A couple of years ago Regus began telling the story of how they had actually launched coworking through their worldwide proliferation of executive suite options. The coworking community rose up and loudly rejected this version of history. In the mainstream media this played out like a clash of younger and older generations but it runs deeper than that. Both Regus and coworking spaces rent desks by the day or month. Both can offer the same equipment, facilities, and amenities, but at its heart what great coworking spaces are actually selling is not the desk space, it is community. This might seem obvious to those inside the coworking world but as we see from the Regus story, it actually isn’t all that clear.
I believe that coworking is the future of work. Its model of individual workspace selection for either collaboration or concentration has been proven to increase innovation, creativity, and productivity. I see coworking as a way of working – not necessarily a place to work. There will continue to be exponential growth in coworking spaces (roughly 200% per year for the last 7 years) but there will also be big companies who tear out their cubicle filled layouts to create internal coworking spaces that allow for multi-departmental use and in some cases even external customers or vendors. We are living in a social revolution – not only technology but also in these physical spaces that are specifically designed to bring us together. In order for any of this to live up to its potential, we have to understand that it is not about available short term desks, it is about creating community.
To get it right the first thing to be done is to understand “community”. The bulk of behavioral research identifies four factors:
- Membership – this is about boundaries and figuring out who is in and who isn’t. It sounds more exclusive than most coworking owners want to be, but research shows that trying to be everything to everyone, actually destroys the sense of belonging. Coworking managers have to define their community. They must identify an audience and provide the amenities that audience needs and wants. The design should physically “brand” the space and communicate who they are and how they will work. The amenities that are offered will be the amenities that the target audience needs and wants, Daycare? only if the audience is young parents. Makers bench? only if the audience is hands on people. Lots of private spaces? only if the audience is introverts.
- Mutual Dependency–this is about making sure that the members matter to the group and that the group matters to the members, each one has influence over the other. This is implemented in ways that respond to the specific target audience and might be through programs, collaborative projects, or group activities. Besides actually mattering to each other, the floor plan layout and programs should increase awareness of that mutually beneficial dependency, making those activities and programs more visible to the group so that people are aware of that dependency. Physically this might be a display of community decision making (process and/or results) or a transparent conference room so that even members who don’t attend that brown back lunch talk are aware that it is happening.
- Reinforcement – this is about member needs being met through participation in the community. Functionality and spaces should be set up so that members get more of what they want when they participate. This works much better when you use behavioral tools to create a draw to participate rather than rules that enforce participation. For example, I was told a story of a coworking space that had names on all of its members coffee cups. Not only did that create a sense of special-ness among members, but it also generated a kind of peer pressure to wash your own coffee cup since it was obvious when someone didn’t.
- Shared emotional connection – this is the social capitol that builds over time as members share a history and come to look forward to future shared experiences. This happens naturally over time but can be reinforced programmatically by repeating annual activities or even daily rituals (the gong rings at noon). It can be reinforced in the physical space by things like a photo wall with pictures of member activities or an activity bulletin board that announces upcoming events. The idea is to create shared memories and then provide opportunities to remind people those memories are there.
Brad Neuberg who started the first coworking space in 2005, says that Regus is actually correct in its claim to have started the coworking trend…sort of. Brad was working a Regus executive suite and he found the environment sterile and uninspiring with no sense of community. He says that part of his motivation for starting that first group was to create another option.
I expect that as more individuals and large companies jump onto to the coworking bandwagon, those that discover and embrace “community” as the elemental requirement will succeed. The rest will end up with just a bunch of desks for rent.
Kristine Woolsey is a behavioral architect who specializes in design strategy for the workplace. She is interested in coworking as the “new normal” for future work. www.kristinewoolsey.com#designstrategy4work