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Summary:

A handful of furniture and design stores are doubling up as coworking spaces, encouraging nomadic workers to drop in with their laptops. Is this a natural evolution and the beginnings of a healthy partnership, or hardly a home fit for community-focused coworkers?

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The web, one observer recently argued, is transforming all our public spaces into coffee shops. Fast internet connections mean fewer of us need to go to the office, for example. Where do we end up instead? Coffee shop type environments. Online shopping, likewise, may transform retail stores into relaxing spaces to ogle products, pick up goods and, of course, down some caffeine. Universities? Online education is pushing them the same way.

If you buy this argument that many types of public spaces are converging on this coffee-shop-like future, then perhaps the latest development in the evolution of coworking won’t surprise you. If both work spaces and shopping spaces are becoming more like coffee shops, why not have them occupy the same space?

That’s what a handful of design and home furnishing stores are doing, inviting coworkers into their tastefully designed showrooms to work. Konzepp, a concept store in Hong Kong, combines the functions of boutique, events space, cafe and coworking space, while in Texas District Workplace coworking has set up shop in Austin Business Furniture. In Hawaii, The Box Jelly coworking makes its home in furnishings store fishcake.

The concept, as Shareable’s Beth Buczynski points out, is clearly an effort by furniture sellers to understand and market themselves to the growing coworking movement. Buczynski writes:

Every work space, whether it’s a large coworking facility or a home office, needs chairs, desks, tables, lamps, file cabinets, and various other tools of the trade. Office furniture companies want to meet those needs, and several have discovered that coworking is a great way to gain exposure among the independent workforce.

“Over the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to meet with most of the major furniture providers: Haworth, Herman Miller and Steelcase,” said Mark Gilbreath, founder and CEO of LiquidSpace. “They are all quite aware of the coworking movement, so no surprise to see them dipping their toes into the water. It’s a natural thing for them to do as they observe changes in the work behaviors of their major corporate clients (eg steady shift toward mobility) and seek to apply their knowledge of what makes for a great/productive/healthy/high performance space to the new places where work happens.”

Steelcase has taken a number of experimental steps to understand this new world. They’ve operated Workspring in Chicago for 2+ years (not a coworking space, but an incredibly cool collaborative workspace that can be booked for off-site collaborative meetings) and also operate the 654 Crowswell coworking space in Grand Rapids Michigan

Unsurprisingly given the communitarian leanings of Shareable (the hint is in the title), Buzcsynski advocates welcoming retailers to the coworking fold. “Are businesses advancing their own agenda by offering space to coworkers at no charge? Absolutely. But the onus is on the coworking movement to respond in the spirit of collaboration and community. These values minimize competition and nurture the health of small businesses and local economies. If non-coworking businesses understand those goals and want to lend a hand in their own unique way, why exclude them?” she concludes.

But others in the movement are more skeptical about the interest from retailers, suggesting that their participation in the scene could dilute the spirit of community support that coworking strives for. “It is pretty clear that coworking is the afterthought not the focus,” Liz Elam, founder of Link Coworking in Austin and producer of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, says of these retailers-slash-space providers. “It’s like people working in hotel lobbies. It’s not the primary business and I think you would always feel like a squatter,” she says.

Should coworking fans welcome retailers with open arms or regard them with suspicion?

Image courtesy of Flickr user yutaka-f.

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  1. marianacoutinhoamaral Thursday, May 3, 2012

    Very interesting subject, congratulations!
    The coworking spaces as well as being an alternative to the crisis, it is much cheaper and convenient, because you do not have to worry about anything except the rent of your space.
    Here in Brazil have greatly increased the demand for these spaces, and I was surprised at their efficiency!
    I’m opening my company and I intend to install in a coworking space, because I can not and does not intend to make a large investment up front.
    I visited some places this week, and I liked the most were the http://www.regus.com.br which is very nice but very expensive, and http://www.clubwork.com.br, which has a very different proposal, and is not as expensive I liked a lot, but inda not decided anything.
    Next week I will visit other places and put my opinion here.
    See you soon!

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