Co-Working Spaces are the Future of Work but that Could be a Good Thing
he growing phenomenon of co-working spaces – places where individuals can rent a desk of their own while sharing a range of other facilities with their co-tenants – is as indicative of the changing nature of work as almost any metric you care to name, writes the Guardian.
Although many see the casualisation of the workforce that this growth represents as an inherently bad thing – rightly focusing on the way in which technology is tending to convert full-time work into part-time “gigs” – there may well be a big upside. Co-working is a model that gives workers themselves, the digital nomads of gig economy, more control over their working lives.
How big is the sector? Small Business Labs, an organisation that monitors it around the world, suggests that the number of people renting such spaceswill grow globally from just under 1m in 2016 to nearly 4m in 2020.
According to research by user experience researchers Melissa Gregg and Thomas Lodato, co-working can be a positive choice for many freelancers . They argue that, in part, such workers are seeking “relief from the emotional demands of the corporate office”.
Co-working spaces, they write, “expanded significantly in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008/9”, adding this “style of work emerged in response to the slow plod of austerity, hollowed-out corporations, underemployment and career insecurity”. They argue that “co-working spaces met a growing demand for care and fulfilment as much as employment”.
So is co-working a good thing in itself or simply a rational response to negative changes in traditional workplaces?
Gregg, who is principal engineer in the Business Client Research and Strategy Client Computing Group at Intel Corporation, says with all the variations of experience there is no simple answer to that.
Still, she says, “I regard co-working as the most optimistic example we have of conducting enterprise on our own terms. I like that it is often an experience of work that is determined by workers themselves.”
Isolation is one of the key problems that arises for freelancers and providing this sort of human contact – a community of fellow nomads – has become the secret sauce of the co-working industry, a large part of what makes it attractive. Karen Corr, founder of the Make A Change organisation, says it would never have got off the ground without the existence of the Synergize Hub in Bendigo but that it was ultimately the community experience that kept her there, even as her organisation grew.
Travel blogger Monika Pietrowski writes that after “a solid stint in the corporate world, I gave up the security, the scrutiny and the stress for a nomadic lifestyle”. She says that co-working communities have been central to this change and, although it can be hit or miss, the “biggest advantage for me is the people interaction and social setting”.
Gregg and Lodato write: “Co-working spaces provide an environment in which professionals can anticipate, withstand and perhaps even wait out the volatility of the competitive job market that surrounds them.” So do they expect the labour market to return to a more traditional form, with less of the sort “gig” work that suits co-working?
“Not exactly,” Gregg says. “I think there is a pervasive sense of caution right now that co-working is a speculative economy in a classic sense – it is dependent on real estate and property value.”
Indeed co-working spaces have become an attractive choice for landlords, real estate agents and other firms looking to fill floorspace as more traditional tenants, such as retailers, close down. US figures indicate co-working may account for as much as 2% of the office market by 2020.
But for those who can “wait out” the job market changes, Gregg thinks they will have developed something “of long term, resilient value” with the co-working space as the centre of a useful network that would not otherwise have been available.
In fact, the researchers believe co-working could be a glimpse into a more positive future. They write, “A more just future of work may have less to do with labour hours, the creation of welfare programs or the opening of resources and more to do with hospitality: with whom, through what means, and in which environments we associate and affiliate with fellow workers.”
As attractive as this idea is, it could only work if it was underpinned with more formal means of security, something like a universal basic income. If co-working is to be anything more than a temporary response to precarity, don’t we need adequate state welfare measures in place?
“Absolutely we do,” Gregg says. “But the state manifests differently in context and it is hard to imagine how this works in Trump’s America, for instance.
“Still, I like to think of co-working in terms of what philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls ‘co-immunity’ – creating shared bubbles of protection that allow people the space to conduct the practices that help them realise their potential.”
Nonetheless, she notes, “I don’t pretend that co-working is suitable for all kinds of workers.” Some freelancers point out that the spaces can be noisy and hard to work in. Anis Qizilbash, who runs a sales training business, did several six-month stints but isn’t keen to continue. “I felt uncomfortable and it was hard to concentrate. Often there would be music playing and, being an introvert, I hated the open-plan workspace.”
There is not escaping the fact that the nature of work is changing, however, so it’s worth embracing the positive aspects of that change. What constitutes a job is no longer neatly bound by notions of a career, the nine-to-five, of 40-hour weeks and four-weeks’ holiday leave, and nor should it be.
Flexibility that empowers workers – as opposed to the sort of “flexibility” imposed from above by employers – should be welcomed and co-working spaces may enable that sort of change. It could be the testing ground for an entirely reimagined notion of employment.
“Co-working,” Gregg says, may well be “the millennial’s MBA”.
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