I work from home and can find it a little isolating at times, so I recently spent a day at Jelly, an informal coworking meetup. I always enjoy Jelly; it gets me out of the house and I get to meet some interesting people. This particular meetup was held at held at Spike Design, a design incubator here in Bristol, UK. It’s a bright, airy and inspirational coworking center, and it got me thinking about how the web is changing our workplaces.
Freelancers and other remote workers like myself are on the cutting edge of the web work revolution, and there are clues from our experiences that can show the way for larger organizations as the world of work changes. Coworking, in particular, is something that I think could point to the future of work, and forward-thinking companies should start thinking now about how to borrow its benefits for their own needs.
Coworking in Context
Coworking centers vary, but broadly speaking, they provide a place for individual workers to work — a desk, Internet access, tea/coffee, and sometimes other facilities, like meeting rooms. If it was just that, however, these spaces wouldn’t really be very exciting — companies have always rented out spare desk space. The difference is that coworking centers try to foster inspirational communities, and to develop collaboration and synergies between their members. In some places (like Spike Designs, the incubator I was working at yesterday), formal mentoring programs are established, while others just try to encourage their members to help each other out in a more informal manner.
Coworking doesn’t just help with overcoming the sense of isolation that some freelancers and home workers can feel, it can also be good for business. Say, for example, there’s a web developer who needs a logo designed; at a coworking center they could turn to the designer who sits across the room from them. Even businesses that directly compete with each other find benefits from coworking together. That same web developer could have a client who wants more work done than they could reasonably handle on their own. At a coworking center, they could turn to other developers from their coworking community that they know and trust to help scale their output.
Coworking centers can also foster creative collaborations between their members. Many successful business ventures have grown from discussions that started in coworking centers. For example, Linda Broughton, founder of the coworking center at Old Broadcasting House in Leeds, UK, cites several startups that have grown out of collaborations between members. By providing a place where ideas can be cross-pollinated, coworking centers can become hotbeds of innovation.
What Corporations Can Learn from Coworking
The inspirational working environment and innovation we see today in coworking centers today could scale to the knowledge workers of corporations tomorrow. After all, companies already get huge benefits from allowing workers to telecommute, in terms of improved staff retention; reduced overhead in terms of office space, parking, heating and power; and a smaller carbon footprint — for example, Sun Microsystems famously saved a whopping $68 million in real estate costs by implementing its open work program. Not having to maintain that huge corporate campus could be a very attractive proposition for a cash-strapped CEO.
However, it’s likely that many employees won’t want to work exclusively from home, and it’s also likely that they will need office facilities (meeting rooms, desk space, technology not available at home) at least some of the time. One solution might be to establish smaller regional offices, with a hotdesking arrangement. But that would mean that the company would still have some real estate costs, and they’d have the facilities management headache of dealing with all of the offices. To get the full benefits of coworking on a corporate scale, I’m imagining something fairly radical — shared coworking campuses, where employees from different corporations mingle and cross-pollinate ideas.
Can Corporations Learn to Collaborate?
Note that what I’m proposing is slightly different than the type of office space rental currently provided the likes of companies like Regus, as it’s not just a question of providing the space; to get the full coworking benefit, the spaces have to foster a spirit of collaboration among their residents. Companies like Regus, which already operate suitable office spaces and have suitable expertise in this field, are probably best placed to provide these kinds of facilities, though.
I’m imagining shared coworking campuses spread across the country; they’d probably need to be larger than the typical coworking center that we see today. They could be run by a specialist facilities management companies, leaving the corporations to concentrate on what they’re good at, rather than the nitty-gritty of building groovy, inspirational spaces, running the spaces once they’re established and trying to foster a fantastic working environment themselves.
Offer Inpsirational, Airy Workplaces: These shared coworking campuses could take their cues from existing coworking centers, they’d probably just need to be on a grander scale. So they’d need to be quite flexible spaces; a mixture of desks, lounging areas and meeting spaces — more like coffee shops than the typical cubicle farm. This encourages the members to mix with each other, and that communication helps ideas to germinate.
Be Flexible to Accommodate Corporations’ Changing Needs: They should also be flexible so that as a corporation’s needs change, it can scale up or down its coworking costs quickly.
Located Nationwide: By effectively having locations spread nationwide (even worldwide), corporations could hire great people no matter where they were located, and employees would be free to move around as they wished. It would also mean that when traveling, employees would always be able to find a local office in which to work.
Offer Specialized Workspaces: Many of the coworking centers available today have a specialization (whether that’s around an industry, like design, or a concept like sustainability). By having multiple locations all over, these campuses could offer similar specializations.
Embrace the Competition: The challenge of the coworking campus, as I’ve described it, is that I really can’t see Apple wanting its employees to work side-by-side with those of, say, Microsoft or Google, let alone encourage them to work on projects together. If this problem proved to be insurmountable, companies would need to be able to determine who their employees would be working alongside. For example, Google may allow its employees to mingle with those of non-competitors — say, for example, Ford — which could still lead to previously undiscovered synergies between the companies being revealed. And perhaps, over time, the corporations will see that the benefits of this style of work outweigh the risks of having employees from rival organizations working side-by-side with their own.
How To Start Coworking at Work Today
The shared coworking campuses that I imagine would be a radical shift from where we are today, and even if such a shift were to happen, it couldn’t happen overnight. However, corporations can take some inspiration from coworking centers and apply these ideas to their offices today.
Implementing a flexible work program and using hotdesking in existing offices allows companies to redevelop existing offices into more airy, open plan, inspirational spaces in which to work, mimicking the type of workspace typically found at coworking centers today. Hotdesking like this could also be useful as it would encourage employees from disparate functions to mix with each other, again replicating some of the coworking experience. (To be really radical, companies could tap into Pixar’s “bathroom effect,” in which central restrooms encourage employees to mingle.) This type of arrangement would really only be “coworking-lite,” but it would allow corporations to test the waters without too great a commitment — paving the way for more radical changes in the future.