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What happens when coworking becomes just working?

July 12, 2014

Everyday at precisely 3pm I receive a google alert that another coworking space has opened in some new corner of the world. From Boston to Beirut to Bali, with each additional space and news item, the word ‘coworking’ become a little less foreign to the public at large.

What’s driving this remarkable growth? 

The technological story is straight forward. Ubiquitous wifi, cheap mobile devices, software’s great migration from the server to the cloud. All this adds up to a world where many people can work from anywhere, at least technically. No longer bound to the phone and computer on the desk, or the files on the server (let alone the paper in the filing cabinet), for many, work has become a case of something one does rather than somewhere one goes. Then there is the story of outsourcing and downsizing, the victory of the temporary contract and short term project over the increasingly elusive general employment agreement. Finally there are the work-life aspirations of the millennials – over half of which claim to be planning to work as freelancers or start their own businesses. The choices here appear different to the past, privileging freedom of mobility over fixed security. Working anywhere, anytime on projects of passion. From push to pull, this is the world the coworker inhabits and, arguably, the world of work that will become more and more widespread.

But what does this mean for public culture?

Use of public space has changed over the past decade. Answering phone calls and emails are routinely public affairs – walking down the street, jostling on public transport, even public toilets see people squinting at smart phone screens. Cafes have become a second office for many, from the caffeinated-email-sprint pit stop to the longer form composition hunched in some corner or couch (I happen to be one of them right now). 

It is actually surprising how little we discuss the cultural implications of bringing private work into public places. 

But the counter-insurgence to social life being colonised by work, is work life becoming more social. Mid-week work meetings are routinely booked in busy CBD cafes. The rows of cubicles, low ceilings and grey carpets that formed the backdrop of twentieth century office life are being opened to the multi-niche ecosystems of Activity Based Working. Standardised palettes are giving way to diverse spaces, colours and shapes designed for different work styles and tasks. Finally a host of new ‘enterprise social’ tools aim to foster conversational digital interactions within organisations. The boundaries between work and social life continue to blur. 

Nomadism becomes a trait of the liquid modern’ observed social theorist Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Modernity for Bauman has not been a positive thing, full of ambivalence and uncertainty as defined social structures and role identities become fluid – expressions of individual choice rather than collective solidarity. But nomadic cultures have their own cosmologies, constellations of rituals and beliefs that facilitate a sense of place amid a world of constant change. Historically they also found security in the interdependence of the tribe. 

Lone nomads didn’t last very long. 

My own research interests are in how people learn to thrive within this state of flux as much as how they might ache. What kinds of narratives about work, life and community help individuals navigate the choppy rapids of the network society? What subtle skills do savants exercise to stay afloat? Where are the new tribes that enable work-life nomads to thrive? 

This shift from solid noun to liquid verb permeates other areas of life too. Like work, in this world community becomes less something to which you belong and more something you actively create. Institutions increasingly seek community ‘managers’, ‘catalysts’ and ‘curators’. Community once formed around and outside of work, an unintentional byproduct of human relations. We now see businesses whose commercial strategy depends on building a sense of community (and measuring its properties and dimensions with increasing sophistication). Peer to peer platforms face the chicken and egg dilemma of requiring users to generate value and requiring value to attract users. The only way around this is to articulate a vision and offer experiences that appeal to early adopters – cohorts that will engage with vision and persist with clunky ‘beta’ phases over the need for clearly realised value exchange.  

Participating in pioneering the new can be inspiring and the experimental excitement of early days is enough of an attractor for some. The coworking movement started out with a vision of how the experience of work could be different. An invitation to reject both the perceived dysfunctional culture and politics of corporate life and the isolation of the independent contractor working from home . But like many early adopter community movements, what initially feels like a series of bold experiments soon becomes enfolded into the everyday majority. Mainstream billboards now promote these early experiments –  ‘I can work from anywhere’ or ‘Corporate ladder? I’ll make my own way thanks.’

So what happens to the coworking movement when many of its distinct properties and practices become just…work?

There are several possible scenarios that have been outlined for the future of coworking. 

One possibility is that coworking’s corporate cousin – Activity Based Work – becomes the normalised template for large organisations. The knowledge and experience of successful coworking spaces and communities can offer valuable advice and lessons learned in approaching this transition. An interesting development  is the provision of coworking services not only to employees of the company but to customers and potentially other stakeholders. The National Australia Bank is experimenting with a version of this through The Village.     

Another is that coworking-learning spaces become a recognised publicly funded institution – the public libraries of the 21st century. That the public funds and infrastructure currently locked up in storing books are (partly) spent on coworking offerings. There are already movements in this direction with The Edge in Brisbane and the Alexandria Coworking Network. The city of Oakland’s Public Library, for example, was recently referred to as Oakland’s original coworking space

Third is that a dominant primary operator emerges – a Starbucks like franchise rising out of the current cluster of independent providers. This raises many challenges for the practice of community building and potentially foreshadows a less intimate experience of coworking. We Work already have 19 spaces across the USA and London and the multinational Regus, although offering serviced offices since the 1980s has more recently begun using the word coworking to describe its offering. 

Fourth is that a system offering that enables single space independent operators to be linked together and take advantage of scale, whilst remaining autonomous. A federated approach that allows members of one space to access services from other spaces. The perfect back office and community facing portal is one of the holy grails of the coworking industry and a lot of work is happening in this space. Hub Australia has just released its version of this in Mesh

Finally there is the collapse scenario. The massive growth in coworking spaces over past years may take the turn of the dotcom bubble – especially if free access to collaborative workspaces and communities become publicly or privately systematised. Beyond the public library possibility, offerings like seats2meet are experimenting with ‘free’, or at least non monetary forms of exchange with such a possibility.

These scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive, in fact glimmers of all of them are currently happening. Whatever the future of the ‘co’ in coworking  turns out to be, how coworking communities find meaning in their identity as distinct from just working is an open question I will be holding over the coming years.

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