Tag Archives: What is Coworking?

What is Coworking? The Book Launch!

The long promised book, “What is Coworking?” is finally available.  See details here.

It’s been a gradual rollout, so I am having a ‘Book Launch’ on June 1, to mark an official release date.

Book Launch Pop Up!

Come in and help celebrating the launch of a new book, “What is Coworking?” by Urbana author Robert E. McGrath.

Friday June 1, 2018
5 – 9PM
[Co][Lab] Urbana
206 W. Main St., Urbana


What is Coworking?

What is Coworking? It Can Be On A Co-op Plan

There are many ways to organize and operate a coworking space.  (See my new book, “What is Coworking?” [2])

These days, things have become awfully corporate feeling, and it is hard to remember the early days of coworking, which was much more of a worker owned enterprise.

The fact is, coworking spaces have been successfully run not just as for-profit companies, but also as not-just-for-profit, non-profit, embedded in other enterprises (e.g., libraries), and around kitchen tables.

And a coworking space can also be operated as a worker owned cooperative.

This month Cat Johnson reports on Coworking Niagara, “the only English-speaking coworking co-op in Canada” [1].   The workers who use the space are coowners of the space. Actually, paying members own the space, however much they use it.

Founder Trevor Twining indicates that the choice of a coop reflected the desire for mutual commitment. However, “cooperative” does not have to mean “non-profit.”

In the interest of financial sustainability, CN is organized as a for profit cooperative. This requires seeking income to sustain the space, which has led them to offer revenue generating services.

For profit status has both benefits and limitations.  Non-profits can have some kinds of relationships that for profit cannot (e.g., with public and other non-profits).

The main point, of course, was to align the formal governance of the space with the egalitarian spirit of the coworking community. “[W]e wanted members to not only feel like they were involved and had a say, but to actually have a say.

Twining says that a big benefit is that the members’, AKA customers’, interests are aligned with the space, and with each other.  This mutual interest strengthens this aspect of the community.

“We wanted to commit ourselves to them and we wanted them to be committed to us.”

Of course, cooperatives can be difficult to set up and operate. The legal framework is not trivial, and a patchwork across different jurisdictions.  And democratic decision making can be difficult.  On the other hand, Twining says there are generally other cooperatives in the area which are eager to cooperate.  So there is an existing ecosystem of mutual help among coops.

Is a coop a good model for running a coworking space?  Yes, for some, but not necessarily for all.

The plusses include the close alignment between the community and it’s spirit; and the operation of the facility. In particular, there won’t be a question of a corporate rake-off or other potential conflicts of interests between the management and the members.

This alignment is also a potential weakness. A coop is a commitment, and this may not suit every worker.  (A coop is all pigs, no chickens.) There are plenty of independent workers who desire a place to work, but not the hassle of helping run a workplace. It also may be harder to leave, or to split time with other coworking facilities. If you are part owner, you can’t walk away as easily.

A cooperative organization is not a guarantee against conflict. Indeed, a serious conflict among members will automatically be a conflict within the management, with potentially serious consequences.  We’ve all seen organizations disintegrate in factional fighting, and a coop is just as vulnerable to this, if not more so.

In the end, everything depends on the members and the leadership. In particular, with the right leadership, pretty much any formal organization will work.  And a good community will work well no matter what the paperwork says.

From what I have read, all things equal, booting up a coop is probably more work than a corporation.  But, as Twining says, “there are long-term rewards”.

  1. Cat Johnson, Bringing The Cooperative Business Model To Coworking: A Q&A With Cowork Niagara’s Trevor Twining, in allWork. 2018. https://allwork.space/2018/05/bringing-the-cooperative-business-model-to-coworking-a-qa-with-cowork-niagaras-trevor-twining/
  2. 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.

Hey, hey!  My new book “What is Coworking?” is (finally) available at online stores.

Check it out

And if you are in the area, come on out to the Book Launch, June 1.


What is Coworking?

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?



What is Coworking? It’s A Book!

I’ve been blogging about coworking since at least January 2015,  and for more than a year, I’ve promised a forthcoming book, “What is Coworking?”

The wait is over!

Just in time for this year’s Global Coworking UnConference (GCUC 2018), the long awaited book is rolling out.

What is Coworking? is a new book is a look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community.

Find out more here.

It’s a gradual launch.

The paperback and ebook are available via Lulu today, and will be available through more channels in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned for local events and other updates.



What is Coworking?

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.


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.

“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?

Tyra Seldon on “co-working with virtual strangers”

Sensei Tyra Seldon muses this month on “co-working with virtual strangers”.

These days terminology about work is confused and ambiguous, and it turns out that she is not specifically talking about “coworking” in the sense of physically sharing a coworking space.  And “virtual strangers” is not the metaphorical “as good as” strangers, but rather strangers known only through digital communications.

In short, she is describing digitally enabled distributed work groups. And her point is that freelancers not only can but should work in such teams.

we become members of shared virtual workspaces without leaving our homes or offices.”

Seldon sketches the plethora of software that makes these collaborations possible.

(Aside:  you youngsters have no idea how lucky you are. In my day, we built all this stuff from scratch – making it up as we went along, and with only 1% of the storage and bandwidth you have on your tablet.  Kid’s today have it easy. : – ))

Sensei Seldon advises that there are benefits, including “skills gained, resources generated, and relationships established”. She hints at the risks to be watched, such as contracts and payments.  The important thing to note is that these are really no different than the risks and benefits of any collaboration.

working with virtual strangers is going to be a significant part of the future of freelancing and gig economy jobs.

Seldon is correct, though I would say she understates the case by far.

First of all, the gig economy is pretty much designed with virtual teams in mind. Freelancing today is, almost by definition, going to involve virtual teams. So, no news there.

Second, these technologies were developed in conventional organizations which have geographically dispersed teams. There is a vast academic literature about the benefits and limitations of these work practices. My own summary would be that it has its strengths and weaknesses, but it is extremely cost effective so it is here to stay.

Third, I’ll point out that the contemporary Coworking Movement is a response and antidote to the isolation of working “without leaving our homes or offices”.  In a coworking space workers will find a face-to-face community of collaborators.  There the teams will use the digital tools as Seldon describes, but will also be able to talk in person and generally be less “strangers” to each other.  For many workers, this is the best part of working in a coworking space.

I would say that coworking spaces were developed to try to get the benefits of digital collaboration while mitigating the perils of isolation and distrust of virtual strangers. It’s a lot easier to establish trust and mutual respect face-to-face.

In short, Coworking spaces are designed to be where freelance workers collaborate.

I’ll note that the coworking movement has elaborated the perceived benefits of these collaborations far beyond Seldon’s own testimony, including enhanced happiness, productivity, and serendipity.  See perhaps [1-3].

So, I would agree with Sensei Seldon, though I honestly don’t think Freelancers have the option to not work in virtual groups. And I would strongly encourage freelancers to explore local coworking spaces (don’t stop at the first one, find one that fits), which may well be even more beneficial.

  1. Lori  Kane, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=ybFCrgEACAAJ
  2. Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015. https://www.dropbox.com/s/405kr9keucv97gw/LiquidTalentFoWEbook.pdf?dl=0
  3. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0. 2012. https://www.seats2meet.com/downloads/The_Serendipity_Machine.pdf
  4. Tyra Seldon, Can co-working with virtual strangers enhance your freelancing business?, in Freelancers Union. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/11/30/can-co-working-with-virtual-strangers-enhance-your-freelancing-business/



What is Coworking

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