What Is Coworking: An Ecosystem for Digital Nomads

A sure sign that something is becoming popular is the emergence of apps and services aimed to “power” it. By that metric, coworking is definitely attracting attention.

Last week Cat Johnson gave us not one but two listicles of such tools.

For Digital Nomads

One significant strand of coworking is ‘digital nomads’, freelance workers who can work from anywhere, and prefer to move around, setting up shop in a different place for a short time and moving on. Not only a gig economy, but a wandering minstrel gig economy!

As far as I can tell, this wandering is not driven by work (i.e., they are not moving from town to town following work), but is a lifestyle choice. Digital work, especially cloudy-webby-mobile-y things, can actually be done from anywhere, so this is a great match.

It goes without saying that these nomads are young people without families. It’s hard to imagine doing this with a toddler on your hip. See below.

Johnson gives us “7 Essential Coworking Resources for Digital Nomads”. These resources are described as “platforms”, which fits the nomadic lifestyle very well: network services to support digital work in short term locations.

They include several networks of coworking spaces with services to let members reserve a desk for a short period in cities around the world. There are also directories to locate free coworking spaces and to find other coworkers. There is also a Couchsurfing for people who want to cowork in someone elses’ home.

These services break no new ground technologically, they are really niche services targeted at the workers of the gig economy. It is notable that there is a some effort to standardize the coworking relationship, which should be valuable for the nomads.

This standardization makes sense to me: How am I supposed to know how utilities and networking works in Aberdeen, Delhi, or even Austin? It’s nice to have a service that assures me that I can set up effortlessly wherever I go.

Home Coworking

For the stay at homsrs, which I’m sure includes older workers with families, one option is Home Coworking . When working alone pales,  coffee shops are not the right solution, and local cowork spaces are too much “beer and nerf guns”,  why not get together in a neighbor’s kitchen and work together?

This approach is an interesting blend of local community building and the gig economy. I have also pointed out its deep roots in traditional villages, where we might work together in someone’s home or yard.

Home coworking may resemble, and can shade into the Couchsurfing thing, inviting in not only neighbors but also nomads. Johnson reports on three matchmaking platforms that basically let you tell people, “I’ve got an extra chair”, and invite them to work there for a day.

Again, there is nothing technically unique about these services. In fact, they are barely distinguishable from using generic alternatives such as FaceBook or Craig’s List. As far as I can tell, they mainly offer a niche service with some exciting narrative.

E.g., Charify tells us, “We believe in sharing our abundance in order to create new value and by launching Chairify we help you share your abundance of space so that you can start creating value for yourself and the coworkers you host!”

Is Coworking Space a Commodity? Or a unique community?

Johnson’s inventory of tools is aimed at a very specific and small part of the coworking experience—finding “a desk” (which may actually be or “a chair at a table”). Some of the services have turned “a desk” into a standard commodity, interchangeable and universally available. This certainly fits the narrative of the digital nomad, who is a rootless expert knowledge worker, inhabiting the global internet.

This “commodity” idea is an interesting contrast to another concept of coworking as community. As I have discussed before, in most urban areas there are many coworkspaces, which offer very similar physical infrastructure (the “desks”), but which have their own communities and vibes. Developing such communities is so important that there is a minor industry developing to foster the process.

Some cowork spaces are, indeed, commodity “desks” inhabited by nomadic workers camping together. But others are designed for and inhabited by “creatives” of various types (writers, artists, designers), or start up companies, remote corporate workers, or non-profits. These people are not primarily nomadic, they are rooted in the locale and find social connection in the people of the specific, local coworkspace.

This contrast is particularly striking in the services for placing nomads in local home coworking spaces. My own view is that home coworking is, almost by definition, a local community space. Introducing a few nomads might be refreshing, but too much of that would seem to dilute the important mutually supporting “us” that can develop amongst neighbors.

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