What is Coworking? Is It Participatory Theater?

It is universally agree that coworking is all about “community”; a coworking space is not just a workplace with desks to rent, it is a place inhabited by a community of workers who talk informally, help each other, teach each other, collaborate, and innovate. This community, and the feeling of belonging to a community, is vitally important, it offers “respite from our isolation” (Klaas, 2014 [2]), it may improve productivity, and it makes coworkers happy.

While some corporations believe that coworking is about slicing up infrastructure into small, “on-demand” units, and some companies believe that jamming their employees into temporary desk space will increase creativity and productivity, it seems very clear that without “community”, a workspace is just a workspace.

Taking a page from contemporary social media and its predecessor discussion groups and such from the digital Paleocene, coworking spaces have developed a pragmatic craft of creating and fostering “community”, which is represented by the growing ranks of professionals with job titles like “community manager”, “wranglers”, “catalysts”, and so on. These folks combine skills with facilities and infrastructure management, with HR and “hospitality” tools, to attend to and encourage social interaction among the workers.

But leadership, however inspired, cannot make a community. Only the workers can do that, and they do that by, well, doing it.

What does this mean? A research team from Michigan identified three pathways whereby members experienced a sense of community: espousing, learning, enacting.”[1]

The word “enacting” is an interesting hint here. One way to think about coworking community is that it is a bit of participatory theater. A coworking space is a theater in which the coworkers are invited to participate in an extended improvised performance, acting out a role a “coworker”.

The classic coworking “play” is about scrappy (young) freelancers, banding together to help each other and have fun along the way. Some spaces emphasize a “start up” theme, where scrappy (young) disruptive entrepreneurs band together to help each other get rich and have fun along the way. Other spaces enact a “social” mission, where a scrappy (young) social entrepreneurs band together to help each other make the world better and have some fun along the way.

And so on.

There can be any number of such narratives, and so there are many coworking spaces, even in the same city.  Coworkers are recruited (“curated”) into a space, where they take up a role.

The idea of “Coworking as Improv Theater” gives us  interesting insights into coworking communities and how they might be sustained, as well as why they might benefit workers. (If you act like a scrappy band of entrepreneurs who are having fun saving the world, then you will feel like a scrappy, etc.)

Furthermore, the coworking “play” contrasts to what other workplaces offer. Most coworkers have worked at home and/or coffee shops. These solo performances in the role of “freelancer” are lonely, and no matter how well you do it, there is no audience or troupe to share it with. Coworkers may also have worked in conventional organizations, where they may have enacted the role of a cog in a big machine, or as a pawn in complex and toxic politic drama, and little ability to write their own lines.

No wonder coworkers enjoy playing the part of “coworker”!

This perspective also illuminates the importance of the design and décor of the work space: it is the setting and the props for the play. As in any play, the design can fit the action, but it can never define the play, and in any case outstanding performances will always outshine the setting.  If the set is the star of the play, its generally a dud.

I note that many of the handbooks for “how to operate a coworking space” emphasize the importance of getting members to participate in the community, and offer tips for events and other exercises to invite conversation and interaction. These tactics are not that different from the set ups for improve theater. (And I would suggest that coworking community wranglers might explore theatrical improv for other ideas.)

As a broader point, this perspective also situates coworking amidst a broad set of social phenomena, digital and physical.

For example, in previous centuries, religious groups offered a variety of participatory theater, inviting people to act out roles, possibly including teacher, healer, penitent, and disciplinarian.

Today, similar psychology can be found in many situations, including sports fandom (professional wrestling is a particularly interesting example), fantasy-comic-game fandom (e.g., see Maggs [3]) and even serious politics (the parallels between, say, a Trump rally and a wrestling match seem clear).  These communities come together, and act out their plays about identity and morality.

Contemporary digital life is filled with virtual communities, which invite you to act out roles. My observation is that digital “discussion” sections are often less about communication than they are about acting out parts in unwritten plays. Digital trolls are never original, they are screaming out their role in a chorus in a morality play.

(Note: I am saying that there are similar social psychological processes of playing a role in the unwritten shared story of a community, not that all these groups are identical or equivalent. Good plays and bad plays work the same, so you need to pay attention to the “script”.)

In sum, coworking, like many contemporary phenomena, has a core that is participatory theater, inviting people to act out the role of happy coworker.  This perspective places coworking squarely within the range of many aspects of contemporary life, and suggests reasons for why coworking succeeds and makes coworkers happy.  It also tells us what is most important (what coworkers do together, and the story they try to act out together), and what is less important (the infrastructure and decor).

  1. Garrett, Lyndon Earl, Gretchen M. Spreitzer, and Peter Bacevice, Co-constructing a Sense of Community at Work: The Emergence of Community in Coworking Spaces. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2014 (1) January 1, 2014 2014. http://proceedings.aom.org/content/2014/1/14004.abstract
  2. Klaas, Zachary R., Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  3. Maggs, Sam, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: a Handbook for Geek Girls, Philadelphia, Quirk Books, 2015.


What is Coworking?

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