7 Things I Learned From Studying Coworking

Over the last five months, I’ve researched a coworking space in Oakland, California’s Jack London Square called Port Workspace. Using an ethnographic research process, I studied the space itself and analyzed both how it functions as a working environment for different types of businesses and how it fits into the surrounding urban fabric. Here are seven insights I gained from the experience.

1. Coworking spaces function best with a diverse set of tenants

Port Workspace offered two buildings, one lending to a more casual environment and the other to a more professional setting. Tenants seemed to self-sort between the two spaces, and while this sorting led each building to house similar types of businesses, the coworking space attracted a diverse range of businesses overall. I often witnessed easy information sharing like, for example, when people walked by the accountant’s office and casually received bookkeeping tips. A healthy coworking space enables this kind of chance encounter between professionals with different backgrounds.

2. Coworking spaces can market to specific segments of the business world

The self-sorting at Port Workspace was due largely to the intentional design of each building. The more casual space evokes a startup culture with its brightly colored accent walls and plans for a slide between the second and third floor. The décor of the other building included subdued colors and felt more like a traditional office space. The point is that no matter what your needs may be, there is a coworking space out there for you.

3. Coworking spaces are often detached from their surrounding communities and could do more to integrate into the urban fabric

By design, coworking spaces cater to a specific type of worker who either can afford to rent a space outside of their home, or has an employer willing to cover the cost of rent. But coworking spaces could be very valuable to local communities as gathering spaces or meeting rooms. If coworking spaces were to focus more on community integration they would provide more opportunities for creative encounters, become an important resource to members of the local community, and better embody the idea of resource and knowledge sharing.

4. Traditional office social dynamics exist in coworking spaces too

Just because you are an entrepreneur setting off on your own doesn’t mean you can escape the social dynamics that you may have experienced in other office environments. Navigating these dynamics can be challenging and distracting: Not everyone needs or wants advice from others, and tension may arise from conflicting personality types. Introverts and extroverts may have to work in close proximity to one another, for example, if desk space is scarce. This illuminates the importance of having a variety of workspace options. Places to rest, take phone calls, and have meetings are important for maintaining balance in a coworking space.

5. Coworking spaces should incorporate a third space into their design

Since chance encounters enhance the experience of coworking so much, coworking spaces should include an area that is open to the larger community. Port Workspace has done this with a restaurant on the first floor. While the upstairs coworking offices act as a closed community, the restaurant provides an opportunity for coworkers to interact with the public and gain a different perspective for approaching their work-related challenges. (Coworking spaces might aspire to create a similar environment to the fabled Wagon Wheel in Mountain View, California.) Making room for this kind of third space in a coworking facility is a great way to include the larger community in the knowledge-sharing environment that coworking spaces create.

6. Coworking spaces can have different organizational models

It’s important to remember the different ways that coworking spaces come to be. They can arise cooperatively as a group of people starting a space or purposefully as a business model. These two paths to coworking will result in different types of spaces. While Port Workspace is a business, not a cooperative, there are benefits to having operational and support staff to help tenants fulfill their needs. For managers of coworking spaces, there is a unique opportunity to act as the curator of a creative environment when selecting new tenants. Having the right mix of people in a space makes a big different for everyone.

7. Coworking spaces can influence office design

Coworking spaces can also advance office space design. Now that we know the danger of sitting for long periods of time, coworking spaces can help make standing desks and pub height tables part of a regular office environment. In addition, creating active or passive relaxing spaces and providing various seating options like stools and exercise balls will greatly increase coworkers’ health. Not only that, but these amenities can be used to market the space.

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