What is Coworking? It Could Be Participatory Theater

One way to think about coworking is to view it as Participatory, Improvised Theater. This perspective can give us insights into coworking communities, what coworking leaders do, and how why coworking benefits workers.

I’m not the only one who sees this connection.

Gordon Dymowski reports on a recent event for freelancers in Chicago, who participated in an evening of exercises at TheaterMomentum ,an improv theater in Chicago. Tony Rielage discussed how improv techniques can enhance a freelancer’s skills. Improv hinges on two key behaviors the first is a sense of play, that improv performers work together to tell a story.

Sensei Alex Hillman (a respected elder in the coworking movement) wrote in 2014 “To build a strong community, stop “community managing”, be a Tummler instead.,”  He argues that coworking “community managers” don’t and shouldn’t “manage” the community. “[Y]ou can’t create the culture, you can only create the system.”

He says they should try to be “tummlers”, referring to a Yiddish term from twentieth century American resorts. The tummler is someone who circulates in the crowd to encourage participation in the entertainment and dancing [3]. But a tummer works from the edge, “a Tummler actively seek to stay out of the spotlight for more than a few minutes at a time, or however long is actually necessary.”

What Does This Mean?

First of all, coworking is something that workers do.

Office space, technology, programs, and community leaders may foster a thriving working community, but “community” is something that workers themselves do. Hillman says, “Culture is the result of continual, but small actions – and interactions – between many people.” A University of Michigan research group concluded “identified three pathways whereby members experienced a sense of community: espousing, learning, enacting” [2].

Workers themselves act out the practice of coworking.

This is why I call it participatory, improvised theater.

If coworking is a play, then what Is the story?

Coworking is a narrative that that workers write and tell by acting out their own life and work. heroic role. I would say that the classic coworking “play” is a narrative in which each worker has an important and perhaps heroic role. Something like:

A group of scrappy (young) freelancers, banding together to help each other and have fun along the way.

This story can be seen in The Coworking Manifesto, e.g.,

Coworking is redefining the way we do work. Inspired by the participatory culture of the open source movement and the empowering nature of IT, we are building a more sustainable future. We are a group of connected individuals and small businesses creating an economy of innovation and creativity in our communities and worldwide.

Of course, there are many different coworking spaces and communities, and each coworker may have his or her own variation on the narrative.

This theatrical perspective gives us insight into many aspects of coworking.

If we think about coworking this way then the coworking space itself is the theater set in which the extended improvised performance occurs. As in any play, the design of the space can never wholly define the play itself, a strong narrative can be enacted on a broad range of sets, and different stories can be enacted on the same set, too.

Enacting his or her role as a “coworker” is an opportunity for an independent, isolated workers to develop important skills. The workers learn how to act like, and therefore to become, a successful, independent worker. This is what the play is about, no?

Second, taking up this role in a coworking space offers independent, isolated workers the opportunity to join in and advance a larger story, one which gives their work additional meaning. A coworker isn’t just showing up and completing her assignments, she is also supporting and collaborating with her peers, and together they are pioneering the new economy and making the world better.

In short, acting out the role of “coworker” is both the way to be successful and is motivating and enjoyable for the worker.

Coworkers frequently report that they value the autonomy of coworking, and I think this means not only freedom to work their own hours, but also the opportunity to frame their own work, goals, and personal identity in their own way, and to collaborate with whomever they please. In other words, unlike workers in a large organization, independent workers can write and act out the story of their working life.

What is Coworking? It is an opportunity to act out your work in the way you want, with people you like.

  1. Gordon Dymowski, Chicago freelancers tell their story through improv, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2016. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2016/10/25/chicago-freelancers/
  2. Lyndon Earl Garrett, 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
  3. Alex Hillman, To build a strong community, stop “community managing”, be a Tummler instead., in Alex Hillman. 2014. http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2014/04/community-management-tummling-a-tale-of-two-mindsets/


What is Coworking?


Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming early in 2017.

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