Notes On “What Is Coworking?” (Part 1)

As part of my exploration of the question, “what is coworking?” I’m looking at existing spaces, especially successful ones, to identify some of the key “dimensions” on which they vary from each other.

I am assembling a dataset of the web sites for existing (or recently deceased) coworking spaces. I have been examining these and other public sources and taking notes. To date, this has been an informal process.

This week I will post a set of short notes summarizing some of ideas I have drawn from my initial reading. Eventually, this will need to be systematically supported from the data (and the data published).

Part 1 of 6. Coworking = Space+community

Coworking is generally considered to be about workspaces that are inhabited by a community of (independent) workers, usually with relatively short residencies. Office space alone, however configured and whatever the pricing scheme, isn’t really “coworking” in itself. There must be human interactions among the coworkers.

This isn’t completely clear cut, in that some commercial renters are willing to rent individual desks by the month, and call that “coworking”. And some places such as coffee shops host workers and communities, without being dedicated to that role.

“In 2011, much to the laughter and dismay of those in the coworking movement, office rental giant Regus announced that it “pioneered the concept of coworking two decades ago.” (from Cat Johnson at

In any case, I think everyone agrees that “community” is an important component, but what does “community” mean?

The Global Coworking UnConference (GCUC, quoted above) holds that this must be a “collaborative ethos”, part of the “sharing economy”. The GCUC “collaborative ethos” would emphasize a “social” agenda. Freelance workers, Sharing resources, knowledge, partying, etc. Also, these folks have formed alliances of coworking spaces and coworkers, in towns and around the world. There are “nomadic” workers, dropping in on temporary spaces all around the world.

Even these ideas don’t get us too far: what social behavior makes is performed in a coworking space?

In my ongoing survey, I see a range of realizations of this. Almost every space has some kind of break room/kitchen, which is presumably a social space. Some spaces feature talks and training. This is the absolute minimal “community”, less than this is just office space, no? This can be sort of a business incubator vibe—lots of training and mentoring about how to start and grow your business.

Some spaces go a different way, with art shows, movies, etc. This is a ‘creatives’ space. The community is about creativity, not business, though there may well be a lot of practical programming about how to succeed as a freelancer.

Some have a “software hacker” vibe, with noisy chatter, hack-a-thons, presentations of demos, and so on. “Synergy” is happening. Everybody is launching a startup around a new app. This is a young and male vibe.

Yet other spaces seek to have a gathering of other like-minded people, especially writers (not so much yelling or nerf gun battles, way more thesauri).

Clearly, if you are creating a coworking community, you cannot expect to be everything to everybody. These variants I have identified here are pretty much mutually exclusive. You can’t tailor the space to be a quiet place to finish your novel, and also to be a “dynamic”, “bad ass” disruptive software shop.

But it is extremely important to recognized that any and all of these variants are not only possible, they have been successfully implemented in one or more coworking space.

This is, in fact, one of the trends identified by GCUC,

  • More Specialization: Want doggy daycare for your pooch while you work? There will be a coworking space for that. There are already coworking spaces for artists and creatives, writers, rock climbers, musicians and more. Expect to see more specialization as spaces experiment with filling needs of communities.”  (Johnson)

More on this tomorrow.

This is a working note describes ideas I’m developing that will need further research. It is based on preliminary examination of we sources, though I have not given citations here. The dataset will be explained and published at a later date.

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