What is Coworking? The Unconference

I attended parts of the recent Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC 2016) in LA. This is the first of possibly several follow up posts.

One of the interesting aspects of coworking is that from the beginning it has been “a movement” (e.g., Open Coworking), loosely uniting a vast array of coworkers, coworking spaces, and related communities. If coworking is all about “community, community, community” (and it is), then this is the global community of communities.

Out of this movement, a series of “unconferences” were born, bringing together enthusiasts to talk and learn and share about how to spread coworking. The GCUC is one of the largest and longest running.

The LA meeting was attended by an international group of over 100. (The previous meeting was in Australia, future meetings will be in China—it’s definitely very international.) Perennial stars were present, including the Tony B. show, which was worth the price of admission alone. (More on his talk in a later post).

So, “what is a coworking unconference?” It could be many things, and over the years I’m sure it has been.

It seemed to me that this year marked a bit of a departure or at least change in emphasis. Rechristened GUGCALL, referring to a new concept of an “alliance”, the GUGC 2016 was heavily slanted toward coworking operators. (“We, the Operators”, said one slide.) Ordinary coworkers were not to be seen, nor was there much discussion of broader social perspectives.

I guess I should have expected something like this when I learned that the meeting is in the Steelcase building. Steelcase is about office furniture, not about workers, and certainly not about “community”, right?

Let me be clear: I am not criticizing the GCUC for this emphasis. There is a need for a conference such as this to exist. (And I would expect that there will need to be other “unconferences” for other perspectives.)

This version of GCUC had very much the flavor of a trade association meeting. There was much talk about the “Service Office Industry” (SOI), which was new to me, (and not really interesting). Several presenters view coworking (AKA “social workspaces”) as a segment of this larger “industry”.

Along these lines, the main topics were mainly of interest to operators of spaces. Real Estate, finance, office layout, and support software were discussed. Furthermore, the discussions were from the perspective of setting up and running a for profit coworking space. Not much interest in alternative business models.

This perspective was very visible in the pep talks about “growth” (e.g., see the video), as in “making lots of money from coworking”. Much of this talk about “growth” was enthusiastic, buzzword compliant, and logically shaky. (Projecting massive growth from a base of zero, when 50% of the participants are utterly new to the game is, well, bogus) Talking about a billion dollar industry is hardly the original meaning of coworking, and absolutely not in tune with the “mutualism” that supposedly marks coworking.

Another “give away” that this conference was aimed at business operators was the problematic assertion that “community is your product”. Uh, oh! GUCUALL has caught the Facebook disease! Coworking once was about building and sustaining communities, GCUC’s new alliance is about building and sustaining businesses that monetize these communities. Sigh.

I note in passing that the chatter about “growth” seemed to assume that huge sites with “communities” of hundreds are good things. Deskmag’s annual survey (soon to be reported) indicates that most of the growth is in larger and larger spaces with more and more members per space. Coworkers in these spaces have a “community” of hundreds, in spaces with hundreds of desks.

I’ll grant that these conditions are probably good for the operators, but I’m pretty sure we don’t know if they are good for the workers, especially compared to smaller, more local spaces. Given that the same survey finds that most coworkers have only been coworking for a year or so, we really have no idea how well these spaces are meeting the needs of workers.

Clearly, if GCUC retains this form, it is no longer a conference about “the movement”, it is a conference about “the industry”. As I said, to the degree that there is such an industry, there should certainly be get togethers. But there should also be other unmeetings, to talk about other organizational models (e.g., coops, coworking embedded in other organizations, home coworking), about community dynamics, and about the future of workers.

Personally, I felt out of place much of the time. I was constantly asked, in essence, “what space do you operate”, and the fact that I’m not in that business rendered the rest of the conversation awkward. I’m interested in sociotechnical communities, and the future of work—especially, the future of workers—so a lot of the yickety yack about leases and flexible space and “growth models” was a real trial to sit through.

Perhaps coworking is growing up, or perhaps it is being eaten by the real estate industry. I think that GCUC should think carefully about its roots, and try to not wander off into a catastrophic chase after the wrong kinds of “growth”.

My own view is that coworking is about small, local communities of workers, not about “Social Office Spaces”. More important, coworking doesn’t need to be “industry” at all, it can and will thrive in small, low budget, local settings. The envisioned “alliance” probably is not needed by coworkers, and has little to contribute to the essential business of coworking, which is convivial community in a convenient location.



What is Coworking?

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