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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Is co-working really about the people or the space?

Is co-working really about the people or the space? 

Well of course the answer has to be both, but I think the question deserves some airtime - the term co-working is popping up more regularly, but often in the context of co-working space (the reason that being pretty obvious), so I'd like to just step back briefly to consider what the key factors are to make co-working happen before we allow it to be all about the space ...

For me co-working is fundamentally about the people.  OK I concede it's about the space as well, but only in so much as co-working needs a context.  That doesn’t, however, need to be physical …  

The "human cloud" (a term I came across recently in an interesting article from Entrepreneur Corner) provides a perfect context for co-working. Support, relationships, inspiration, knowledge all come from co-working in the human cloud through a whole range of social media we're now accustomed to using (Twitter's my personal favourite!) - it never ceases to amaze me how a solid co-working community can be formed in a matter of days or even hours once synergies have been identified (whether that's relating to co-involvement in a business event, a hot debate on a #trending topic, or a request for help or information).  Complete strangers come together as a community seemingly at the drop of a hat, but what often emerges is genuine added value.  

So what drives this type of co-working experience is a common thread or a sense of community, and no matter how temporary this may appear to be at the time it can genuinely add value.  So co-working is about collaboration?  Yes, but the collaboration can be very 'light touch' - it doesn't need to have commitment attached to it, although mutual trust and respect help a lot, particularly in extending the longevity of a community.

According to the Wikipedia definition of co-working it's a 'style of work' which involves a 'shared working environment ... yet independent activity' ... amongst a group of people who 'share values'.  Does the shared working environment need to be physical? The Wikipedia definition gives the sense that it does, although it concedes that this doesn't necessarily need to be an office environment.  

I think some confusion around co-working is associated with the term itself.  Historically the term 'co-workers' has defined the relationship between two people who work in the same company, and who traditionally have tended to work alongside each other at least in the same location.  But time has moved on.  Co-workers (in the traditional 'employed by the same company' context) can now literally work in different continents and time zones, so the physical dimension to co-working has become less significant.  This has led to the term co-working being released to describe collaboration amongst business people rather than purely the connections between colleagues.  

I think a few interesting points fall out of this analysis

-       Do people who are co-employed in the same location collaborate because they are ‘co-workers’?  Having worked in a corporate environments in the past, I found that collaboration and a sense of community was often lacking in a silo culture of departmental boundaries (and open plan offices zoned into departments didn’t address the problem) ... perhaps when people work together in the same location, for the same company, co-working becomes more about the place than the community?  Is there something that organisations could do to stimulate improved collaboration amongst their employees?  Could removing departmental boundaries be removed by introducing collaborative workspaces that enable cross-functional working?

-       I recently read a post from a respected associate who operates within the co-working arena claiming that co-working isn't about networking.  When does collaboration stop and networking start?  I'd suggest the only difference between the two is the mind set (based on whether the priority is to give, take, participate or sell).  Messages intended to restrict networking whilst ‘co-working’ have the potential to be misunderstood. 

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-       To what extent are physical spaces fundamental to stimulating co-working opportunities amongst those not working within the same company?  It has been suggested by co-working gurus that a community needs to form before a co-working space is introduced, so from that we would assume that co-working communities aren't by their very nature reliant on a physical space.  I'd agree with that to a point, but if the space becomes the 'common thread' then perhaps it has the ability to either stimulate or consolidate a community?  Space on Tap's Colleagues on Tap co-working days prove that point. People who haven't previously connected join together in a 'pop-up office' for the day to form a community from which they gain value irrespective of its temporary nature, and that frequently continues virtually after the event - the space in this case becomes the enabler without which the community wouldn’t have formed. 

-       What’s the best model for creating a co-working space that’s able to focus more on the community than filling its empty desks?

Each of these points will be considered in future Co-working UK Blog posts, but first to conclude - is Co-working more about the people or the space?   

Ok if I was put on the spot, if space is assumed to be physical, I'd say it's about the people.  Co-working communities can collaborate through a 'human cloud' really effectively.  It has to be said though that physical space can play a key role in stimulating, enabling and consolidating collaboration.  Let's think about how full advantage can be taken of that opportunity while social media takes care of the virtual.


Copyright Space on Tap Ltd September 2011

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