This article, co-authored by Dr Kerstin Sailer and Ros Pomeroy, was first published on 22 June 2018 by Instant Offices in their UK Market Summary Research Report – The evolution of flexible workspace.
The co-working phenomenon is spreading fast. In addition to general growth, the sector is also diversifying. There are countless variations of co-working spaces on offer with almost any desirable combination of location, look and feel, size, diversity of community, workplace design, management and pricing. So how do people choose which co-working space suits them best? While users may decide on a variety of personal reasons (Affordable? Close to home? Word of mouth?), there is also evidence that the opportunity ‘to connect, socialise, share knowledge and brainstorm’ is also highly valued. So it is worth taking a deeper look into what co-working spaces really can offer in this respect. We contend that four different social resources may be found in a co-working space: co-presence, communication, community and collaboration.
Co-presence is the simple fact of occupiers working alongside each other in a co-working space. Because of the efficiency of sharing amenities, co-presence is also one reason why occupiers join the co-working crowd. Communication arises out of co-presence and may include chats in the lounge and kitchen areas, as well as conversations in the corridors, or at the many networking events, that most co-working spaces run. Community goes beyond communication. It offers a general buzz, the appeal of background noise, also found in cafes, the atmosphere of productiveness and social chit chat; in the best case, community offers lasting friendships and a sense of belonging. Bill Hillier (in his seminal book ‘Space is the Machine’) argues that community acts as a “psychological resource” in that it allows co-workers to feel part of a larger movement of like-minded individuals. Collaboration finally arises from a common purpose and opportunities for different occupiers to actually work together, for example in skills swaps in entrepreneurial contexts, or brokering new business opportunities. WeWork for instance pride themselves in the fact that 80% of their members end up doing business with other members.
In all of this, what is often overlooked is the role of space. Underlying any social activity is the physical spatial setting in which it happens. Patterns of co-presence, communication, community and collaboration are therefore all products of spatial design. Physical space has the power to bring people together, or keep them apart. It is an important factor, shaping the kinds of encounters one can expect to arise, as well as the ease with which collaboration can flourish.
A recent research study at UCL has found that at least two spatial factors can be shown to drive the attractiveness of a co-working space: the percentage of shared facilities, and the opportunities for occupiers to tune in and out of encounters easily, i.e. allowing both privacy and sociality.
This is an interesting and still emerging field of research, but a crucial one for suppliers of co-working spaces. As the market for co-working becomes more competitive, suppliers will have to develop a more sophisticated understanding of not only occupiers’ needs for co-presence, communication, community and collaboration but also of the role that spatial design has in enabling them.
If you have found this article relevant, you may also be interested in our blog Co-working and collaboration: the role of design