work
  2. Peter Sayer, Return to office? Leaders, workers don’t see eye to eye, study says, in CIO, March 16, 2022. https://www.cio.com/article/306764/return-to-office-leaders-workers-dont-see-eye-to-eye-study-says.html