Coworking is defined as: “A membership based workspace where diverse groups of freelancers, remote workers and other independent professionals work together in a shared communal setting”. But this definition is not the whole story. We need to look at:
- Why has coworking become popular?
- How does it help people thrive?
- And what is the future of coworking?
Why has coworking become popular?
There has been an increase in the number of self-employed and independent workers in the USA, UK, Ireland and worldwide. Combined with a rise in telecommuting this facilitates more people than ever working independently, from home, hotel lobbies, coffee shops and serviced offices. This often means working in isolated or non-ideal locations. However people are social beings and have always benefited from working alongside other people.
About 10 years ago some independent workers started working from other people’s homes to get over the problem of isolation. As this became popular some people had the idea of hiring space so that the growing community of independent workers could work together. One of the first coworking spaces was a disused hat factory in San Francisco. Now there are 7,800 such spaces worldwide with half a million people working in them.
This unique way of working was given the name “coworking” which has a different meaning and spelling from the traditional “co-working”. Often the two words are used interchangeably, especially as dictionaries tend to correct the newer "coworking" to "co-working". As a result the two spellings are often used to mean the same thing. So context is more important than spelling.
Rather than defining coworking in terms of space and types of workers, it is more useful to look at the underlying values that drive coworking and its benefits. Because, although they are rooted in a disused hat factory in San Francisco, they can be applied to any workspace or workplace.
Coworking spaces subscribe to a very specific set of values that sets them apart from other ways of working. These are:
The idea of community is central to coworking. This sense of community is what drives the four other coworking values.
Working within a community builds trust and empathy between coworkers. This leads to Openness; a sharing of ideas, know-how and experience. It also lends itself to an open-plan layout. Both the space and the community are open to interaction with other people and groups.
Being open to ideas and sharing information and opportunities creates synergies; “two heads are better than one” or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. This often leads to collaboration between coworkers and even to partnerships.
Coworking spaces are accessible. If you need space to work you should be able to gain access. If people are to come together, to connect, collaborate and create then there should be no limitations on who can join the community and membership should be affordable.
Coworking spaces must be able to support themselves while providing affordable space to their community. They also help coworkers to build a sustainable business or lifestyle. As part of the sharing economy, they help reduce waste and contribute to the environment.
How do these values translate into a better working environment?
Why people thrive in coworking spaces
Research shows that people in coworking spaces score 6 out of 7 for thriving. This is 14% better than the 5 out of 7 reported by people who work in regular offices. The reason, researchers discovered, is because people using coworking spaces experience and benefit from:
- meaningful work
- job control
- belonging to a community
What makes work meaningful? It’s not simply being able to choose what you work on. In a coworking space people can be themselves, they don’t need to worry about office politics or develop a work persona in order to fit in. They are working among people with different backgrounds and doing different kinds of work. This makes one’s own work seem more diverse and interesting. The openness of the coworking culture means that it is the norm to help each other out, and because of the variety of people in the community each coworker has unique skills that they can provide to the other community members.
Where possible coworking spaces are accessible 24/7. People can choose a long day, or a long lunch. They can work in a quiet or a collaborative space. They can decide to work from home, without having to justify it. This is the kind of autonomy that empowers people. But autonomy unchecked can also lead to distraction, broken routines and lost productivity. This is counterbalanced by the structure that a coworking space provides. Coworkers report that having a community and a work atmosphere helps to discipline and motivate them.
Belonging to a community
This is the human element. Connections with other people, shared experience and meeting new people is important. Coworking spaces facilitate this in a natural, unforced way.
The future of coworking
We can’t predict the future, but we can look at trends. Coworking has become a popular way of working in less than a decade. Research shows that people in a coworking space thrive more than those in traditional offices.
What started as two people sharing an apartment to avoid isolation was quickly transformed into dedicated office spaces populated with independent workers. More recently, established organizations are looking to coworking to help improve their work environment.
Coworking is set to be a key enabler in anywhere-ization, where work can be accessed and completed from anywhere. Some organizations have created in-house coworking spaces to foster creativity and innovation while others encourage employees to use local coworking spaces. Remote employees, even across continents, are increasingly benefiting from these spaces. Some, like Google, have invited start-ups and entrepreneurs to work within their walls. By giving people access to community, control and flexibility, organizations are finding that new insights and ideas are sparked.
People are happier working in a coworking space because they can be their authentic selves at work, belong to a community, have meaning and a sense of control.