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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

4 Responses to “No one agrees what coworking is, academic finds”

  1. Defining a Coworking Space is extremely useful, albeit slippery. Here’s one crack at it from someone who 21 years ago, designed a workspace that had a reception area with 6 sofas; standing and hanging plants all about the perimeter; and a coffee bar as the centerpiece of its large reception area that served as a great congregation space for networking and social events — and who today operates two highly social and successful 200-room Serviced Office Business Centers in Manhattan, with robust community interactivity, collaboration, and over 250 scheduled on-site networking and business development events each year:

    Coworking is a verb, and not a noun. It is about a way of working, and not just a defined, static place to work.

    Coworking is about a mega-trend that speaks to the emerging, dominant work generations who value workspace as a service, relationship and community.

    Coworking is where the 3 Essential CO’s of Coworking converge: COoperation; COllaboration and COmmunity.

    And of the three main Categories under the Workspace Umbrella: 1) Business Centering; 2) Virtual Officing; and 3)Touchdown Spacing — Coworking is the most prominent and popular of the many Touchdown Spacing alternatives out there these days, with its highly appealing elements of community, networking, collaboration, social consciousness, work-life balance, flex-agility and fun.

    The Touchdown Space category is the largest of the 3 Workspace / Workstyle categories, led by the highly sociable and popular Coworking genre, and occupied by other less interactive Touchdowner cousins such as: Mobile Liquidspacers (for spontaneous hourly or daily usage); Hot Desk space users at BCs; Coffee Shop and Internet Cafe Plop-downers; Airport Biz Lounge, Hotel Cubicled BC, and Hotel Lobby Mobilists; and a slew of other creative workspace Touchdowner offerings on the worldwide landscape, such as at Libraries, Malls, Highway Gas Stations/Rest Stops and Day Care Centers, to name a few.

    Every single one of these options are useful and great — not one is inherently better than the other. That’s for the public to decide.

    But the one fact that I have found irrefutable over the past 20 years is that to engineer a successful, collaborative, fun, community of workspace users, it doesn’t require a non-walled environment, nor must it have an open-desk space layout.

    A sense of community, collaboration, networking, sociability, and warm neighborliness can occur in an enclosed-office BC environment just as easily as it can in an Open-space environment, and in some instances, more effectively. It depends on the goals and standards of the workspace operator.

    And if you want to call such collaborative spaces that exist in enclosed office environments ‘Serviced Office BCs’ or ‘CO-BCs’ and not Coworking Spaces, so be it. But I don’t believe that an open-desk environment is automatically a Coworking Space, unless it embraces and promotes the 3 Essential COs of Coworking.

    In that case it would be another brand of Touchdown Space — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with running and offering any other brand of Touchdown Space. Collaboration is great for those that value collaboration, and private/quiet Touchdowning is great for those that want to get down to work and not inter-act, interrupt or be interrupted while they’re working.

    A greater value, for the ever-increasing mobile workforce, is the suitable, spontaneous solution for workspace and tech capabilities that Touchdown Space providers offer…and Coworking is the class of the Touchdown Space category.

  2. Kamer52

    What Coworkers are up to, as are all the folks using all the many models of shared office space, is moving the notion of work away from “a place we go” to “a thing we do”; changing a noun to a verb. The world has changed and it’s time that commercial real estate got with the program: the current model of commercial office space hasn’t had an overhaul since the middle ages.

    The whole notion that there should be a standard approach is an idea with its roots in the Industrial Revolution: a central machine, around whose demands the building and the workers had to arrange themselves.

    Sorry, the writing is on the wall and that’s over. We don;t have to work in shifts because the machine has to have its maintenance at specific times; we can have teams in different timezones instead. We can work out of a mindset of abundance rather than the current traditinal madel of (often created) scarcity.

    But none of this takes away the need for community; it’s a basic human need and at some point workng at home in yor pj’s isn’t fun any more.

    The spaces affiliated with Open Coworking ( share four core values; that’s it. We are spread over several continents and languages and cultures, and if all the approaches are different, the basic values are the same.

    My own experience is that if you have a community of earned trust, the collaboration and interaction follows, as does growth and expansion of possibilities.

  3. Jim Graham

    I’m seeing an increasing number of spaces define themselves as “not coworking”, though they tend to have, in varying degrees, the same types of space, services and community focus that generally define a coworking space.

    We don’t say “We’re not coworking.” We say we take some of the elements of coworking – flexible office space, work when you want, support but not emphasize collaboration among members. Where we differ is in offering more of a mix of open space and private offices, and our membership tends to be a little bit older than what I see in coworking spaces in the SF Bay Area.

  4. Craig Baute

    Thanks for bringing this academic paper to my attention. It is true that coworking doesn’t have a set definition with detailed bullet points, but I think coworking as set of ideas has taken shape. We believe in flexible business models with a more open form of office concept to encourage interaction.
    We are similar to coffee shops. We all know what a coffee shop is when we walk into one, but there are a variety of coffee shops within a city with a different vibe and culture. It doesn’t mean a coffee shop is undefined because there are key characteristics that make a coffee shop what it is. I think the same goes for coworking.