After spending a little over a month in a coworking space in suburban Ashburn, Virginia learning about the world of coworking from various conferences, podcasts, and personal experiences, I have put together an analysis of the industry. In this analysis I will focus on Alex Hillman’s podcasts from Dangerously Awesome.
From what I have heard, people who are heavily involved in the industry seem to think that coworking has the power to change the workforce as we know it. There is a huge emphasis on the community, relationships, and flexibility that comes with coworking. However, from my personal experiences I would have to disagree with many main points made by numerous coworking experts.
Authentic Relationships and Interactions
Ostensibly, the autonomy and independence that those in coworking spaces have allows relationships to form more organically. However, I do not think that this means they are more authentic than those formed in a more structured, role-based relationship of a typical workplace. The typical workplace allows coworkers to bond over the similarities of their work and tasks. When I worked in a more structured environment, I got to talk to the people I worked with more since we would be spending so much time together. These relationships actually formed more naturally for me than the ones I have made while in a coworking space. In fact, I would argue that relationships with other workers in a coworking space are harder to form. The opportunity to interact, not by creating a common space, but by having a shared purpose forges stronger bonds.
Unless you are actively seeking out these interactions with other workers, it is highly unlikely that someone will come up to your desk and strike a conversation. This is because although we share a space, their work is unrelated to mine and I am immediately unaffected by whatever they are doing. I think the intertwining of roles in a typical workplace stimulates more interactions and better connections because of the reliance and co-dependence on one another. Thus, in this case, socialization and productivity go hand in hand. In contrast, I think that socialization in a coworking space would reduce my productivity. Since, their work does not directly affect mine, I see interacting as a distraction.
Alex notes how people come to coworking spaces for community. According to him, intrinsic motivation is more sustainable than the extrinsic benefits of a physical space. Personally, I do not base my work environment off of who is going to be there. If I want to work, I am going to look for a place with the best amenities to supplement what I am doing. I am not looking to other people to help facilitate personal growth. For me, things like good wifi, a working printer, good coffee, clean bathrooms, etc. are more valuable in a workplace.
Additionally, in his podcasts, Alex said that even those who are not actively engaged in the community feel a sense of belonging because the possibility of community is enough. I would disagree on this point as well. I, myself, am not actively engaged in the community. However, I also fail to see community elsewhere. Besides those working in private offices, interactions between other people in the space appear very surface level. People will have small talk now and then, especially at lunch, in the kitchen, but other than that, everyone just does their own thing. It is easy to fall into a pattern of coming in, sitting at your desk, and just working. Once, you get into that kind of groove, it is harder to break out and make the first step towards talking to someone. o
Place Attachment and Loneliness
Although I fail to see the greater community that so many coworkers seem to love, I do agree with Alex’s notion of place attachment. This is when a certain place feels comfortable and familiar but also provides prospect. I have come to like the coworking space I am in. After coming to it everyday, there is a sense of routine that I have become fond of. However, the prospect side of place attachment has had less resonance with me. Since I first started coming, everything has been the same. There was an expansion of the space but that had little to no effect on my worklife. So, the place attachment that I feel towards the space I am in, stems from my familiarity with it.
I would also like to add that I recognize the loneliness epidemic that is plaguing much of our society. Many coworkers claim that the community a space provides helps decrease these feelings of isolation. Even so, how many friends are you really going to make in a coworking space? I will take part of the blame for my lack of relationships within this space as I have not made an effort to really put myself out there. At any rate, I am sure I am not the only introvert operating within a coworking space. When the idea of socializing is enough to make one anxious, I guarantee you, they are coming to work, not interact. So while I acknowledge that some people do cowork for the community, I would argue that for most cases, people just want to be left alone.
All that being said, there are also some points on coworking that Alex made with which I agree. You do need to find people interested in coworking before ever opening your space. Otherwise, you will be sitting in an empty building. To do that, I do believe that you have to find people where they already are. Like Alex said, you cannot expect people to just come to you and your space. Looking outside of your space for possibilities will help your business grow. The difficulty in expanding coworking comes from the fact that so many people have no idea what it is. I was one of them.
Finding a way to accurately communicate what coworking is would be the first step towards anything. However, I would not try to pitch coworking by glorifying it to be this great industry where people are constantly thriving and building friendships for two reasons. One, many people will call B.S. on what you are claiming a coworking space can do for them. Two, you do not want to build their expectations up so high that they are disappointed by the actual product.
Ultimately, you get what you put into coworking. If you are dedicated to finding a community and building relationships with other remote workers, I am sure there is a space for you to do that. However, it is important to remember, coworking is not for everyone. Community building and socializing may work for some people but not everyone. If you prefer to put your headphones in and work alone, that is okay too. In the end, I still believe coworking is just a shared office space. There may be the possibility for something greater, but I have yet to be convinced of the power of coworking to change our workforce.