What is Coworking? The New “Facebook”?

At the recent Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC 2016) in LA, the formal talks were dominated by discussions of the business of running a coworking space. “We, the operators” as one slide put it. These talks took the viewpoint of property owners and operators of for-profit office rental businesses. From this point of view, coworking is a tiny sliver of a larger “industry”, dealing in many forms of “flexible” office space.

In this world, coworking is neat because it has a uniquely awesome “product”: “community”. The question is, how to make a profit off of this product.

As I said before, GCUC has caught “the Facebook disease”, it thinks it wants to monetize the behavior of  coworkers.  We can hope it is a mild, non-fatal infection.

From this point of view, Tony Freeth spoke about the desirability of deploying “bleeding edge” technology, i.e., “Workspace Infrastructure goes bleeding edge and revenue follows”—revenue for the office space, not the workers. [slides]

I’ve been doing cutting edge infrastructure for decades now, so I was eager to hear his ideas!

I was not surprised that “workplace infrastructure” isn’t quite as “bleeding edge” as what I’m accustomed to in high end engineering and science labs. But he did put forth some important ideas that are pretty current (if not necessarily as new as he implied).

Idea 1: track users

Freeth noted that the operator of a coworking space potentially has access to a lot of data about the activities of his or her “users”—AKA the coworking community. A key aspect of this is to track the identity of each coworker, which will enable a trace of who does what when (and with whom).

Amid a confusing jumble of ideas, Freeth comes to the point: “onboarding” is one of the key advantages. “Using customers to do the work is free.” A coworking space can get each worker to log in and out of the space, and also to “book everything”, move to a “consumption model” (micro payments for everything you do). “Please insert ten Euros for the next hour at your desk….”

He also likes the idea of logging all “guests” who are there to meet and collaborate. This creates a database of hot prospects to recruit to the space.

Etc.


OK, this technology is all plausible. I was playing with crude forms of this stuff back at the turn of the century, so I know how it works.

More to the point, most of what he is talking about is simple analogies to what online communities do: track identity, charge for consumption, capture user behavior, monetize the users themselves. The “Facebook disease”. “Googleitis”.

This is also the same technology that “advanced” companies are deploying in their workspaces, from blood sucking vampires such as Amazon, blood sucking vampires such as Uber, to badly misguided green designers of “The Edge”.

Everybody else is doing it, why should we not “Googleize” our coworking spaces?


First of all, I was jarred when Freeth referred to coworkers as “users” of the space, and the assumption that they should be treated as “users”. This might be acceptable for corporate employees (though I would discourage such thinking), but is this really the right conception of coworkers and coworking?

As I have pointed out repeatedly, coworking is all about “community”, and furthermore, comes out of the “new mutualism” fostered by the “new way of work”. It is universally reported that coworking makes workers happy, and coworkers “thrive”.

Clearly, this vampiric monetization of coworkers for the profit of the owner of the office space has nothing to do with any “mutualism”, nor with any spirit of “community”, nor will it make coworkers happy. In fact, it places the space operator in an adversarial, exploitative relationship with the coworkers, who are now merely (not-in-any-way-unique) “users”.

My own guess would be that this sort of stuff will be highly corrosive and destructive of community, collaboration, and “serendipity”. One of the keys to building and sustaining community is unfettered human interaction, sharing, and generosity. “Booking everything” (in Freeth’s words) is the opposite of how you foster community, I would say.

Furthermore, coworkers will flee. Current evidence suggests that workers hate, hate, hate this kind of tracking.  My own experience is that no one submits to this kind of tracking and exploitation unless they have no other choice.

I would expect that coworkers will hate it just as much or more than corporate employees (who, as I said, loathe it). And, unlike corporate employees, coworkers do have a choice, and can very well walk away any time they want.

I mean, if you had the choice of a space that impersonally tracks everything you do and charges by the minute for everything you do, or a space run by Tony B. which would you choose?

This, then is the real point here: coworking spaces should really think twice before following corporate trends in tracking and metering workers because these practices are antithetical to the key feature of a successful coworking space: a community of happy coworkers.

I think if Freeth is flat wrong:, revenue will flee these practices, or at least coworking communities will.

 

What is Coworking?

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