Ask someone what coworking is and they’ll no doubt shoot back something like “working from a shared office space with other remote workers/self-employed folk and, erm, a pool table, and starting and leaving whenever you like.”
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? But this is not coworking.
This is merely the description of what it’s like to work in a ‘coworking space’ — an early iteration of the conventional office environment in which we’ve worked for decades.
Even coworking itself doesn’t know what it is yet. It’s an evolving idea that’s being created every day by those of us that do it. Other than being some kind of work-friendly place where people get together to do stuff and share equipment and ideas, coworking is still largely open for debate.
Coworking is not, then, a restored warehouse kitted out with a few desks, meeting rooms, and games tables. It’s not even a brand-new nine-story complex with bean bags, a cinema, and micro-roasted coffee.
Saying that, though, some companies clearly do already have a good idea of what coworking should look like. Companies such as WeWork, one of the biggest players in the coworking industry, which has over 160 locations worldwide, is valued at 20 billion dollars, and is currently the 7th most valuable privately held company in the world.
With more people than ever working remotely and the trend set to explode in the coming years — half of the workforce in the UK is expected to be remote by 2020 — WeWork is capitalising on the huge demand. And as you’ve probably seen, they’re not the only ones trying to get a piece of the pie — and they certainly won’t be the last.
We’ve come a long way since the early 2000’s when the idea of coworking didn’t even exist. Let’s take a look at what it’s evolving into and what we can expect from the once fringe movement that’s soon to be how the majority of us spend our week.
No more small talk and unapproachable cliques
If you’ve ever been a member of a coworking space without a separate area for socialising and mingling with others, you’ll know just how sad and disruptive it can be.
Firstly, you barely ever get beyond small talk with most of the people at the space, so you may as well be working from your couch. Secondly, the middle-aged marketer sitting beside you never shuts up, and as you’re not so desperate or rude to tell him to, you never manage to finish everything on your list.
The result is the same weird social dynamic you get in offices in which the introverts and people who keep their heads down become somewhat outcasts, and the extroverts and veterans slink together and form unapproachable cliques.
Realising the 10-minute stretching sessions aren’t enough, Coworking spaces are taking heed of this and making socialising a key part of their offerings. WeWork and The Office Group designate as much room to socialising as to working; spreading out over as many as 10 floors and incorporating bars, dining halls, kitchens, chill out rooms, and even members clubs into the mix.
A cool albeit super high-end example of this is The King’s Head offices in Shoreditch. Located in an old public house, the space includes a lounge bar, fancy restaurant, and a secret nightclub, especially for creatives. The Ministry of Sound is also doing something similar; launching in July ‘The Ministry’ — a workspace slash members club with four floors of offices as well as a bar, outdoor terrace, and cinema.
We may see this combination even more as other members clubs like Soho House, which has 50,000 members in the creative industry worldwide, move into coworking. Opening soon in its iconic Tea Building in Shoreditch, Soho Works, among other things, will offer its extremely exclusive group of members showers and lockers, a library and reading room, and a healthy scattering of informal break-out spaces.
With coworking at its heart being less about sustaining a job and more about supporting a type of lifestyle, the industry could no doubt learn a lot from members clubs, hotels, resorts, and those who’ve long perfected the art of casual entertainment and leisure.
The new coworking space is everywhere
Many people who get into coworking do it because they don’t want to be stuck in an office all day or confined to the back bedroom. But then they take out an unlimited monthly coworking membership and end up spending even more hours a day looking at the same four — albeit exposed brick — walls.
The first solution was for coworking spaces to have more than one location in their portfolio. Some of those with the biggest networks include Impact Hub with over 100 and WeWork with 162 and counting. The next was something like Copass — a ticket that gives you access to many independent spaces for just one monthly cost. And the latest, and arguably the most effective for reasons I’ll go into, is to retrofit existing spaces that are already an established part of the landscape to meet the demands of remote workers.
Switch Cowork is one company in Austin, Texas, that is experimenting with this idea. Switch is partnering with businesses that have unused space during the day and helping them turn it into shared workspaces for its members. By doing this, it offers places like restaurants an extra revenue stream and provides its members with a variety of different environments and locations to work from.
As remote working becomes more common, you can see how this idea could easily be extended to support a variety of different business models. Businesses that have well-designed buildings in convenient locations — museums, libraries, banks, cafes, and hotels — could all host their own coworking spaces with minimal to no adjustments and investment.
These mixed-use spaces, I’m sure many will agree, create exactly the sort of vibe you want from a coworking space. They’re not closed off from the surrounding community — like Berlin’s abundance of work-friendly coffee shops where you can meet tourists, freelancers, and locals (not just digital nomads or freelance creatives). They offer flexible payment options, like CAMP in Chiang Mai — a library slash cafe slash study space where when you spend 50 baht (just over a pound) and get 2 hours of free wifi. And they, being completely open to serendipity and void of anything that even remotely resembles an office, remind you every day that you’re free to work from wherever, and whenever, you please.
If there’s anything I want from the space in which I work, it’s definitely that last one.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Follow him on LinkedIn or Medium for more articles like this one.