Coworking builds productive communities

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Coworking works, which may be obvious by the growth of the phenomenon: coworking has roughly doubled each year since 2006, according to Deskmag’s 2nd Global Coworking Study. Casual research into coworking might lead to the conclusion that freelancers and startups have to work somewhere and coworking spaces offer them lower-cost and very flexible accommodations. But I think there are deeper reasons, and that may partly explain the use of coworking spaces by full-time employees of large companies. For example, I coworked at the We Work Lounge in New York City for some months, and I met  a group of three consultants from one of the major IT consulting companies who opted to work there, instead of the office building in midtown. One of them said that he chose to do so ‘to get things done’, which presumably he felt he couldn’t do at the company’s established office.

But let’s return to the majority population of coworking spaces, first. Are freelancers and startups motivated solely by finances, or are there other benefits to coworking? It turns out that coworking spaces are hotbeds of interaction: on average, coworkers make over three new, helpful acquaintances in the two months prior to the survey. Even if that was not a steady, linear effect, let’s imagine that the average coworker makes six or more new, helpful contacts per year. And the larger the coworking space, the more this seems to happen, at least slightly. The take-away is that coworking spaces increase social density: people coworking make more connections that open opportunities for them business wise. This is obviously true for those transitioning from working at home, 58% of those surveyed, but may be just as true for the reformed office worker or Starbucks refugee.

A great deal has been written about the benefits of increased social density to individuals: more immediate contacts leads to more opportunity on an economic level, as well as increased likelihood of purely social benefits, like dating, friendship and so on. This seems to be borne out in the survey, which shows 77% of coworkers saying that they socialized with other coworkers in the space after work on weekends.

But perhaps it’s more interesting to reflect on the social impacts of higher social density. A social group where the people have a high number of connections connecting them creates an environment in which new ideas can spread more quickly, for example. So working in coworking spaces means that you will be exposed to more new ideas, so long as you are one of the folks that makes those connections. Just as importantly, we know that moods and psychological orientation — like happiness or industriousness — spread through social networks just like colds or fads:

Nicholas A. Christakis and  James Fowler, Social Networks and Happiness

We studied 4,739 people followed from 1983 to 2003 as part of the famous Framingham Heart Study. These individuals were embedded in a larger network of 12,067 people; they had an average of 11 connections to others in the social network (including to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors); and their happiness was assessed every few years using a standard measure.

We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%. For comparison, having an extra $5,000 in income (in 1984 dollars) increased the probability of being happy by about 2%.

Happiness, in short, is not merely a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon.

I wrote about this a few years ago, saying this about their study’s results:

Stowe Boyd, Happiness Is An Emergent Property Of Social Networks

Or perhaps better said, emotion — at least happiness — is an emergent property of social groups.

The ancient Bantu saying “Through people we become human” plays here. We have such an emphasis on individuality and a near obsession with self-centered emotionality that we downplay or completely disregard the degree and nature of our connectedness to others. So it comes as a sort of smack in the head to hear that the happiness of your roommate or next door neighbor makes you happy: not just happy for them, but happy in and of yourself.

So, the emotional backdrop of coworking spaces animates those that work there, and it is largely an environment of well-educated, motivated people, diligently working, and finding satisfaction in that. 62% report their standard of work improved since joining a coworking space. This spreads through the dense networks of coworkers, and all feel more motivated, diligent, and productive.

And, no surprise, coworkers like their spaces: 82% plan to stay this year, and 65% have no plans to leave at all. Spaces ranked 9 and 10 on a 10 point scale are likely to retain more than 90% of their members.

And why do they like their spaces, aside from the increased sociality? They are hotbeds of learning, with all sorts of informal information exchange and increasingly structured classes and lectures on marketing, branding, programming, social media, and so on. This is happening in coworking spaces at a pace you are unlikely to find in conventional business environments.

Almost 90% of coworkers report an increase in self-confidence since joining a coworking community. This has many facets, not the least of which is getting out of a conventional office environment. As I recently discussed, there is evidence that remote workers are more engaged, and that workers rate their bosses higher when they don’t work in the same building (see here). This may be a key factor for the consultants I met at the We Work Lounge.

But, the final analysis is that coworking spaces and the sort of environment they offer make it easier for people to balance the need for community and independence, and help people to find the best pivot point between autonomy and connectedness.

One of the best things many large companies might contemplate is shutting down their corporate palaces and dispersing their workers to find local coworking spaces wherever their people live. Aside from the immediate financial savings for the company, and the huge savings for workers no longer commuting to their cubicles, productivity would climb, and the world would be much happier place.