What makes it a Coworking Space?


Coworking has existed in its present form for more than ten years, and big commercial property companies have heard of it. They think it sounds like a great idea, not because it brings together independent workers into diverse and vibrant communities, but because superficially, it looks like a high profit model for renting out space (hint: not necessarily).

Okay, okay. It’s true nobody owns the term coworking. Not me and not any of the thousands of coworking space owners who have been in the business longer than I have. But let’s see what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about it.

co-working

The use of an office or other working environment by people who are self-employed or working for different employers, typically so as to share equipment, ideas, and knowledge…

Like most people involved in coworking, I prefer the unhyphenated version, but putting that debate aside, the term is being used by people in the commercial property business who don’t understand what it means and want to profit from the buzz surrounding it. The problem is, if you don’t run a proper coworking space, then it won’t function like a coworking space should. That creates confusion and devalues the whole concept.

But it’s an incredibly strong concept – coworking spaces benefit their members in so many ways – and the buzz surrounding coworking is fully deserved. There is no doubt in my mind that coworking is going to be important in the future of work.

Some view ‘Coworking’ as trendy – and don’t know what it means.

‘Coworking space’ is NOT a new name for a business centre or managed office. Large, international commercial property corporations can call a lounge in a serviced office or business centre a ‘coworking space’. They can call a few hot-desks in that room they’ve been having trouble leasing a ‘coworking space’. They can use ‘coworking’ and ‘co-working’ as keywords on their websites. They have plenty of money to spend on SEO and Google Adwords, so they’ll come up high on search results, but all it does is confuse the uninformed.

Even if these corporate spaces meet the dictionary definition of coworking — and they seldom do — they almost never support vibrant, creative communities of independent workers. Whether they’re cheap, ugly and poorly designed or expensive and over-the-top trendy, there’s one thing they almost always have in common: they’re laser-focused on renting out space, whether it’s by the day or on a six-month contract. They seldom pay lip-service to the principles of the coworking movement, and they almost never succeed in putting them into practice.

Community, openness, collaboration, accessibility, and sustainability…

‘The whole idea of co-working is to bring bright, creative people together and let the ideas collide’ – Oxford Dictionary

Coworking doesn’t function properly without a dynamic community. Working in isolation is the opposite of coworking. Cliques and static work groups are less effective ways to stay connected.

You should be able to walk into a coworking space, buy a day pass, and get introduced to whomever happens to be around. Then you end up chatting with a small group in the kitchenette, and before you know it, you’ve got some interesting new things to think about and you’re seeing new potential in your work. As a member, you will connect with other members and with people passing through, you’ll be around other hardworking people, and you’ll know that although your work is independant, you are not alone.

The best coworking spaces welcome anyone with quiet, clean portable tools and useful things to do: people in suits, people in shorts, people with disabilities, marathon runners, young entrepreneurs, semi-retired consultants, a rainbow of people with different identities, interests and skills. The best coworking spaces are inclusive and accessible.

The best coworking spaces practice sustainability. The way they function is energy and resource efficient, both because they exist partly to allow independent workers to share resources and because they make a conscious effort. And they are sustainable as creative, leading edge businesses as well. Coworking spaces are a product of the re-organisation of modern work and they are there to serve their members, to help make their lives better and their work more rewarding and more secure. When their members’ needs change or become clearer, then a good coworking space adjusts.

Yes, Coworking is also about the space

Coworking champions are notorious for saying, “it’s not about the space; it’s about the community.” Is coworking all about people and community and not at all about workspace? I’d argue that the space is important too, but it’s important because it provides a venue for the community, and a dedicated, well designed venue can do a better job of supporting collaboration AND individual productivity than, say, a group that meets at cafes and people’s houses. (although Jellies are still valuable!)

Employees do the work their employers give them, from the place their employers tell them to work, with colleagues and for clients provided by their employer. Coworking spaces are the offices we choose.

When workers choose their workplaces, what are they looking for? Here are some examples I’ve heard:

  • A bright, cheerful office full of natural light.
  • An office that’s conventional enough to use as a meeting venue, but that does not give people who suffered through years of bad jobs in cubicle farms PTSD. (Okay, I said that.)
  • A beautiful office with plants and art.
  • A calm and quiet space to concentrate.
  • A place with private rooms for phone calls and video meetings.
  • Furniture that doesn’t look like it was designed to act in lieu of a padded room. (I said that too.)

And with a space-we-choose as a base, we can choose our close colleagues, clients, contractors and project partners. Coworking spaces need to offer a social and physical environment that supports independent workers and makes it easier for us to get things done and push our work forward. The ideal coworking space includes places for concentration, collaboration, private and open meetings, private calls and more. Good coworking spaces are designed to host flexible ways of working and connect people – but just as importantly, their design should inspire delight and provide security and comfort.

Most of us thrive when we have a family to love and a home to live in together, but we also need a work-home and colleagues to spark ideas, share knowledge and support us professionally. Just as a family benefits from having a house, communities of independent workers benefit from having a coworking space. In some cases, communities of workers act as coworking space founders, but a well designed coworking space that’s accessible to plenty of independant workers should also attract a dynamic and supportive community.

So a coworking space needs two things: a good, flexible shared office and a diverse community of people who can help each other blaze their own paths in the brave new world of independent work. A corporate space that’s based on the idea of leasing office space rather than membership and community is probably not going to provide that.

What do you think?