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Summary:

Evidence from last week’s Global Coworking Unconference Conference and recent online commentary on the movement points to the fact that earlier predictions on GigaOM that coworking is undergoing a rapid and significant transformation were on to something. Should we mourn or rejoice?

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Coworking may have started among idealists and the community-minded as a way to band together to make work better and more ecologically friendly, but as Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, told GigaOM earlier this year, it’s a movement in the midst of a major transition. Coworking is shifting (in fits and starts and with many owners determined to hold to its initial ideals) toward greater professionalization and is increasingly run by the more traditionally business- and profit-minded, King said.

Is he right? Evidence from the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, which was held last week in Austin, Texas, to take advantage of the SXSW influx, suggests he is. Coworking magazine DeskMag attended the annual get-together of space owners and those interested in the movement, and it reported that, among those in attendance, “everyone agreed that the movement is undergoing intense growth and change.” What sort of change? DeskMag describes shifts that sound very much aligned with what King outlined.

GCUC director Liz Elam opened the event yesterday, standing in front of a ballroom full of participants who looked surprised by their surroundings. For the coworking “veterans” (those who have been around the scene for two, three or more years), the surprise was due to the professionalization of the movement and the influx of new businesses.

Or as Mark Gilbreath, the CEO of LiquidSpace, said at the conference, “Today we legitimized a movement,” a fact that was reflected in the organizations that attended. Big business “dropped in to see what all the fuss was about,” according to DeskMag. The increasing interest of corporate America in coworking reinforces the notion that it is moving from an outsiders’ movement to a recognized phenomenon even slow-moving organizations are hoping to exploit. King mentioned that bigger firms were exploring developing “internal collaboration spaces” in the coworking mold to spark creativity and collaboration, and this is something other commentators are starting to catch on to as well.

HR exec and blogger Jason Lauritsen, for instance, recently posted on coworking, noting that the folks using coworking spaces are exactly the sort of corporate runaways big business would like to lure back. “These are the people who we covet in corporate recruiting circles, but who have opted out of the corporate hamster wheel because they don’t like being told how to work — and they are talented enough to dictate their own terms,” he writes. Forget tempting them back to cage-like cubicles. Instead, he suggests:

If we want to attract the next generation of highly talented rock star employees (read innovators) into our workforce, we may need to completely rethink how we organize our workplaces. Instead of assigning desks or offices, we create spaces and places where people can choose to work based on what kind of work they need to do that day or how many people they are working with. We may need to rethink the idea of housing departments together and instead mix it up. Coworking spaces bring together people doing completely different work in completely different industries and they benefit greatly from the collision of ideas and perspectives. What would happen if we mixed up the product people with the business development folks and (dare I say it) the HR folks. One thing you generally won’t find in a coworking space, cubicle walls. Cubicles are miniature silos. They kill creativity and openness. They make us think and behave smaller than we are.

Depending on your business, why not build a network with some other non-competing businesses to create a network of coworking spaces for employees to share and use. These spaces don’t need to be anywhere near your brick and mortar corporate palaces. They just need to have the basics that employees need to work and be designed to feel like a place you’d want to go to do work.

Coworking, it seems, is growing up and moving out of its original geographic and industry-specific enclaves, penetrating the consciousness of more mainstream institutions. That suggests a movement with a wider reach, which slowly but perceptibly, is fulfilling the aim of changing the way work gets done. Or, like hip-hop and graffiti in fast-food and car commercials, corporate use of the original movement might also signal that it has been co-opted, its message of change to the status quo of work lost with only the shell of style (No cubes! Funky interior design!) remaining.

Is corporate interest in coworking a good thing, the first peal of its death knell or something in between?

Image courtesy of Nick Simonite

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  1. Beth Buczynski Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    I’m afraid that corporate interest in coworking will probably lead to a rise in what I feel are copy-cat spaces. They look like coworking, but aren’t invested in the community aspect. This sucks, but is inevitable, as it’s in the business world’s nature to exploit opportunities when they emerge. However, I’m confident that the real coworking movement will continue unabated, despite this intrusion.

    I’d also like to point out that no actual coworking space owners were quoted in this article. Aren’t they the ones who’s opinions would have been relevant here?

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    1. BRUCE BOROWSKY Thursday, March 15, 2012

      Great point Beth! I’m happy to say that the coworking space we have here at Boulder Digital Arts wasn’t designed as a business – it grew organically out of the community we’d already built at BDA through our training and social events. We embraced coworking as an ideal way to foster collaboration amongst the creative digital professionals that were already using our space; it was the perfect fit to take our community to the next level and provide a place for them to meet with their clients, have a nice professional space to work surrounded by other like-minded folks, and generally keep the creative community vital. It’s been very interesting watching new coworking places in Boulder spring up lately, as people seek to ride the tide, and their business plans are very aggressive, yet they seem surprised when they don’t make tons of money from coworking. As anyone knows who’s been dealing with coworking, it’s not the best business to go into if you want to get rich! Meanwhile, we just keep trying everyday to make BDA a nice place to come to work, when you want to come in to work, especially when you just want to be around a creative environment. To us, it’s all about community.

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    2. A space owner actually pointed me towards Mark Gilbreath’s comment as the pithiest expression of her viewpoint. Plus, this isn’t really about what owners think of the idea of “coworking 2.0″ but instead the fact that the idea is penetrating the corporate consciousness. Owners’ reactions might make a good follow-up though — folks seem to have strong and interesting opinions.

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  2. It would be a shame if coworking sold its soul and became a commercial phenomenom. The whole idea is that it is not meant to be organised and rigid, more a free-flowing, organic idea as Bruce mentioned.

    Also, why is it that almost everyone these days doesn’t know the difference between “who’s” and “whose”, “its” and “it’s” or “they’re” “their” and “there”? Depressing.

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