“How Well Does Coworking Work?” Evidence From Telecommuting.

Coworking is closely related to “telecommuting”, i.e., workers who do not come to the office, but connect with their coworkers digitally. The technologies that make telecommuting easy also make coworking easy: ubiquitous digital communication and sharing make it possible to work anywhere and communicate with others wherever they are. While only a tiny fraction of telecommuters use cowork spaces, I would guess that a large fraction of coworkers are effectively telecommuting.

Telecommuting itself is controversial, with widely argued plusses and minuses. While popular and cost effective in some cases, the lack of real face-to-face interaction may reduce group effectiveness, personal satisfaction, and possibly affect accountability.

In fact, coworking is frequently viewed as a remedy for one of the problems of telecommuting, the isolation of the lone remote worker. A cowork space provides a social setting with other workers, even if they are not specifically the colleagues in question.

So, if we want to ask questions about “how well does coworking work?”, we need to understand the effects of telecommuting. For this reason, I was interested to read the paper “How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings” by Tammy D. Allen, Timothy D. Golden, and Kristen M. Shockley.

In their paper, Allen et al review decades of research, working to clear up conceptual confusion and looking at the many factors that are relevant. They find a complicated picture, which cannot be summarized in a simple statement.

First of all, there have been a lot of variant terms that describe the basic constellation of work practice. (See their Table 1 on p. 43) They produce their own definition:

Telecommuting is a work practice that involves members of an organization substituting a portion of their typical work hours (ranging from a few hours per week to nearly full-time) to work away from a central workplace—typically principally from home—using technology to interact with others as needed to conduct work tasks.”   (p. 44)

This definition captures the main points, including one that is especially relevant in coworking spaces, telecommuters “are part of a larger organization, as opposed to independent contractors or those who are part of an outsourced labor pool”. Coworking spaces are filled mainly with such independent workers. However, I’m not sure that this restriction is all that important to the underlying phenomena associated with remote working, especially if you take the position that contractors are “part of the larger organization”, too.

Summary of Main Findings

Their review finds that one of the key factors is the amount of remote work time, i.e., a few hours here and there, up to100% working out of the office. As they say, “[t]elecommuting is rarely an all-or-nothing work practice”, although researchers have not always taken this into consideration.

Overall, larger amounts of remote working detract from relationships with coworkers (but not necessarily with supervisors), and improve family relationships. The former is often reflected in “isolation” of the remote worker, which may detract from work performance. The latter may well increase worker satisfaction (indeed, many telecommuters are driven by family responsibilities.)

Although telecommuting and other forms of flexible work have long been promoted as a means for enabling individuals to effectively manage their work and non- work lives, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that telecommuting is a generally effective way to mitigate work-family conflict.” (p. 46) This is almost certainly because workers must manage “work and family boundaries’, and working at home eradicates spatial and temporal boundaries, and requires workers to negotiate the boundaries and transitions.

Moderate amounts of telecommuting are associated with increased job satisfaction, but high levels show lower satisfaction. This is usually attributed to the isolation of the remote worker who rarely meets coworkers in person, and is invisible in the shared workspace. But there are many other factors, including the type of work, the family situation, and individual preferences. Similar complex effects have been found for “organizational commitment and identification”.

And so on.

Allen and colleagues review effects surrounding attributes of the work itself.

Obviously, remote work is limited to tasks that are “portable”, which means that telecommuting is seen most in information industries. Clearly “autonomy” seems to be a key attribute of remote work. By definition, the remote worker is less connected to other coworkers and the rest of the organization. Thus, jobs that are designed for autonomous execution will be suited to remote working, and people who like and do well autonomously will be suited to remote working. Similarly, jobs that require close coordination and mutual dependence are less suitable for remote working.

The risk, of course, is that the autonomous remote worker is isolated from the organization and fellow workers. The more a worker is out of the workplace, the less connect he or she is to the other people there, and the less they feel connection to the telecommuter. Little research exists about the effects of telecommuting on trust and other collaborative behaviors.

Not surprisingly, there are complicated questions of why workers would specifically choose to work from home. Working from home is not the same for everyone. In many cases, this is done to try to care for children or others, and women are more likely to be in that situation. Indeed, telecommuting may be forced upon families, rather than chosen. And the presence of the caregiver may produce expectations for more care.

The overall conclusion is that the effects of telecommuting are complex, with many trade-offs that should be acknowledged. Above all, it should be recognized that there is a huge difference depending on the amount of telecommuting and conversely the amount of face-to-face presence.

I have to add that this meta analysis must be taken with a huge grain of salt: it covers studies from the 1990’s, early 2000’s, and post 2008. Both technology and employment changed rapidly over those periods, to the degree that I’m not sure if they are comparable. Digital technology today is substantially different than in 1995. It is also ubiquitous, with the same devices and plattforms used in everyday life as in the office. It is also true that worker satisfaction or retention exist in radically different political and economic contexts today than 20 and 30 years ago.

Implications for Coworking – countering isolation

What does this large body of research teach us about the value and implications of coworking?

Coworking spaces appear to be designed for several key populations, including small businesses, freelancers, and, of course, telecommuters. These workers do not have a permanent office, and often work from home. Coworking offers an alternative to working at home or in a public space such as a coffee shop or library.

While startups, freelancers, and telecommuters have different organizational ties, they share the same problems of “isolation” and lack of human contact. The Allen paper documents that this is a very real risk for telecommuters, which may also play out in unhappiness and poor performance. If isolation hurts a telecommuter who actually is part of a larger organization, how much stronger is the effect on freelance or tiny start ups?

One of the possible effect of telecommuting is a lack of knowledge sharing and diffusion. In person, we can observe and learn from each other quickly, as we, for instance, get a colleague to show us how that new software works.

Similarly, many organizations work hard to get their workers to talk informally, as a spur to innovation. Remote workers are cut off from such opportunities, and handicapped in the game.

Cowork spaces tackle these problem, building on the notion that a lot of that stuff is the same in every office. So, hanging out with other remote workers helps learning and innovation, because everyone is in a similar boat. In some cases, it may even be an advantage to have “outside” perspectives, not blinkered by organizational history. Of course, while the coworker may well benefit from the synergy of the coworking space, it isn’t clear that the remote organization will benefit.

At the same time, being connected to your coworking community probably does not enhance your commitment and identification with the remote organization. In fact, to the degree that the local coworking community is successful and attractive, the workers will probably identify and commit to it rather than far away bosses and colleagues.

If this analysis is correct, then cowork spaces are good for workers but not necessarily good for organizations or performance in organizations. In this, cowork spaces would differ from working at home. But, notably, two of the chief populations in cowork spaces are typically independent start ups and for-hire freelancers, who do not need to identify with a remote organization. Perhaps this is a critical factor in successful coworking.

In these areas, I think the telecommuting research suggests that coworking is a creative response to real problems for remote workers (if not their organizations).  Further research is needed to document how well coworking works, for various modes of working, and from the perspective of different stakeholders.

The Allen et al paper suggest some areas where coworking spaces may miss out. In particular, coworking offers very little to family-work balance issues. As an explicit alternative to working at home, coworking negates any advantages telecommuting has for family life and work-life balance.

For example, few cowork spaces seem to acknowledge the possibility that coworkers might need day care or eldercare. (Many do recognize the need for canine care, though.) It is foolish to generalize, but any “community” that centers on a Friday beer party is clearly not dominated by parents with small children. I’m pretty sure there is an unfilled market niche for coworking spaces equipped with quality family care “amenities”.

More generally, coworking spaces are often perceived as lacking diversity. Perhaps this is a downside of the “community culture” of the space, which certainly is an opportunity for self-sorting. Discrimination laws probably don’t apply to coworking spaces, and in any case many of the “sorting” parameters aren’t conventional social categories. Rather, the “culture” is defined by charged rhetoric about “start up”, or “creatives” or “social activism” or whatever; as well as markers such as nerf fights, loud music, and drinking parties. This “cultural” dimension is completely missing from the studies of telecommuting.

Overall, Allen et al’s survey is a useful model for the kinds of research that should be done to learn how coworking works. Some of the findings may be directly applicable, but more important, the questions and measures give us a place to start our research.


 

  1. Allen, Tammy D., Timothy D. Golden, and Kristen M. Shockley, How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16 (2):40-68, October 1, 2015 2015. http://psi.sagepub.com/content/16/2/40.abstract

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