Ebook Reviews: Two On Coworking and The Future of Work.

 

Two Recent Ebooks On Coworking and The Future of Work.

Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it by Liquid Talent

The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, by Sebastian Olma f

These two books announce the “future of work”, which they believe is digital nomads coworking together—describing two companies that have designed businesses that employ digital technology to make this future work even better.

Dude, where’s my drone” [9] is a very short ebook (more like a white paper) from Liquid Talent (LT), an online employment agency specializing in matching freelancers to on-demand gigs. They call their service a “market”.

Their monograph lays out their view of “The Future of Work”, which they say is going through a technologically driven revolution, about which LT is very upbeat: “If the future of work is about anything, it is about optimism and opportunity.” (p. 24).

This future of work is here, they confidently declare, and it is the gig economy. They see an intersection of four important trends, all of which I have been exploring:

  • “the entrepreneur” worker type
  • coworking
  • the freelancing, gig economy
  • platforms for cooperation, coordination, and sharing

They begin with “history”, which apparently started in the 1990s, 🙂 What comes out of the 2009 crash, they tell us, is “the sharing economy”, as in AirBnB. Or is it the “on demand economy”, a la Uber? Whatever you call it, these businesses are “a new way to make a financial windfall” (p. 4), which doesn’t sound quite as positive as “sharing economy”.

Regardless, they see that this new economy is good for workers, who want “autonomy” and opportunity to create. LT lionizes the “solopreneur”, heroic creators who invent something and build it into a business. At this period, the story continues, laid off office workers “had no place to go” and many would not want to go back to a corporate office, even if that were that an option. They wanted, instead, to “operate on their own terms and in fun locations” (p, 7).  “A place that combined the energetic, open feel of Starbucks with more collaboration and access to like-minded business types” (pp. 7-8).

Enter coworking spaces. LT works closely with the chain of coworking spaces, WeWork [19] , which they hold up as a good example of this new way of working.

Coworking is, of course, not “not just in the technology”, but is all about “collaborating”. The space is “fun, inspiring, collaborative, and creative” (p. 8). Collaboration happens naturally because “you are comfortable enough to walk up to someone and start a conversation.” (p. 8)

Liquid Talent itself offers a matchmaking service that fits nicely into this new way of working, helping to foster connections, collaboration, and serendipity (see below). Among other things, they analyze social media profiles of their members, in order to make introductions that highlight “shared professional and social connections between hirers and talent, which establishes and immediate level of trust,, reference and comfort.” (p. 21)


 

The Serendipity Machine” [13] by Sebastian Olma  (published by the “Society 3.0” initiative, so you know they aren’t fiddling around) is about the same Millennial word of independent professionals. Olma is discussing the rationale and design of Seats2Meet (S2M), which is a chain of coworking spaces that is all about “serendipity”.

These spaces are based on their (not entirely clear) vision of post-capitalist “Society 3.0”, which is based on “abundance” (at least for young professionals), Now, he says, “you have to stop thinking in terms of value chains. Instead, you need to start thinking in terms of value networks.” (p. 59)

Coworking spaces are extremely important, they believe, because “the mesh also needs locations in order to materialize. Spaces to meet and collaborate.” (p. 63) They call the fruits of such interaction “social capital” which is gained by “open to unexpected and valuable encounters and to share your knowledge and talents! “ (p. 10) (This is not the only way the term “social capital” has used, so caution is in order.) “[T]he entire purpose of Seats2meet.com is to facilitate such unexpected encounters.” (p. 14)

Whether we completely agree with this theoretical analysis, S2M has “materialized” their intuitions using digital technology to augment coworking space. Specifically, when you register and then enter the physical space you have to simultaneously enter the corresponding virtual space, by posting a profile including “skills and expertise”. While in the space, everyone is visible on a big “dashboard”, and is expected to be open to talk and to share. This is “the best technology available to support … serendipity.” (p. 27)

This, then, is “the serendipity machine”, based on the lived experience of independent professionals, digital nomads, and solopenueurs, who desire “autonomy” and the freedom to create. This general experience is quite attractive for many people. (I would note that such collaborative work is just as attractive when it happens inside a conventional organization.)


Clearly LT and S2M are thinking about and operating in the same “society 3.0”, and both desire to create digitally enhanced coworking spaces where collaboration and serendipity can happen. Influenced by contemporary digital technology trends, they look to create “platforms” [2, 11] and to utilize social media and data analytics. These technologies are combined with a very deliberate and conscious effort to engineer specific types of “community”. And finally, they are working “at the intersection of digital technology and physical space” ([13], p.15)

Together these and similar treatments (e.g., Horowitz [7], Kane [8], Bacigalupo [1], etc.) paint a picture of a way of work” that, at the very least, makes some workers happy, and many believe it helps them to be more creative, productive, and to “thrive”, This is shown in some surveys [14, 18], and anecdotal comments (such as Mesku [12] and Marshall [11]), but I don’t know how strong the evidence may be.

This model and vision of work and raises quite a few unanswered questions. If the key is community, what kinds of community are best, and why? In the rest of this essay, I’ll briefly look at key questions about scaling, diversity, and sustainability.

Scaling

Coworking spaces have been created at many scales, from small, highly informal spaces (e.g., around a kitchen table [8]) through one-off neighborhood spaces, up to large, global chains (e.g., WeWork [19] and Seats2Meet) and global networks of spaces offering members access to coworking around the world (e.g., The League of Extraordinary Coworking Space [16], Coworking Pass Europe [15], Cowork Pass [4] and CoPass [3]).

In a large city, it is likely that a variety of coworking spaces coexist, which suggests that there may be more than one “optimal” solution.

Olma presents a case for the advantage of large chains of spaces like Seats2Meet. “Through the membership model, coworking spaces even run the risk of creating relatively exclusive community islands that, instead of exploiting their shared serendipity, weaken each other through unnecessary network competition” ([13], p. 42).

On the other hand, some spaces such as Enspiral [5], Make Shift Boston [10], or Kane’s Collective Self “home coworking space” [8], are dedicated to specific local communities, areas perhaps underserved by larger franchises. For that matter, some coworking spaces are tied to very specific locations, such as The Surf Office [17].

Do these individualized and local spaces “weaken” serendipity by fragmenting the population of coworkers? Or do they widen the network into smaller, localized niches? It is possible that both phenomena are happening, in which case there might be a balance point that optimizes overall inclusion and collaboration.

Diversity

The variety of coworking spaces of different scales also raises questions of diversity of the communities served.

Large franchises such as Seats2Meet and WeWork aim to replicate and spread a successful model. However, this is a monoculture, deploying a single solution everywhere. While this may be a profitable business model, we must certainly question whether the benefits of a larger network outweigh the potential weakness of a monoculture. (As far as I know, to date there is no sign that large chains are outcompeting local spaces.)

One important drawback of the monoculture is the likely loss of diversity in the community and its corresponding network. Reading descriptions and testimonials from these spaces makes it clear that the community is hardly a cross section of the whole population or even of all workers. Many people have noted coworking spaces that are primarily young, male, and dominated by particular industries (e.g., web design or software). What may serve this community well may be irrelevant, counter productive, or just plain off putting for other people.

Lori Kane recounts that she once visited a coworking space in San Francisco, where “she walked down a street that was incredibly diverse, with people from all over the world. Once she was in the coworking space, however, the diversity vanished. “I walked into the building, in through the doors, and up in to this lovely coworking space, and it was a sea of very young, white faces,” Kane says”  This experience inspired her to create her own coworking space based in her local community (described in [8]).

Others have created coworking spaces aimed at particular localities or demographics that are “under served” by the Silicon Valley vibe of, say, WeWork. For example, Enspiral [5] in New Zeeland focuses on social enterprises especially in their local area, Make Shift Boston [10], which focuses on community development in South Boston, and Hera Hub (“spa-inspired coworking space for female entrepreneurs”) [6], which serves (grown up) business oriented women.

Sustainability

We may also wonder if coworking spaces of any scale will be sustainable over any span of time. Most coworking spaces are only a few years old, and, by definition, they depend on a fluid, ever changing flow of coworkers. Sustaining a coworking space requires constantly recruiting replacements to maintain a pool of coworkers who will be part of the community. As the individuals turn over, the community will surely evolve. For a given coworking community, we can ask, “Will the community persist in the face of this change?’

The coworkers are mostly independents, working a series of gigs. It is not clear how this population with change over time, as more workers enter the pool, and current workers age, have families, and, perhaps, move into their own companies or other forms of permanent employment.

It is also far from clear that the job market will continue to support more and more “gigs”, and fewer and fewer permanent employees. There are certainly reasons to have long term employment relationships, e.g., to maintain property rights and security, to align the interests of workers and organizations, and to sustain long term projects and infrastructure.  Surely, some of these independents will someday get hired for a long term gig (especially when they have a kid and need to start a college fund).

While the “gig economy” has grown rapidly (from a small base) in recent time, how will it go in the future? And what will this mean for coworking?

Summary

Coworking spaces are part of the New Way of Work. These two texts describe one vision of this New Way, with a very positive view of the implications for workers and society.

There are many open questions about the real benefits and costs to workers, employers, and society in general. (Is coworking good for kids?) Despite the enthusiasm of these authors, it is important to remember that the current “gig” economy and coworking spaces in their current form have only been around for approximately a decade.

I have sketched some important questions here, which deserve serious investigation.


 

  1. Bacigalupo, Tony, No More Sink Full of Mugs. 2015, No More Sink Full of Mugs: New York. https://sellfy.com/p/IBtB/
  2. Chase, Robin, Peers, Inc.: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, New York, PublicAffairs, 2015.
  3. CoPass. CoPass. 2016, https://copass.org/network.
  4. Cowork Pass. Cowork Pass. http://coworkunite.com/cowork-pass/.
  5. Enspiral. Enspiral Space. 2015, http://www.enspiralspace.co.nz/.
  6. HeraHub. Hera Hub: Workspace for Women. 2015, http://herahub.com/.
  7. Horowitz, Sara, The Freelancer’s Bible, New York, Workman Publishing, 2012. http://freelancersbible.com/
  8. Kane, L., T. Borchardt, and B. de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015.
  9. 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
  10. Make Shift Boston. Make Shift Boston. 2016, http://makeshiftboston.org/space.
  11. Marshall, Claire, How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing. 2015. http://www.sharestories.net/
  12. Mesku, Melissa, Quantifying serendipity, in New Worker Magazine. 2016. http://newworker.co/mag/quantifying-serendipity-in-coworking/
  13. Olma, Sebastian, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, 2012.
  14. Spreitzer, Gretchen, Peter Bacevice, and Lyndon Garrett, Why People Thrive in Coworking Spaces. Harvard Business Review, 93 (8):1-7, 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/05/why-people-thrive-in-coworking-spaces
  15. The Coworking Pass Europe, The Coworking Pass Europe, 2016.
  16. The League of Extraordinary Coworking Space. The League of Extraordinary Coworking Space. 2016, http://lexc.org/.
  17. The Surf Office. The Surf Office Santa Cruz. 2015, http://www.thesurfoffice.com/santa-cruz/.
  18. Van de Vrande, Vareska and Michiel Tempelaar, CREATING COMMUNITIES OF INNOVATION. Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 2015. http://api.rsm.nl/files/index/get/id/1aabed80-8ebb-11e5-8275-c1f4f8ce46f7
  19. wework.com. WeWork: Create Your Life’s Work. 2015, https://www.wework.com/.

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