2018 Coworking Survey: Not That Great News

The annual Deskmag survey [1] is presented at Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) every year.  For the past few years, the full report has been proprietary, i.e., you have to buy it.  This is standard practice for corporate research, but makes it impossible for me or any other independent researcher to critique or even comment on their results.   Personally, I think it would be a good idea to release as much of the data as possible.  Maybe release last year when you publish this year, or something like that.

Anyway, the headlines are pretty much the same as usual [4]. The number of coworkers and the number of coworking operations has grown steadily.

In the past few years, the survey has focused more and more on coworking operators, and on projecting the future of the “industry”.  Much of the report is a collection of opinions about what insiders expect in the next year.  These are roughly as useful as any of the junk in the “business news”.

The big news this year, of course, is the aggressive expansion of the WeWork chain [2].  The survey documents the widespread complaints about the impact of WeWork’s anti-competitive behaviors. There isn’t any actual data, just opinions.

This annual survey is one of the most influential reports on coworking.  As noted, it has the privilege of an annual presentation at GCUC, and everyone cites it, including me [3].

This survey is becoming less and less useful over the years.

First of all, the methodology is not published, but seems very weak.

This year, as in the past, it is still conducted as a web survey.  There is no sampling strategy, and it is subject to all the shortcomings of any public poll. The only thing reported about the sample is “1980 people filled in the questionnaire.”  That’s a healthy sample size, but they appear to be entirely self-selected.  It isn’t necessarily representative of all coworkers or coworking operations, and certainly doesn’t represent, say, workers who don’t coowork, or have stopped coworking.

Even the headline numbers are less than they seem.  The reports emphasize a continued steady growth in workers and sites.  Even taking these data at face value (and there isn’t really much support for the specific numbers) the story isn’t all that rosy.

The reported growth in coworkers is something like 33% in 2018.  This is healthy growth, though hard to parse precisely. Does a worker who uses a coworking space one hour per year count the same as a full time, all year member?

But the main point is that this large year-to-year increase is coming off a pretty small base number. If the total number of coworkers really is 1.69 million people world wide, then this is something like one out of every 1700 workers.  (The increase is up from something like 1 in 1900.)  This is a tiny fraction of all workers.

This actually makes sense.  Vast numbers of workers produce physical products and/or deal directly with customers and users (e.g., farmers, doctors, firefighters). Coworking isn’t really a meaningful option for these workers, even if they are independent contractors.

Of course, for some categories of work and workers, coworking is much more prevalent.  I’m sure that a relatively high proportion of freelance digital workers choose to cowork at least some of the time. This workforce has been growing in recent decades, perhaps as much as 26% in 2017.   Similarly, the number of “freelancers” is growing, perhaps by 5%. The reported growth in coworking is roughly consistent with the growth in digital workers, and faster than the general group of “freelancers”.

The 2018 survey also finds “18,900 shared workspaces around the world, compared to 8,900 in 2015.”  Doubling every 3 years is a pretty good pace, though again it is a small base number.  20,000 sites is not really a big number. For comparison, there are something like 25,000 Starbucks sites world-wide (and most coworkers probably also work in one or more coffee houses.)

Overall, coworking is still a tiny, tiny sliver of all workers and workplaces.

With this in mind, the rather gloomy predictions from many of the respondents stand out as serious red flags.  Many operators report difficulties attracting new members, too much competition (e.g., from other coworking spaces), and other signs that growth will be limited.

It may be telling that even in the deskmag survey,  the growth of workers is about the same or slower than the growth in sites.

Altogether, it is easy to believe that coworking is already overbuilt.

I personally take this entire survey with a grain of salt. It is not only self-reports from a self-selected sample, many of the headline questions are actually asking for guesses about the future.   Sigh.

However, taking the data to be at least somewhat accurate, the rhetoric about growth looks like corporate cheerleading to me. The capacity is growing as fast, and possibly faster, than the user base. There is plenty of reason to wonder just how large the pool of potential coworkers actually is, and will be in the future.

This intuition is reflected in the anxieties expressed by the respondents about finding new members and competition.

The signs are that coworking may be “over built”, and may experience a major crash.

  1. Carsten Foertsch (2018) 1.7 Million Members Will Work in Coworking Spaces by the End of 2018. deskmag, http://www.deskmag.com/en/1-7-million-members-will-work-in-coworking-spaces-by-the-end-of-2018-survey
  2. Carsten Foertsch (2018) WeWork harms 40% of all coworking spaces in its close vicinity, however…. deskmag, http://www.deskmag.com/en/wework-harms-40percent-of-coworking-spaces-in-its-close-vicinity-competition-986
  3. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community, Urbana, Robert E. McGrath, 2018.
  4. Ruby Irene Pratka (2018) Deskmag survey: More than 1.5 million people to use coworking spaces this year. Sharable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/recent-report-estimates-13-million-people-use-coworking-spaces

For more information about coworking and coworkers, see my new book:

What is Coworking?

A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community,

What is Coworking?



3 thoughts on “2018 Coworking Survey: Not That Great News”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.