Category Archives: “New Way of Work”

What is Coworking? It Can Be Rural

Coworking is generally associated with urban or suburban settings, serving dense populations of independent workers and start ups.

What about rural areas, with much lower population densities, and correspondingly sparser social networks?

It is certainly possible to do digital work anywhere, including out in the country. Many rural areas have technical infrastructure to support remote working, and talented workers. However, in there are fewer people overall, and therefore fewer workers. In addition, many workers migrate to commercial centers.

So, can coworking succeed in a rural area?

Tim Ford blogs about Cohoots Coworking in rural Australia. Cohoots is located in a small town in a rural area, so it has been a struggle to get enough members to pay the bills.

The facility itself is conventional; featuring desks, networking, and events. But they advertise that if you “scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find some magic”. These “magical” features includes the memorable tag, “Members Who Want To Be Here”, i.e., a community of like-minded workers.

Ford is clear that the emphasis and the value added is community. Given the small population (and lack of competition), they have found little point in advertising ‘we have the best space’. Instead, they take what he calls an “inside out” approach. Community is not something that happens inside the coworking space, it connects out into the whole region.

I think this workspace is another example of how flexible and diverse coworking is. The physical and social setting is quite different from urban centers, but there is still entrepreneurship and community happening.

To my mind, this reflects the most important features of coworking. The space itself can be in the Bronx, Santa Clara, or Castlemaine, Victoria; and it can look and feel a lot of ways. What matters in every case is the presence of a thriving community; a group of people with shared interests meeting face-to-face, helping each other.

I’ll also note that this space almost certainly would not exist without the leadership cadre, who are all worked up about coworking and community. You can have the coolest office space in the world, but nothing will happen without community leaders.

Clearly, finances and low population are a challenge for any rural business, not just coworking. However, rural areas have some distinct advantages.

The cost of living is generally lower, and the lifestyle can be attractive. A small town already is a community and a regional center of social networking, so a coworking space fits naturally into the historic cultural patterns.

One of the best things about rural coworking is that it offers opportunities for people, especially young people, who want to stay home. Digital networks make it possible for kids to have a career without splitting for the city. Coworking, in turn, can be the social infrastructure that is a “respite from our isolation” (to quote Zachary Klaas [2]).

One thing that won’t work is a ginormous space like many operations are developing.  Think small and intimate, not large and generic.

But I’m sure that competent local leadership will understand this necessity well enough.

  1. Tim Ford, Rural Coworking – Our Journey, in Cohoots Blog. 2017.
  2. Zachary R., Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014.


What is Coworking

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

A Map of the Gig Economy

Speaking of the Gig Economy….

The iLabour Project (“Investigating the Construction of Labour Markets, Institutions and Movements on the Internet”) [3] has begun to try to track workers and work using online job and task services. This isn’t the whole of the Gig Economy, but it certainly is an important sector. Indeed, their data showed a 26% increase between 2015 and 2016—this is why we’re all interested in it!

What does that headline number mean? The data is amassed by retrieving “vacancies” from the most used online job markets. (This is done via a web crawl, so it is snapshots.) When possible, they record the type of work (‘occupation”) and the country where the worker resides. The gigs are “different market mechanisms and contracting styles, from online piecework to hourly freelancing.” [2].

One wonders if Uber and is included in this index? It’s not an open market, but it sure as heck is at the dark heart of the gig economy.

This index is an “indicator”, not an absolute measure. The year to year growth is a growth in…this index. Mainly, this means more “vacancies”, and presumably, more vacancies filled. Given the nature of these platfoms, that could mean more workers, or more work per worker, or both.

The iLabor project produced a supplement that describes the geographic location of the gig workers sampled, and the type of work.

Online Labour Index top occupation by country, 1-6 July 2017

The data confirms our expectations that India and Bangladesh are large sources of labor in these services, though US and UK also supply labor in certain specializations.

This index seems very limited to me. It has nothing to say about many vital aspects of this job market.

There is very little about the employers. There is nothing about outcome: productivity, satisfaction, value added.

As noted, there is little information about the number of workers, the hours per workers, and the income of workers. We are all concerned about the widespread trend toward very low wage piece work, that cannot support the workers.

The Oxford group makes their data available for others to use, which enabled Andrew Karpie to add his own analysis [1].  His analysis shows that “the U.S. and Canada account for over 50% of the global total projects requested”, with the overall finding that “it is clear that online work exchange activity today is largely between the U.S. and certain less-developed Asian countries.

Well duh!

He concludes that “this is likely true for three main reasons: (1) wage arbitrage (frequently), (2) lower transaction costs and (3) supply of skilled labor/talent (with shortages in the U.S.).”

No kidding?

This is not a pretty picture, and I’m always surprised by people who think this “innovation” is even remotely a good idea.

But it’s very good to see some actual data about the gig economy, even if it is limited in so many ways.

  1. Andrew Karpie, Where Are Online Workers Located? — Oxford Internet Institute Tool Breaks it Down, in Spend Matters Network. 2017.
  2. Otto Kassi, How the Online Labour Index is constructed, Oxford International Institute, 2016.
  3. Oxford International Institute, Introducing the iLabour Project. 2016.
  4. Kevin Stark, Oxford Internet Institute Launches Interactive Map of the Global Gig Economy. Sharable.July 27 2017,



Freelancer’s Toolkits?

The members who are “managed” by cool coworking software are mainly freelancers and independent contractors. These workers rent their workplace, and bring their own tools. So what is in their tool box?

Michael Katz has some suggestions for what you should have [1] .

Actually, his list are pretty simple, and mostly about being organized, getting “more efficient we can get managing repeatable, often mundane aspects of our work”.

  • Directions to my office
  • Standardized cards (e.g., “Thank you for the referral”)
  • Service descriptions (i.e., what you do)
  • New client questionnaire
  • Newsletter sign-up form

I note that all of these things are non-digital though all of them can be implemented in digital forms. In fact, every one of these ideas predate the ubiquitous internet.  They are about good business practices and relationships, not about technology.

Jeriann Ireland offers another take on this question, suggesting “The essential toolkit for minimalist (or broke) freelancers[2].

  • A Ready-to-Go Resume Template (and use LinkedIn to get it out there
  • A Decent Phone Plan (with call waiting)
  • A Dedicated Work Space (and separate computers and accounts)

This is a good list, and definitely a sound foundation.

His discussion of the “dedicated” workspace captures the essential psychology “Whether it’s a home office, a shared office space, or even a corner in your home, have a place where you only store work-related paperwork and itemsNaturally, “a dedicated workspace” might be membership in a local coworking space.

(I did raise an eyebrow at the comment that this is “the same concept as not spending non-sleeping time in your bed.”  Hmm.  I should never do anything in bed except sleep?)

Anyway, together these articles make clear that much of the challenge of freelancing is to be well organized, and to have a clear understanding of your own work processes.

“Templates” seem to be an important thing.  Basically, a template represents your understanding of how you work, and, as Katz puts it, the mundane and repeatable aspects.

I think this is a good point. Furthermore, the templates these guys mention most prominently are the “scripts” used for finding gigs and making contracts. There are other repeatable processes, such as billing, but connecting with new clients needs to be personal—so you need customized conversations.  

All this sounds like work!

Worse, it sounds exactly like “looking for a job”—which it is.  Gig workers have to really, really good at job hunting because they have to do it all the time. 

(Yet another reason I’ll never be a good Freelancer:  I absolutely hate, hate, hate job hunting.)

1. Jeriann Ireland, The essential toolkit for minimalist (or broke) freelancers, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017.

2. Michael Katz,, What’s in your tool chest?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017.

What is Coworking? It’s Partly About Office Management

Coworking spaces have emerged as one of the places where independent workers and small startups choose to work

Coworking is enabled by ubiquitous digital technology, which makes it possible for workers to “bring your own device”, and to work from pretty much anywhere.

The same technology has enabled office managers to operate not only anywhere, but at very small scales. From the point of view of the operator, the challenge of coworking is to be able to slice up workspace into one worker pieces, and very short time periods. Some coworking spaces are willing to rent a single desk for an hour at at time.

This granularity, and a desire to offer an array of packages, means that the office management must be extremely efficient and inexpensive. These processes have been automated for decades, of course, But now there are an increasing number of packages designed for the lowest budget operations, including coworking spaces.

Not only can workers work anywhere, it’s pretty easy to set up almost any space to be a rental workspace.

For example, Andy Alsop of “The” (maker of office management products) wrote about the “5 Best Coworking Office Space Management Software Solutions [1] .His list gives us an idea of the tasks that are commonly needed.

The five products listed may be a bit out of date, there will surely be many more entries in the intervening years.

But the important thing is, what do coworking space operators need?

The basic core is managing memberships and payments. The latter is a straightforward billing/invoicing task. The former combines elements of property leasing with customer relations, and different tools offer different features for this.

Nexudus (one of the biggest players) manages stuff like events, newsletters, and also printers and so on. Optix also has member-to-member messaging (redundant with Facebook etc.?) and a market for desk space. Coworkify has sales and marketing features (i.e., for recruiting members to fill the desks). Happy Desk has wifi network management and door access features.

All of the systems are designed to be sold or leased at low cost to even the smallest operator.

I note that this article is in the blog of The Receptionist, a company that makes “The Receptionist for iPad”, a versatile, effective and easy-to-use visitor management system available”. This suite of features includes annoying stuff like logging visitors to your office, integrated with deeper annoying features that connect these logs with security or sales data bases. All on an iPad connected to cloud services.

Overall, it is clear that complex business office processes are available to pretty much anyone.

In the case of the products that are specialized for coworking, the business features are combined with social features (e.g., mail and chat groups), PR stuff (event management, “customer relationship” stuff), and technical managements (wifi, doors, printers).


This job is harder than I realized.

But the best thing about these products, to my mind, is that they enable a good community leader to provide professional quality business services with relatively little effort. This frees time and energy for the most important part, schmoozing, connecting, teaching, and listening.

  1. Andy Alsop, 5 Best Coworking Office Space Management Software Solutions, in The Receptionist – Blog. 2015.


What is Coworking?

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

Seldon on Racial Divide in Freelancing

Tyra Seldon blogs about the racial divide in freelancing.

Studies suggest that there is a racial divide in freelancing, but the larger question is why?

It seems likely that there is a “gap”, even if there isn’t exceptionally solid data. Seldon points to a report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which documents “self employment” statistics for the USA [2]. She notes that this isn’t necessarily the same as “freelancing”, but it does show that blacks are substantially less likely to be “self employed” than whites.

(I note in passing that the BLS counts 15 million self-employed, about 10.1% of the workforce. The Freelancers Union counts 55 million Freelancers, about 35% of workers [1]. The FU gets its larger number because it counts temporary workers, moonlighters, and others that may or may not be counted as self-employed by the BLS.)

The basic “gap” in the BLS data is the finding that roughly twice the percentage of white workers are self-employed compared to black / African American. ([2], p. 6) This difference is a bit larger than the same gap between men and women. We have to be careful here, because this number actually means that of black workers, a smaller proportion are self-employed versus employed by others, compared to white workers.  (What is the “right proportion”?)

I don’t want to belabor the statistics. There is plenty of other evidence of racial disparities in “the new economy”, including the old a “digital divide”, concerns about development of entrepreneurs [3], and observations about coworking communities.

Seldon’s main point is, why would this be?  And what can be done about it?

Seldon  solicited discussion from the support group she moderates. She highlights a comment that lists reasons why a black worker might not freelance.

  1. Lack of Security
  2. Lack of Representation
  3. Lack of Mentors
  4. Stretched too Thin

The first and fourth items are pretty generic challenges that are surely faced by every worker, especially from a poor family.  Freelancing is risky, at least if you have other opportunities.

Items 2 and 3 suggest the important cultural context. If you never meet a Freelancer, never have a strong role model, are not encouraged, then obviously you are less likely to try it. Again, this is a factor for many people, including women, older workers, working mothers, and so on.

Seldon is a passionate advocate for freelancing, and sees it as a vital and booming opportunity. She does not want people to be overlooked and left out “while the economy booms with opportunities”. I’m not so sure about the opportunities, but there is no reason for needless racial, gender or cultural sorting among Freelancers or anyone else.

I will add another point:  one of the strengths of freelancing is networking and collaboration among a community of peers. This works best of all when the pool is both diverse [5] and inclusive of the broader society. Freelancers will produce better work if they are working with a variety of peers.  It’s that simple.

What can be done?

Seldon advocates “radical hospitality” (which is a theme from coworking communities, coliving, and community spaces), mentoring, and general “reaching out”. I agree. Freelancing isn’t all about handling money, contracts, etc. It’s about working together.


I note that coworking is successful partly because there is an emerging cadre of effective community leaders who practice and teach “radical hospitality” and community feeling.

Coworking also offers a caution. There are a great variety of coworking spaces, with different communities and cultural vibes. Coworkers self-select a workplace and community that suits them. This has resulted in happy workers, but also workplaces that are not a cross-section of their local community (however you define that).

As Samara Lynn advises, “Black startup owners may also want to search for co-working spaces with multiethnic staff and fellow entrepreneurs.” ([4], p. 38).

This self-segregation is not necessarily a great “solution” to the problem.

Finally, –I say, “get ‘em young”! The best way for people to grow up to be independent workers is for kids to want to be like those people. Freelancers should try to get into school, after school clubs, etc., to teach and practice radical hospitality for all kids.

  1. Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America: 2016. Freelancers Union and Upwork, New York, 2016.
  2. Steven F. Hipple. and Laurel A. Hammond, Self-employment In The United States. Bureau of Labor Statistics., Washington, DC, 2016.
  3. Julie S. Hui  and Shelly D. Farnham, Designing for Inclusion: Supporting Gender Diversity in Independent Innovation Teams, in Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on Supporting Group Work. 2016, ACM: Sanibel Island, Florida, USA. p. 71-85.
  4. Lynn, Samara, Finding the Perfect Co-working Space. Black Enterprise, 46 (9):58-59, 2016.
  5. Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007.
  6. Tyra Seldon, Freelancing and the racial divide, in FreelancersUnion Blog. 2017.


GCUC 2017: The “Coworky Awards”

I did not attend GCUC  USA conference this year. After last year, it is clear that GCUC is transitioning to be an “industry” conference, focused on the business of running coworking operations. Much of the program was in that vein and not especially interesting to me. Pretty much the only talk of real interest is the 2017 Coworking Survey from Deskmag.

One new feature was the first “Coworky Awards”, “Honoring the spaces, places, and people that make this industry juicy

This award (consciously or unconsciously) reveals quite a lot about the nature of the GCUC today.  First, the conference self-identifies with “this industry”. Second, the topics of interest are the physical spaces and individual people. Notably, there is nothing about community, work, or workers.

This broad characterization isn’t completely accurate, of course.

The categories are rather opaque to me, but do include topics other than industry insider stuff (though it generally strikes me as corporate style back-slapping).  Some of the categories are trivial (Best Website Design, Best Tagline), but some are pretty significant (Best Collective or Alliance, Best Social Impact Program). And some are inscrutable to outsiders (what the heck is a “Rainbow Unicorn”? What does “Volunteer to the Greater Movement” even mean?)

Let’s look at a few.

The social impact award mentions include Cogite (Tunisia), advocacy program trying to “to establish opportunities for dialogue between entrepreneurs and the Tunisian government”. A second recognizes COHIP (Toronto), health insurance for coworkers. The third is organized charity races from ios offices (Mexico).

These are worthy endeavors, though it is hard to determine the actual impact.

The category for “Best Technology To Run Your Space” recognizes three companies providing nice all-in-one packages that let pretty much anyone set up a coworking space anywhere (you have to bring your own community, of course). These are pretty nice products and pricing looks reasonable. But there are dozens of similar products, including an open source product (Nadine [3]), so I’m not certain how the selection was made.

Finally, there were three “Best Space Design” recogniitions. The winner Is Bespoke (SF), which is lauded thusly:

Bespoke Coworking, Events, and Demo was designed specifically as a retail-tech hub in the heart of Westfield Shopping Centre. Each square foot was meticulously designed to be flexible enough to exude the warmth of a second home, while doubling up on functionality.” 

I haven’t visited any of the mentioned spaces, but the pictures on the web show a space that is anything but “warm” and certainly not homey. I’ll take their word for the “doubling up on functionality”.

The main thing I note is that this award is based entirely on the perspective of the real estate developer. No mention why workers want to work in a shopping centre, or have “flexible” space, nor even why workers would want “the warmth of a second home”. (Do they have a first home, and is it “warm”?) There is certainly no mention that workers or their work benefit from this design.

In short, it is optimal space from the point of view of the rental company, but who knows if it is good for workers?

The bottom line is that the “hijacking” (a la Cat Johnson) continues, GCUC isn’t about coworking it is about the coworking sector of the “social office industry”,


  1. Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC). Coworky Awards Winners 2017. 2017,
  2. Deskmag and Global Coworking Unconference Conferences (GCUC), The Global Coworking Survey, in Global Coworking Unconference Conferences (GCUC). 2017: New York.
  3. Office Nomads. The Nadine Project. 2017,


What is Coworking?

Please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.

Beyond Crowdsourcing: Flash Organizations

Crowdsourcing has been the flavor of the month for several years now, and outsourcing has become a way of life for many workers everywhere. But there is a huge gap between the trivial microtasks typical of early crowdsourcing and most work. Even as digital gigs have become standard for many “creatives”, there are still many tasks that seem to require more than a mash up of freelancers.

Not to fear, we can make an app for that, too.

Melissa Valentine and colleagues as Stanford published an award-winning paper this month, describing “Flash Organizations: Crowdsourcing Complex Work by Structuring Crowds As Organizations,” [2]

The basic idea is to replace the completely flat social structure of simple crowdsourcing with a more complex structure that resembles conventional organization structures. This is implemented in a platform they call “Foundry”.

Something like Mechanical Turk or Task Rabbit has basically two roles, director (who specifies the work and pay rates) and worker (who performs tasks for pay). There may be wrinkles, such as a third party for quality control, but it’s a pretty simple graph, and the ‘roles’ are very generic.

The Stanford group elaborates this with specialized roles, plus teams and hierarchies. These concepts are familiar from organizations, and have actually been used in digital support for work for many, many, many years.

One contribution is to support more complicated descriptions of work roles. The idea is to be able to abstractly create a complicated organization including specialized experts and teams, which can be rapidly instantiated by recruiting workers with the requisite skills. The advantage is to enable workers who have never met to rapidly “to coordinate using their knowledge of the roles rather than their knowledge of each other.” ([2], p. 3523)  (This isn’t exactly original:  in fact they use Upwork, which already implements these roles, along with simplified hiring.)

The second contribution is to support rapid reconfiguration of the organization as work progresses. This is done by using techniques familiar from version control systems. The (digital model of the) organization can be branched and merged, to maintain a centralized coordinated consensus in the face of multiple parties making changes. (The ‘diffs’ are computed on a graph of objects, not on text or code.)

That’s all great, but how do you fill the slots with human workers?

Apparently, this is tackled by a virtual temp service, which maintains “panels” of “pre-vetted” workers. The current implementation uses Upwork’s process to create these panels.

When the organization is booted up, and as it changes, the platform automatically pulls workers out of the relevant panels, as needed. Since the screening has already been done (outsourced), “hiring” takes no time at all. Poof! (This turns out to be one of their key metrics for the platform.)

The paper describes three experiments using the platform to create virtual organization and execute software projects. The descriptions of the projects sound a lot like how these kind of projects would happen within a large organization. That is, when the group decides it needs a new expert or team for a part of the project, relevant workers are called in to tackle the task. In this sense, the platform is successfully delivering the advantage of being part of IBM or Google, in a crowdsourcing system.

“Turning freeelancers back into corporate drones” is probably not a tag line they hope for. 🙂

This platform makes it really easy for managers to fiddle with the project tasks and organization. Anyone who has dealt with pointy-haired managers recognizes the risk here. Indeed, the paper hints that some workers thought management needed to be more thoughtful about changing the organization and tasks.

“Making it easier to mismanage whole organizations” is another motto this project would not hope for. 🙂

The authors recognize that this model has limitations, and they discuss a few.

Naturally, the lack of organizational context and loyalty may be an issue for many cases. I’ll add that intellectual property and security concerns would preclude the completely open hiring process in many cases.  For example, the paper cites a time when a manager recognized a need for expertise, so he “hired a web security engineer in Egypt to train himself” on the relevant compliance process ([2], p. 3530).  I leave it as an exercise for the reader to list all the problems with this move.

This platform is obviously geared toward work that is organized as repeated gigs. Their models are film production and disaster response. These industries feature permanent organizations that perform the same complex task over and over. This enables the development of a well understood set of roles, and pools of qualified workers, and a need to boot up, execute, and tear down project specific organizations.

It’s not clear that other types of work can be shoe-horned into this model. For example, formal education might be thought of this way. But many would consider the task to extend over many years, and want it to adapt to the needs and preferences of the students (not the school managers). Hiring teachers in minutes isn’t nearly as important as maintaining a sustained progress over the student’s career.  For that matter, I don;t think that personal contact with role models, mentors, and peers can’t be outsourced to anonymous experts on the internet.

This platform requires this sort of well-understood expertise, such as “Android App Developer”. We can train and certify people for these skills. In recent years, we have even been able to retrain workers as technology evolves.

I’m not expecting there to be pools of interchangeable experts in every needed skill.  There are plenty of skills that are harder to train, and harder to certify. Skill at writing. Math chops. Customer service. Musical creativity.

Finally, one could consider the philosophical question of how you treat people. This model explicitly treats workers as interchangeable units. The Foundry created organization is not a group of people, it is a digital model that can be fiddled with like a video game–except the ‘NPC’s are actual humans. Workers do not know each other, and have pretty much no personal stake in the outcome. Bosses neither know nor care about the workers.

One of the benefits of working in an organization face-to-face, is that the workers do know each other and, ideally, care for each other. If you have worked in a big organization, you have probably done things to help another worker or the whole organization—regardless of your formal role. Building and sustaining a good organization can be the most rewarding part of work, and can be motivating far beyond paychecks.

On this point, it is instructive that one of the acknowledged models for the Foundry is film production.  Hollywood is notoriously a terrible place to work, especially for the skilled workers who are treated as interchangeable units. The top honchos and big stars may have fun (and make a fortune), but everybody else is abused and bullied and many are just hanging on from gig to gig.

Is this the model we want to follow as the future of work?

  1. Taylor Kubota, Stanford researchers develop crowdsourcing software to convene rapid, on-demand ‘flash organizations’, in Stanfor – News. 2017.
  2. Melissa A. Valentine, Daniela Retelny, Alexandra To, Negar Rahmati, Tulsee Doshi, and Michael S. Bernstein, Flash Organizations: Crowdsourcing Complex Work by Structuring Crowds As Organizations, in Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2017, ACM: Denver, Colorado, USA. p. 3523-3537.