No one agrees what coworking is, academic finds

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Clay Spinuzzi, an associate professor of rhetoric (yes, rhetoric) at the University of Texas at Austin, took an interest in the area’s budding coworking movement just as it was getting off the ground in 2008. For three years he immersed himself in the community, speaking with space users and owners, studying written and electronic materials put out by spaces and generally trying to get a sense of what exactly coworkers were up to?

The results of that research were published recently in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication in the form of a long and quite academic article (light reading, it is not) that tackles the seemingly simple question: What is coworking, and what do people get out of it? But, it turns out, the lived reality of coworking is not as tidy as Spinuzzi’s straightforward question. He got a bewildering set of contradictory answers from space owners:

Coworking space as community center. The proprietors of Soma Vida and Space12, mixed use spaces, told Spinuzzi that coworking as they all understood it was all about serving the local community. “The object was to work alongside, but not with, others. Consequently, both had quiet policies in their spaces,” writes Spinuzzi.

Coworking as collaboration space. If some spaces were all about offering community members peace and quiet, others insisted they were focused on creating a buzzy environment. Calling this type “the unoffice,” Spinuzzi notes spaces in this category, which includes Brainstorm, Link, and Perch, “encouraged discussions; interaction between the coworkers.” Spinuzzi summarizes the object of these spaces as recreating “characteristics of the traditional office environment that independent workers may miss.”

Some proprietors in this category even ruled the community center type of space out of the coworking movement entirely. “If a space had a no talking policy, ‘then it’s not coworking,'” Link’s Liz Elam told Spinuzzi.

Coworking as networking hub. Conjunctured, Cospace and GoLab Austin, “saw the mission of their coworking spaces as fostering more active connections between coworkers, connections that could lead to working relationships between businesses—contracts or referrals,” writes Spinuzzi. “Their focus was on entrepreneurship.”

He notes that while these spaces were as buzzy as so-called unoffice spaces, they were more focused on formal collaboration rather than informal connections and saw themselves as catalyzing the shift towards more independent work by allowing independent workers to clump together. “Proprietors saw these spaces as comprising a collocated network of potential contractors,” concludes Spinuzzi.

That’s how proprietors thought of their spaces. What did the actual coworkers within them tell Spinuzzi? “The coworkers I interviewed tended to emphasize the unoffice model, in particular, the combination of space and social interaction,” he says, but notes that they were far from in complete agreement about what they hoped to get out of coworking. “Some coworkers expected to work in parallel whereas others expected to work in cooperation,” he writes, noting different expectations for collaboration at coworking spaces.

The fundamental question, what is coworking then, is far from settled, and Spinuzzi isn’t expecting a single definitin to emerge anytime soon. “As cities become more porous and workers become more mobile, we can expect coworking and variations to multiply,” he writes. With larger companies looking at ways to adapt cowoking to their needs, and more corporate remote workers utilizing the spaces, things in fact may get a whole lot more complicated.

What’s your personal definition of coworking?

Image courtesy of Flickr user torisan3500

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