What is Coworking? It Might Be “Coliving”, Too

In a recent New Yorker Lizzie Widdicombe reports about “coliving” in NYC . As the subtitle says, “why give up dorm life?”

From talking with coworking operators, I gather that the newest thing in coworking is “coliving”, extending the any-hour-of-the-day coworking community to include residency. Is this a good idea?

Coliving, per se, is probably driven by the same social dynamics that have propelled the development of coworking spaces: the large number of young independent and freelance workers who crave community. If you want to belong to a friendly, supportive community at work, you probably would like something similar when you go home, no?

Widdicombe describes what coliving (without coworking) is like, at least in housing crunched NYC. Aside from bedrooms instead of desks, the infrastructure is pretty much identical to coworking, as is the social structure. There is a community wrangler (termed “house leader”), digital social spaces, social events, and, above all, a community of simpatico people.

One of the “house managers” also works as a “community manager” in a coworking space (yay for cultural anthro majors!), and many of the colivers (a word which my spell checker wants to change to “cod livers”) are also coworkers. The upshot is that coliving is highly compatible with coworking in a lot of ways.

It’s no surprise then that WeWork has started WeLive (“a new way of living”). Employing the social networking techniques used in the coworking space, the facilities drive “community engagement” (via an app), and, apparently, offer free beer. Other coworking operators have or soon will branch out into this business.

The big selling point is, of course, the conviviality of knowing your neighbors, even if it is only within the bounds of one property. There is little question that it is not only nice, but deeply addictive, to have everybody know your name.

I agree with Widdicombe that this is “about a specific stage in the modern bourgeois life cycle: the period sociologists call “extended adolescence”. (Offering free beer and Pecha Kucha does not exactly say “bring your two year old”.) Just as we did, and every generation does, this prime demographic is projected to be the way of the future. Colivers believe that in twenty years everyone will live like this.

These projections are, of course, most likely wrong. The current residents seem to be young and single, as you would expect. They will not be young, single, and childless forever. Soon enough, just like every generation before, they will pair up, make a nest, and breed. They may also take in aged parents, and, in turn, eventually retire. Even the current residents are apt to leave when they get a serious girl/boy friend. They will not want to live in a college dorm forever. I’m very confident in this prediction.

Whether there will remain a market for these spaces for young singles remains to be seen. Fashions may change. Coliving succeeds in the tough housing markets in major cities. It is no coincidence that coliving came out of San Francisco and New York, where housing prices are absurd, and vacancies hard to find. It is less clear whether coliving will be as popular in other locales where housing is more abundant and cheaper, nor whether it would be economically competitive in renters markets.

But back to coworking+coliving.

Some operators are thinking about a unified coworking / coliving space. Dorms upstairs, workrooms downstairs. Mostly the same set of people both places.

I can see that this is totally feasible, and attractive from the point of view of the operator. The infrastructure and community activities are so similar, they can easily be the same. The two spaces might attract a larger set of people, and command top dollar. I could imagine a free “basic membership” in the coworking space bundled in the coliving contract.

But is this a good idea for the workers? Coworking and coliving probably make different social and psychological demands on people, and a simpatico set of workers is not necessarily a simpatico set of roommates, nor vice versa.

If you have the right set of people, of course, this could be a deep and very satisfying life, particularly if there is a sense of shared purpose and values. One of the operators interviewed by Widdicombe recalled his early life on a Kibbutz, which is something of a model for how you would want a coliving and coworking community to work.

On the other hand, if there is no getting away from work, if you have to live with the same people you deal with all day, there are sure to be problems. It’s one thing to get sick and tired of your coworkers, and just find another workplace. That’s a lot harder to do with housing, you can’t always just move out if you hate your roomies.

For that matter, the “shared purpose” of the workplace is often quite different from whatever “shared purpose” you might enjoy with your dorm mates. Maybe there is shared passion that plays out in both work and living, but if not then it could be a formula for conflict and unhappiness, as workday conflicts carry over into the dorm. For that matter, the people you party with may not be the people you want to work with, and vice versa.

My own preference has always to keep some distance between “work” and “home”, leaving a psychological and social gap between them. It is awfully nice to be able to go home and leaver work behind, and to be 100% working at work. Many people probably share this inclination.  For this reason, I would guess that things might work best if you don’t combine the two in a single space, or a single lease.

Coliving might be an attractive option, especially in large, crowded cities. And coworking operators are the right people to create these spaces. But I would advise against doing both together as a single community.


  1. Lizzie Widdicombe, Happy together, The New Yorker, May 16 2016: p. 48-55.

 

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