Category Archives: “New Mutualism”

What is Coworking? The NYT “Style” Section Hasn’t A Clue

As I have noted before, in-home coworking is one of the low-cost variations of coworking.  It has been around for quite a while, documented by Lori Kane [3] and formalized by the likes of HOffice [2].

There is also an increasing trend to create a diverse array coworking communities to suit different workers, and to reflect the make up of cities.  Notably, there are many coworking spaces that aim to serve professional women in various formats.

In January, The New York Times apparently “discovered” this phenomena, and wrote a piece based on a few examples—from Los Angeles.   Sheila Marikar did a rather ill-informed piece in the Style section about home coworking targeting women, with the annoying title, “Come on Over to My Place, Sister Girlfriend, and We’ll Co-Work” [4].  Much of the piece is about the supposed ‘girls-hanging out’ conviviality of these work sessions.

The fluffy piece portrayed this as (a) sort of Californian craziness and (b) something that women do.

Sigh.

There are many ways to cowork, many different coworkers, and many different kinds of coworking communities.  There are many ways that women cowork, many different female workers, and many different kinds of female-oriented coworking communities—and many not-particulary-female-oriented coworking communities with many female workers.

As I noted, this home coworking approach has a considerable history, and the actual sessions vary, depending on the preferences of the participants.  That’s kind of the point, no?

It is true that home coworking is attractive to workers, male and female, who don’t enjoy a dry, soulless office environment. [5]  Again, that’s the point.

So, to sum up: from the NYT article, we learn that some women sometimes enjoy a female-oriented, informal chatty work environment.  Yup. So?  The whole idea of coworking is that workers get to choose and create their own working environment. For these workers, this is what they want.  (And, by the way, there have been times when I enjoyed a chatty, silly office environment–mostly male.)


While I found the article deeply and comprehensively ignorant, other were irritated by the Style-section fluffiness.  Very irritated.

Liz Elam of the Global Coworking Unconference reacted sharply, bristling “We’re Not Giggling and Braiding Each Other’s Hair, We’re Building an Industry” [1].  She found the article disrespectful, and points out that the coworking industry has had female leadership from the beginning.  (Elam herself is one of those founding leaders.)

[it] makes me cringe. It makes it sound like women in coworking spaces are going to braid each other’s hair, gossip about boys and giggle.

Now, Sensei Elam and I have our differences. She is dedicated to the idea of growing a global coworking industry, which I think is misguided. But I would never say Elam doesn’t know coworking inside and out.

In this case, she is absolutely right, and I don’t blame her for speaking up. The NYT article is insulting to working women, coworking or not.  But it is especially insulting to the many, many female leaders, entrepreneurs and workers who have created, operate, and participate in coworking.

Marikar knows almost nothing about real coworking. It’s that simple.


  1. Liz Elam, We’re Not Giggling and Braiding Each Other’s Hair, We’re Building an Industry, in GCUC Blog. 2017. http://gcuc.co/were-not-giggling/
  2. Hoffice. Hoffice: Come and work at someone’s home. 2017, http://hoffice.nu/en/.
  3. Lori Kane, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015.
  4. Sheila Marikar, Come on Over to My Place, Sister Girlfriend, and We’ll Co-Work, in New York Times. 2018: New York. p. Di. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/09/style/quilt-coworking-women.html
  5. Melissa Mesku (2016) Community: the key thing. New Worker Magazine, http://newworker.co/mag/what-your-key-says-about-your-coworking-space/

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming Real Soon Now in 2018.

Manzanedo and Trepat on “Positive Platforms”

Many people see the gig economy to be the “new way of work”, enabled by a variety of software “platforms” implementing on-demand labor markets (think ‘Uber’) (e.g., this, this, this).

Whatever the merits of this platform technology might be, it is clear that they are often not particularly beneficial for the workers or local economies.  The prospect of a future of marginal, exploitative employment is certainly problematic, and more efficient peonage is scarcely the original promise of the internet.

It is important to note, though, that these labor platforms are enabled by contemporary internet technology, but are not determined by the technology. By that I mean that there are many ways that such markets can be organized, operated, and governed while using the exact same ubiquitous digital technology.

The door is open to experimentation.

For example, the Platform Cooperativism movement proposes to use the same technology with user/worker owned cooperative models. The disrupters are easily disrupted.  “Seize the means of production“. Etc.

Platform Cooperativism is scarcely the end of the story, though.  Just what should we build from this technology?

This fall, Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat published a report for the Institute of the Future, “Designing positive platforms” [2].  Their focus is “governance”, i.e., how the operation is run, and how decisions are made. While they take internet technology as written, they believe that it can be used in “positive” ways, by which they mean positive from the point of view of the workers, i.e., those who create the value via the platform.

The gig economy runs entirely on online social platforms that connect people, knowledge, and opportunities for meaningful collaborative work.” ([2], p. 2)

What they want to do is come up with and promote concrete design principles, to transform the gig economy for the better.

By breaking down the designing of positive platform into concrete steps and actions, Manzanedo and Trepat hope to persuade more start-ups, cooperatives, nonprofits, and even corporations to integrate positive principles in their governance — and potentially transform the gig economy for the better.” [1]


They define “positive” to mean shared decision making and adequate benefits from the work.  Their approach focuses on governance, which is the design of decision making.  They break this down into three important facets ([2], p.3):

  • Ownership (property of capital and its entailed rights / accountability instead of ownership in the case of networks)
  • Value (value generation and value distribution processes within the organization)
  • Power (rights, processes and structures for decision-making)

The paper sketches five design principles (which are related and overlapping):

  1. Inclusion
  2. Participation
  3. Autonomy
  4. Recognition of the Generated Value
  5. Welfare

The report discusses examples from existing organizations, and points out known challenges.  They also highlight “positive practices”, i.e., good examples from the organizations examined.

One recurring challenge is scale. Some approaches work fine for a handful of people who can know and trust each other well.  But the approach may well break down at larger scales, where people cannot know each other.   Similarly, fully democratic decision making that works for a small group is difficult to maintain at large scale for many reasons.

Overall, I don’t think there is anything completely new here, but it is an interesting and pretty comprehensive survey of the challenges and prospects for democratic governance.

Personally, I’m not as sold on digital technology as these researchers are. There is really good reason to think that digital interactions are less personal and less pleasant than face to face.  This may or may not be an issue for governance and decision making.  I tend to think it is inherently depersonalizing and promotes many hidden biases (e.g., by privileging digital skills and amplifying some voices over others).

Nevertheless, digital technology is ubiquitous, so we need to learn how to use it well.  This report is a useful guide to start thinking about better ways to do things.


  1. Nithin Coca (2018) Institute for the Future report outlines a worker-centered design for gig economy platforms. Shareable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/report-outlines-how-gig-economy-platforms-that-takes-workers-rights-into-account
  2. Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat, Designing positive platforms: a guide for a governance-based approach. Institute For The Future, Palo Alto, 2017. http://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/ppj/DesigningPositivePlatforms_for_IFTF.pdf

 

Intergenerational Housing For Eldercare

As the population ages, the need for elder care is increasingly important.  Older adults need affordable and accessible housing, with different social settings. Those who do not have family close by may face social isolation, disconnection, and loneliness.

At the same time, young people need inexpensive housing.  And young students or workers also face loneliness and isolation.  Young parents also need assistance with child care. Furthermore, smaller and more mobile families have led to fewer opportunities for intergenerational interaction, for better or worse.

Sharon Ede calls attention to creative solution that attacks several problems in one move: inter generational co-living [1].

The basic idea is a dormitory with older adults and college students.  The residents commit to interacting and helping each other, with benefits to all. Ede reports on a particular project in the Netherlands (Humanitas), but the idea clearly can be replicated many places.

This idea fits into a spectrum of “co-living” concepts that are being explored.  (e.g., This, This, This, This, This)  Many of these concepts involve mixed living quarters for different ages and family arrangements, with shared common spaces and close social contacts. In some cases, this is closely associated with workspaces, so some of the residents work and live in the same space.

 

In short, this is recreating village life in a megacity.

The Humanitas project itself has an explicit contract for the young and old residents to interact, with a goal to support senior living. An explicit contract might not be necessary, but many such projects suffer when reality does not match hoped for interactions.  If people don’t talk to each other, help each other, and participate, it is hard to have a community.

While this sounds like a great idea, I can see why these communities are rare.

For one thing, this seems hard to finance.  In the case of Humanitas specifically, both students and elders generally don’t have a lot of money.  Renting to students may be cheap, but it scarcely provides high quality elder care on its own.  So this would be an additional cost to already expensive housing.

There is also a deep question about how the community is recruited and sustained.  Building a community like this doesn’t just happen, it takes leadership and work.   In the case of the elder care facility, it is run by a professional organization, and, no doubt, legally regulated.

It is clear to me that intergenerational housing isn’t going to happen spontaneously.  If people are left to their own choices, they will choose a community that they are comfortable with, which generally means “people like me”.  In the US, that is almost certainly going to result in racially and ethnically segregated communities.  And age groups tend to self-segregate in the wild.  Students flock to housing filled with young singles. There are entire cities in Florida inhabited only by retired people—no kids allowed!

There may also be legal limits on how much “curation” can be done.  It is easy to imaging law suits arising from selection that violates fair housing laws.


An alternative to this kind of ‘programmed dormitory’ would be to implement the concept “virtually”, a la something like  a “rent-a-grandparent” service (see Claire Marshall’s 2015 book for a bunch of good ideas).  It should be possible to connect and visit people without living with them.  Or to connect with people who live nearby digitally and physically.

My own view is that intergenerational interaction is a really good thing, which should be encouraged in many ways.  I like the ‘elder care dorm’ concept, but I don’t think it will be very widespread.


  1. Sharon Ede. 2018. At Humanitas, senior care meets student dorm in shared intergenerational living. Shareable. https://www.shareable.net/blog/at-humanitas-senior-care-meets-student-dorm-in-shared-intergenerational-living
  2. Tiffany R. Jansen,  2015. The Nursing Home That’s Also a Dorm. Citylab. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/10/the-nursing-home-thats-also-a-dorm/408424/
  3. Claire Marshall. 2015. “How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing.” Self Published. https://www.sharestories.net/the-book.

Slow Down, Work Better?

The contemporary “Gig Economy” is said to be the New Way of Working. Freelance workers are “free” to hustle for gigs and work as much or as little as they want.

But people are still people, and work still sucks, mostly.

But workers are on their own.


It isn’t too surprising to me that both the Coworking Movement and the Freelancers Union are coming to talk about mental health.  Liz Elam includes “wellness” and dealing with loneliness as a top megatrend in coworking.

And this month, Sensei Tyra Seldon muses on “slowing down” in the Freelancers Union Blog.

I admit that my reaction to here headline, “Can slowing down make you more productive?” was, “I hope the answer is, ‘yes’?”  For one thing, going slow is definitely in my personal wheelhouse. : – )  But also, advancing faster by moving slower is a natural strength of older workers, who face brutal challenges in the gig economy.

Anyway, what Sensei Seldon is actually talking about is not so much working slower, as living simpler.  In particular, she’s talking about turning it off.

She starts with the ubiquitous problem of digital distraction. Recording how she spends her time yielded alarming results: lot’s of activity, much of it irrelevant.

Whereas I thought my 60-hour weeks were signs of my being a dedicated entrepreneur and being uber productive, this reality check proved otherwise.

She did the obvious experiment, i.e., turning it off.  Spending more time in face-to-face conversations.  She also started to redefine “productivity”, to include “things that were meaningful and valuable”, such as meditation, prayer, and journalng.

And she liked it.

Even better, she worked better.

I don’t think I can fully go back to the person who I was


I’m not in the least surprised by Seldon’s experience.  There is a large and growing literature that tells us that constant digital engagement is bad for you in many ways. (here, here, here, here, here, here)

It is also true that one of the principle reasons that contemporary coworking was created is to deal with the need for face-to-face interactions.  Today’s workers are well connected digitally, but many are more socially isolated than ever.   It is important not just to unplug to take care of yourself, we have to take care of each other. The best way to do that is to talk face-to-face.

These problem have been around for a long time.  Working in a conventional organization is generally just as bad or worse as freelancing in this regard. In a conventional job, it isn’t easy to tell your boss that you don’t look busy because you are doing something more important than her deliverables.

The best thing here is that Freelancers actually can unplug and focus on more than being “busy”.  In this, the contemporary Gig Economy is directly attacking one of the most critical problems facing contemporary workers.  If Freelancing and Coworking end up actually helping people  live a better life, then they will be counted as great and successful innovations in working.


  1. Tyra Seldon, Can slowing down make you more productive?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/01/15/can-slowing-down-make-you-more-productive-2/

Liz Elam on the Future of Coworking

Liz Elam is the visible face of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, and a major advocate for the coworking “industry”.  This fall she wrote about Coworking Megatrends for 2018.

Sensei Elam makes some interesting observations.  She gives four trends:

  • Demand (especially, large corporations)
  • WeWork (is expanding and diversifying and aggressively marketing)
  • Scarcity of Resources (especially, community leaders)
  • Health (wellness and loneliness)

Elam is excited that “15% of the SP 500 have entered the coworking world”, though I’m not really sure what all “enter” means.  One thing it means is investment in coworking in a variety of permutations, “with more brands adding in coliving, coffee shops, retail and build to suit arrangements”.

WeWork has been aggressively expanding, underselling competitors, and generally being bad neighbors.  Elam comments that they are also diversifying and “losing focus on the original workspace vision”. (I have never heard her criticize any coworking operation before this.)

She sees a “scarcity of resources”, by which she means that investors are finding a dearth of investments, “they’re not finding enough operators that are willing, and able to scale.”  (Conversely, this means that there is a glut of money available.)  The most critical resource of all is community leadership, and experienced people are “in great demand and hard to retain”.

Finally, Elam continues to emphasize wellness. She echoes the growing concern about loneliness (which, by the way, has been a problem since the invention of cities).  She points out that “Coworking is the solution” to loneliness.


In a follow up with Sensei Cat Johnson, Elam emphasizes that health is at the end because it is the most important trend. This is a trendy topic, and who isn’t in favor of “healthy”?  But she emphasizes that there needs to be a serious commitment, not just boxes checked. Operators need “to make sure nobody is actively thinking about committing suicide in your space”.

Elam also has frank words for coworking operators who face fatal competition from WeWork.

When WeWork does start to hurt you—and they will—you’ve got to be able to survive it. You just need to survive because members will come back, and they’ll come back in droves because you offer a more meaningful and smaller community…We have a very clear advantage, but you’ve got to survive to be in the game.

This is a somewhat apocalyptic vision, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this contradicts her own rosy conclusion “that Coworking will continue to thrive, evolve and take over the world.

Elam is usually a loud advocate for the coworking industry, so it is very interesting to see her rather tough critiques of the industry. Despite her often corp-speak rhetoric, she seems to understand the original and true innovation of coworking is community, community, community.


I hold that coworking was invented to deal with the isolation of independent workers, and when it works well, it probably is a “cure” for loneliness.  Implied but unsaid by Elam is the question whether piles of corporate money, branding, and diverse “services” are likely to deliver community and happiness.

My own view is that they are antithetical to authentic community, and Elam’s comments about “a more meaningful and smaller community” is telling.  So is her use of the word “We” in the next sentence.  She seems to think so, too.

One wonders what may unfold at the 2018 GCUC meeting.  Elam promises a “really frank discussion” of the WeWork threat.  But will the rest of the meeting be about authentic community, or about how to clone WeWork?


  1. Liz Elam, The Coworking Megatrends for 2018, in LinkedIn – Pulse. 2017. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coworking-megatrends-2018-liz-elam/
  2. Cat Johnson, Digging Deeper Into The Coworking Megatrends Of 2018: A Q&A With Liz Elam, in AllWork. 2017. https://allwork.space/2017/12/digging-deeper-into-the-coworking-megatrends-of-2018-a-qa-with-liz-elam/
  3. Cat Johnson, The Evolution of the Shared Workspace Industry (and Where We’re Going Next), in Cat Johnson content. 2018. https://catjohnson.co/evolution-shared-workspace-industry/

 

What is Coworking?

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

Tyra Seldon on Freelancers Giving Back

The turn of the new year is a time to think about giving, and strengthening our communities through volunteering.

For many independent and freelance workers, it may be difficult to be philanthropic or even to think of how to do so. Working on your own, how can you find time, and what can you give?

Sensei Tyra Seldon says, “Giving back is not only doable, but quite enjoyable.”  [1]

As she says, as a freelancer, “I no longer have the ease of showing up for an event on behalf of my employer or checking off a box for my HR representative.”  This means she has to do more work to connect with and support organizations that she believes in.

She lists five good ideas for freelancers who want to give back their communities

  • Volunteer with other freelancers
  • “adopt” a local organization, to support through the year
  • dedicate your birthday to a cause
  • donate unused supplies
  • volunteer at local schools

She concludes,

“I have found that pouring into my community and engaging in service has enhanced my life tremendously. In fact, it has made me a better freelancer, business owner, and most importantly, a better human being.”

Hear, hear!


I’ll add another  suggestion.

Most communities and schools have programs that introduce school kids to possible careers and occupations. A key part of this “career fair” or whatever they call it, is opportunities for students to meet and talk to professionals, to discover and be inspired to think about their own future direction.

Clearly, it is important for kids to learn about freelancing, no?

So, I encourage freelancers to try to participate is these youth programs, to visit middle and high schools.

Tell kids what freelancing is all about, why it’s cool, and how to become one.  Show kids how cool freelancers are.


For extra credit, think about ways to create summer work experiences (internships, part time jobs, etc.) for high school kids.  This is an incredible opportunity for a kid to discover a future career that he or she never even knew existed, as well as get some critical early experience.

I know it’s hard for a solo part-time worker to host a kid for a few weeks in the summer.  But perhaps it would be possible banding together with other freelancers to share the load.  Thinking caps, people!

I bet it’s doable.  I know it’ll make your community a better place, and you’ll really love it.

Don’t take my word for it, listen to Sensei Seldon.


  1. Tyra Seldon, 5 ways to be philanthropic as a freelancer, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/12/21/5-ways-to-be-philanthropic-as-a-freelancer-2/

 

“The New Way of Work” in 2017

I continue to observe the development of the Gig Economy and related aspects of the “new way of work”.


Freelancing and the Freelancers Union

I am a member of the Freelancers Union (though I earn no income from freelancing), and continue to follow developments.  I strongly support the goals of the FU, though there is little visible impact out here in the boonies.

Their blog and other materials provide an interesting window on the life and challenges of Freelancers.

However, I have criticized their annual reports, which make dubious claims about the number of Freelancers now and project in the future.


Platform Cooperatives (with or without blockchains)

I continue to follow the development of “Platform Cooperativism”  New implementations continue to emerge, with and without blockchains.

While some enthusiasts are excited about ‘replacing Uber’ et al with blockchain-based decentralized markets, most of the hard work is in the user interface, community relations, and above all, the legal and organizational challenges.

I have observed several times that blockchain per se doesn’t really help solve most of the key challenges of creating a local cooperative. In fact, a “trustless” decentralized, digital organization is antithetical to the development of a face-to-face, locally run, community organization.  Using a blaockchain may be cheap and easy, but it isn’t especially conducive to creating personal trust.


What is Coworking?

I continue to blog about coworking, exploring the question “What is Coworking?”

As I have said, coworking is where the gig economy happens.

This year, I was particularly interest in some of the less developed flavors of coworking, including Kidful Coworking, coworking in rural areas, and the growing diversity of coworkers.

(Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming Reals Soon Now early in 2018.)


I expect all of these topics will continue to be interesting in 2018.

 

What is Coworking?