If you think you can predict exactly how the future of coworking will unfold, think again. For a global movement that has, in just ten years, spawned everything from child-friendly workspaces (JuggleHub in Berlin) and social innovation hotspots (the Impact Hubs) to self-sustaining eco-offices (Apocapoc in Barcelona) and giant chains (WeWork), anything and everything seems possible. How to make sense about likely directions, pitfalls and new advances?
On the 27th and 28th of March, our NetCreate research team came together with leading practitioners, young scholars and the platform-building startup Coworkies in London and Oxford to discuss how coworking might develop over the next ten years or so. Through posing a series of provocative questions – Is there a chance coworking will self-destruct in the course or rapid growth? What societal changes and innovations might lead us to cowork to our 80s or 90s? – several key trends came to the fore. Intriguingly, many of these relate to the vital role of diversity in the future of coworking. In this initial post I’ll focus on just two developments of interest.
The first and loudest (market) trend that surfaced through our discussions concerned the corporate rush into coworking. Famously, Microsoft recently rented out desks for 300 hundred employees at WeWork in New York, with several large corporations doing the same in London. Partnership arrangements with corporations (e.g., Work.Life tying the knot with Verizon in Clerkenwell, London) are also growing commonplace. Is this to be greeted as a “victory” for the coworking movement – as a force that is potentially transforming what it means to work for a large corporation – or as an ominous turn?
Clearly, many individual coworking firms tend to find it economically promising to engage wealthy corporations (and they perhaps also see corporate partnerships as a good thing for the startups they house in terms of collaborative and financing possibilities). There are two major risks, however: If coworking spaces over-prioritise big clients, this can (literally) shrink the affordable space available for an array of small but dynamic startups and freelancers. Another common worry is that coworking spaces may become reduced to “outsourced R&D departments” of large companies. One subtler challenge is that large corporate teams, characterised by internal hierarchies and cultures, may not mix well with the relatively integrated coworking communities they enter, effectively splintering the latter.
The last of these concerns might not seem too threatening until one realises that the very value proposition of coworking largely rests on two factors that are as fragile as they are attractive: the presence of a collaborative community and the sheer joy of “being around different people”. The high value accorded to the enjoyment of diversity within coworking is demonstrated nicely in the below video clip produced by Coworkies in the course of their global tour of over 100 coworking spaces over the past year.
One potential solution to this veritable dilemma (of greater corporate involvement potentially wrecking coworking) may come in the form of the proliferation of large corporate-oriented spaces that are clearly set apart from types of coworking that foster more integrated, intermingled communities. A certain degree of honesty would be required here regarding the branding and communication of different offers.
Another solution is to encourage corporations to allow their employees to autonomously seek out and utilise various local (or otherwise conveniently located) coworking hubs of their choice and ask them to do most of their work virtually, with just 1-2 trips to a company office per week. This option would preserve more balanced, integrated coworking communities and plausibly increase employee well-being through reducing the need for long commutes.
The second trend our March workshop discussions foregrounded is the rapid proliferation of a huge array of alternative coworking models in large and middle-sized cities around the world. The examples highlighted at the top of this article are merely the tip of the ice berg: according to Coworkies, innovation is taking place in relation to scale (tiny self-managed rooms vs. mega spaces), sustainability, ownership, funding models, spatial design and well-being in particular. There is no sign of this experimentation and change slowing down. If anything, innovation in the coworking field is accelerating and should be viewed a continuous, ongoing process.
Surely it is this sheer adaptability and diversification of coworking that deserves to be both praised and analysed more closely by interested scholars and strategists. Also, if it is this creative dynamism that accounts for the success and indeed survival of the coworking movement in the past ten years, it is something to be protected and fostered at all costs.
Insofar that the corporate rush into coworking threatens the dynamism and adaptability of coworking – pushing the field towards less experimentation and a narrow set of dominant models – we should be worried. However, as I’ve shown above, there are certain ways to safeguard diversity within coworking if one takes the issue seriously and seeks to understand it from a fine-grained perspective.
In the next post I will meditate on the opportunities that will flow to the coworking field from dramatically extended careers and lifespans, drawing on Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott’s notion of the “multi-stage life”.