HR & Management

Let's work together

8 min read

02 December 2011

What is "coworking", and why is it such a natural thing for us to do?

It’s funny how precious people can be about the words we use. My company took a bit of flak recently for suggesting that we had pioneered “coworking” through our business centres in the US and elsewhere, in which people from different companies in entirely different fields work alongside one another.

A number of purists complained that we were taking liberties with the term “coworking”, which should be reserved for shared workspaces set up by communities of like-minded individuals. 

Fair enough to point out the difference between that kind of co-operative venture and a commercial enterprise like Regus, but why should there only be one model and one definition of “co-working”, with or without a hyphen? For what is a co-worker but a fellow worker or workmate? The word is hardly new.

Let’s delve a little deeper anyway and consider the way our working habits are changing. For lurking behind the term “coworking” (let’s drop the hyphen for now) is a combination of factors that have revolutionised our attitudes to work, competition and personal space. This is a specifically 21st-century phenomenon, and I believe it’s because new technology has resulted in a certain atomisation of the individual.

In the developed world, a huge proportion of the workforce, whether employed or self-employed, is largely self-sufficient, able to use electronic media to make calculations, do research, exploit connections or write up findings. They can spend many hours of productive working time without seeing or talking to another human being. Is this healthy?

Harvard psychiatry professors Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz think it may not be. In examining loneliness in 21st-century America, they refer to the “cult of busyness” that has become a modern badge of honour. They suggest that we face so much pressure to be “productive” that we neglect “unnecessary” relationships that are actually as vital as food and water.

It is when technological self-sufficiency co-exists with a strong work ethic that you might expect the dangers to be greatest – making the US one of the most obvious places to examine this trend. 

It turns out that Manhattan, New York, has 50 per cent lone households, the highest percentage in the US. So does this make it the loneliest place in America? I hardly think so. Not only are we are talking about one of the world’s densest concentrations of people, but New Yorkers are famously sociable, enthusiastic advocates of the “urban village”, in which all kinds of people meet and rub along together in cafes, bars, galleries and public or private spaces of every kind. It is certainly a departure from traditional family life, but it can work amazingly well, in its way.

Hardly surprising, then, that Manhattan should have spawned New Work City, one of the best-known examples of coworking – although it only occupies one floor of a large office building in the Tribeca district. Here’s how these “coworkers” explain themselves on their website:

“Coworking is a concept that represents the shared values and needs of a new generation of workers who can work where, when, and how they want. When enough of these people get together in a common place, a coworking community is born.

“It’s what would happen if you took the good parts of an office, a cafe, and a treehouse and glued it all together with awesome, creative, brilliant people. New Work City espouses the values of community, openness, collaboration, sustainability, and accessibility.”

Well that’s just great, and I have no doubt that New Work City is a healthy development. But it’s not for everyone. Some might find all those “awesome, creative, brilliant people” a little overpowering; they might prefer the company of quieter, more modest types.

Nor is it even the only one of its kind. There is a “New Work City” in Frankfurt, Germany, too, clearly aimed at a very different market. The Frankfurt version is a spectacular office development on several floors above the airport, with conference facilities, an exclusive business club, restaurants, shopping and top-of-the-range gyms and leisure facilities. It is based on the idea of an “aerotropolis”, where the international business community can pause, meet, work or play. Its champions believe that their model offers “a greater density of interactions, a new physical and social model for work, and a mechanism for speeding the flow of people, goods and ideas”.

This reminds me of the deal we recently struck with the French rail operator, SNCF, whereby we will offer thousands of rail users similar opportunities to profit from workspaces in stations offering the buzz of a café in the shared areas, the technical facilities of a fully equipped office, and the comfort of a top-class hotel. 

Elsewhere, in Regus’s open-plan “campus-style” shared workspaces all over the world, we invite people to make it up as they go along, at very low cost, much as the Manhattan coworking evangelists do. If they want privacy, they pay a little more. Even then, they may find themselves sharing ideas with total strangers in the business lounge.

The point about all these different models of coworking is that they offer the individual a chance to do their thing alongside others. We are social beings, after all, and the modern working challenge is to replicate some of the things we take for granted in everyday social life, whether at work or at home: just being able to look up from work for a moment and talk to someone; seeing things and sharing them with your neighbour; asking a question; having a laugh.

Such everyday interactions can happen in a Regus campus or business lounge, an “aerotropolis” or a funky shared space in Manhattan or Seattle. They’re all forms of coworking that subliminally remind us of our shared humanity and thereby help us put our own hassles and traumas into perspective.

Mark Dixon is founder and CEO of Regus.