“What is Coworking?” It’s Still All About “Community”

As I have commented many times in the last year, coworking is all about “community”, only secondarily about space or even “work”. Without a happy, active community, a coworking space is just a bunch of desks, probably less useful than a coffee shop.

While all coworking spaces are about “community”, there are many different “communities”, which means there are many different kinds of coworking spaces. But what can we say about these communities? What do they have in common? How do they work?

How Do They Work?

It is widely thought and claimed that coworking communities are collaborative, and increase creativity and productivity. Given that people self-select into their coworking space, we shouldn’t be surprised that they like working there. But what evidence is there for any benefits?

Vareska Van de Vrande and Michiel Tempelaar of the Rotterdam School of Management have published a survey of coworkers in the Netherlands [2]. The respondents reported positive outcomes, including “contributes to improving current products and services”, “expanding customer networks” and “development of business skills”, as well as finding gigs.

Van de Vrande and Tepelaar suggest two important reasons for the success, “serendipity and the creation of communities”. Large numbers of respondents reported unexpected, positive encounters with fellow coworkers.

The research found suggestive evidence that “community feeling” (i.e., a coworker feeling part of a community) is correlated with “collaborative innovation”. Intriguingly, serendipity seemed much more important than the organized community events for developing collaborations. They conclude that informal networking is most important, and the events program should seek to enhance it.

Caveat: This report is based on multiple sites of a single coworking chain, so I would be cautious before extrapolating to other coworking spaces that may have different “cultures”. Also, the data is mainly self report, so it would be important to get additional convergent measures, e.g., objective measures of the perceived “skill development”.

How Do You Build and Sustain a Community?

To create a new coworking space, and to keep one going, it is necessary to boot up and sustain a community, one way or another. One of the most fascinating developments in the coworking “movement” has been the emergence of pragmatic, deliberate “community management”, people who specialize in operating such communities.

One major practitioner is Tony Bacigalupo, author of “No More Sink Full of Mugs” [1]. After years of experience managing NewWorkCity, he is now one of the movers behind “Cotivation”, which teaches folks how to manage a coworking community.

So there are two new job descriptions, “Community Manager”, and a trainer of community managers!

In a New Year’s blog post, “Your Community’s Perfect January: My free toolkit for you!“, Bacigalupo gives us an idea of the kinds of things he thinks are important, in the form of a “free toolkit”. These ideas are “things that will welcome both current and existing members to integrate more with fellow community members”, with a “new year” theme.

“Resource #1” is a new year theme conversation starter, e.g., who wants to share ways that you plan to keep your resolutions.

“Resource #2” Call a planning meeting. (Ick!) He has suggestions for planning tools that might make this more effective.

“Resource #3” ”A fun winter gathering to kick the cold weather blues”. Such as a party.

And, of course, he plugs the Cotivation program.

Looking at the Van de Vrande and Tepelaar report, how do these “resources” stack up in terms of encouraging “serendipity”?

Resource #2, the Planning Meeting, is probably important for many reasons, to make sure members have a legitimate stake, and as part of bottom up governance. But it’s probably not much of a serendipity thing. If people are having unstructured conversations, it’s probably a bad meeting, no?

Resource #1, the “conversation starter”, is harder to guess. For some groups, this would be a conversation starter. For others it would be spam. If it starts people talking to each other, that’s a win. But who knows?

Actually, from reading B’s book, I think he is know for waling about and just starting conversations with people, face to face (not digitally). This, I imagine, is probably effective no matter what specific “script” he is working from. So maybe ignore the template and just go walkabout.

Resource #3, the Party, is, of course, all about serendipity. Whether pot lucks or alcohol themed events appeal depends on the group. His proposed themes don’t sound particularly interesting to me, but I might show up out of solidarity. But what would we talk about? (I’ve been to a lot of office parties in my life, I have rather low expectations.)

I don’t mean to be hypercritical here. The point I’m driving at is that this “community management” thing is more of an art than a science. I think V&T are probably correct that spontaneous conversation is more important that planned events.

How much or whether these “cotivation” resources help is an open question. Perhaps we will see some research on this question.


  1. Tony Bacigalupo, No More Sink Full of Mugs. 2015, No More Sink Full of Mugs: New York. https://sellfy.com/p/IBtB/
  2. Vareska Van de Vrande and Michiel Tempelaar, CREATING COMMUNITIES OF INNOVATION. Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 2015. http://api.rsm.nl/files/index/get/id/1aabed80-8ebb-11e5-8275-c1f4f8ce46f7


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