What is Coworking?: How to make a successful cowork space

Last year Steve Glaveski gave us “The 10-Step Guide to a Successful Coworking Space” in Sharable.  Actually, he is concerned that “it is imperative that owners and community managers set high standards”. (This may be seen as a another facet of the commodification of coworking.)

First, it’s clear that Glaveski “gets it”, as he places community front and center. “Ask anybody in the know what the difference between a coworking space and a mere shared office space is and the answer will always be community.

A coworking space also, he says need “a minimum set of amenities”, which “includes, but may not be limited to ergonomic chairs and desks, wireless internet, printer and copier access, basic kitchen facilities, a coffee machine, showers, lockers, change rooms and lavatories.” Hmm. That’s an interesting list, clearly skewed to young, unmarried workers (with no kids), and also skewed toward digital creators (who don’t need workshops or labs).

While everybody’s definition of perfect may vary, the careful execution of the following steps is almost certain to result in a sustainable and successful coworking space.” His “ten steps” are:

Step 1 – Identify Your Market
Step 2 – Location, Location
Step 3 – Interior Design
Step 4 – Branding
Step 5 – Community and Culture
Step 6 – Events and Education
Step 7 – Seamless Sign-Up, Access and Billing Management
Step 8 – Music
Step 9 – Amenities
Step 10 – Pricing and Flexibility

There are many interesting points here. As I noted, many of these points revolve around creating, recruiting, and sustaining a community. Obviously, “Community and Culture” and “Events and Education” are about the community, but “Identify Your Market” is really about identifying your community, “Branding” is about attracting and representing the community, and “Interior Design” is about fostering community interaction (as well as attracting people into the community.) (Discussing Interior Design, he says, “It is critical for the fitout to reflect the space’s core principles and target market’s values.”)

 As I have pointed out, there are many cowork spaces, and they are distinguished not by their physical plant but their community. Glavinski’s Step 1 is to identify your market (i.e., your community). I think he is right to say that a coworkspace must specialize, and should “pick a niche market”. He perceives the relevant dimensions of the target community to be “industry, business maturity, the size of the business, location, age, culture and values“. Quite a list!

He puts “location” number two after your target community. As he points out, the location is really about the whole area (walking distance) of the workspace. Locating near food and markets will be attractive. Locating amongst cafés where freelancers are working will be convenient. Transit will be critical.

I think it is worth examining his advice about “community and culture” closely because Glaveski offers us a one sentence “Social Psychology of Cowork Spaces”: “We are all human beings and we all want to be liked so it’s important that steps are taken to foster an inclusive community built on common values, cultural traits and a set of non-overbearing house rules.” Phew!

We could unpack that sentence in many ways.

An “inclusive community” (where we are “liked”) is obviously a good thing. There is an obvious conflict with the “pick a niche” imperative, which plays out in the branding, interior décor, amenities, events, and so on. “Inclusive” of who?

Galvinski implies (with reason) that the community in question will be at least a little self-identified and self-reflective. That is, there will be something like “common values” and “common cultural traits”. These concepts are, by definition, exclusive. I.e., “common values” can only exist if there are values rejected as alien. And “cultural traits” is a term freighted with all kinds of baggage.  I’d prefer not to get into the pseudoscience of “cultural traits”.

Finally, the “set of non-overbearing house rules” describes one of the true signatures of a cowork space: every space has rules, and they reflect a social contract that is usually thought out, though not usually democratically created. Many of the rules are obvious (“behave yourself”), though there are significant variants, for instance about about noise and pets. And everyone struggles with how to deal with phone calls.

Glaveski goes on to give us some concrete ways that the operator of a space can foster community. These range from the obvious (a newsletter and social media) to the now common “member only offers” and resources.

He also endorses the “college dorm” school of community building, suggesting “Friday night drinks and pizza (a staple in tech startup coworking spaces), beer fridges, the occasional lunch and alternative currencies are great ways to build lasting relationships between coworking space members.

(I’ve been there and done that. It’s fun while you are in your twenties, but it gets really old. “Lasting relationships”?  Not in my experience.)

I’ll have to come back to the “alternative currencies” point later.

Finally, he explains the potential value of a professional “community manager” which many large and chain coworkspaces have. “They can be onsite, curating and growing the community culture even when you can’t be there.” In an earlier post I noted the emergence of this as a new profession.

All in all, Galvinski gives us a valuable summary of what a coworking space is, how it works, and how to create and run one. This is definitely an important contribution to the question “What is Coworking?”.

I would say that this is a “conventional”, middle of the road description of a cowork space. If you do these things, you’ll be in the middle of the pack. I’m sure Mr. Galvinski would agree with me that you should do what is best for your community, regardless of these “steps” or what any other space might be doing.

Many of the most outstanding coworking spaces stand out because they break one or more of these “rules”. Spaces aimed at working families have different branding, décor, and amenities. Spaces targeted at writers are quiet, have bookshelves, and no nerf guns. “Home Coworking” is about baking cookies, not Friday night keggers.

So remember that the big rule is “community, community, community”, and don’t be afraid to break the little rules in order to do the right thing.


What is Coworking?

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