Free Coworking Growing Rapidly Fueled by Open Collaboration

In 2012, Shareable reported on what was then a budding free coworking movement. Since then, free coworking has become a thriving, global movement that’s growing in epic leaps. In 2013, following the inception of the Free Coworking Map, the number of spaces grew a whopping 790 percent.

What’s behind this dramatic growth? Free stuff is good, and coworking is good, so it’s no surprise that free coworking has taken off, but according to those within the movement, there’s a lot more going on than a free place to work. Free coworking thrives on open collaboration, and, as in the case of Seats2meet, free lunch. In a growing number of free coworking spaces, participants are asked to contribute labor, knowledge, and connections to the space and fellow coworkers. In this way, people coworking for “free” make valuable non-cash contributions.

Among the nearly 500 spaces listed in the Free Coworking Directory, 50 percent of them are existing coworking spaces that offer a free day option; 20 percent offer free trial periods; and 30 percent are pure free coworking, coworking grants or a combination of paid and free coworking on a permanent basis.

Recently, Shareable chatted with leaders in free coworking to get their take on the movement, how it intertwines with coworking at large, and what kind of communities are being built around free coworking. Weighing in on the conversation are Lori Kane, who created a free coworking space called Collective Self in her Seattle home; Ronald van den Hoff, co-founder of Seats2meet and author of Society 3.0; Derek Neighbors, a self-described “catalyst” and co-founder of Gangplank, a collaborative workspace in Arizona, Virginia and Ontario; and free coworking activist Felix Schürholz, publisher of CoWorking News. Here are the highpoints of those conversations.

At Gangplank, coworkers pay with time or social capital

Why is free coworking important? Why is it great?

Felix Schürholz: Free coworking puts the coworker first, not the coworking space. It is more about the people than about the space. It is more about collaboration than about competition. It is about making coworkers more active so that they can build networks that grow and have more to give than they take. It is about producing, learning and sharing rather than consuming.

Lori Kane: I’ve come to love free coworking deeply, I think, because it’s unimportant. It’s humble. It isn’t pretentious. It feels real and it feels right in the heart of everyone who comes back and becomes our friends. It’s a small, kind of quiet little thing that anybody can do.

It’s great for so many reasons. I think it’s great because it reminds me, every week, that that we can live our own stories, invent and reinvent our own neighborhoods, and work with amazing people on our own terms. It taught me that humans are far more trustworthy than I’d been led to believe in the corporate world. I trust like my dog trusts now. People are good and I know it. Oh, and because it’s free, you don’t have to deal with all the crap that comes with money and official business and non-profit organization. Yet you end up being a respected organization anyway. The City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, for example, sends us posters and flyers for their grants, events, etc. just like we’re a business. They even scheduled a meeting at our house! And we’re just a bunch of neighbors. It feels really good.

Derek Neighbors: Free is an awkward term in our vernacular. At Gangplank you can't pay for space with monetary currency, but instead are forced to use alternative forms of currency like time or social capital. It is great, because it removes money from the conversation allowing transactions/interactions to be based on deeper more meaningful/human elements.

Ronald van den Hoff: Coworking is one of the most important ways of new value creation. Free coworking is even stronger as more people have access to each other and the serendipity opportunities rise as you have a larger group of people. The results are staggering, that’s why it is great! Scientific research showed that 1 in 8 people visiting/working in our locations get a job, assignment or start a new company.

What kind of community has grown around free coworking?

Felix Schürholz: The free coworking community is an integral part of the international coworking community and is also present and active at the very grassroot level of every local coworking initiative. A good example for this is the International Coworking Day in August 2013. By highlighting this date, the whole coworking community rallied around this day and organized more than 150 free coworking events.

Lori Kane: Like a school, a church, or a bar, the free coworking space surfaces many overlapping communities that were already there, I think, just waiting to be discovered. Ours surfaced a crafting community, for example. We did monthly crafternoons all last year, making monsters, sock monkeys, painted garden rocks, seed balls, etc. And it surfaced an artist community...a community of community re-inventors (we were cofounders of the new neighborhood-wide event Hopscotch CD (1.8 Miles of Fun!) last year.

It has become a space in which other communities can gather. For example, community members have begun using the space for their meetings, such as parents fighting school redistricting, a neighbor’s professional facilitators meetup group, and my husband’s company’s quarterly directors meeting. And that’s outside the work colleague community that I expected the space to create, which we have too. We share things and knowledge, use each other’s skills, buy each other’s products and services, and use each other as sounding boards for ideas and plans.

Derek Neighbors: I can only speak for my experience at Gangplank, but it has created a community that is interested in solving problems together, building better cities and connecting more deeply in their work together.

Ronald van den Hoff: We see various groups, from small to large. There is one called the Broekriem (trouser belt: if you are unemployed you have to tighten your belt) assisting unemployed people to get a better working knowledge of Linkedin, profile improvement advice, personality training etc. There are groups creating new political parties, childcare centers, publishing groups, crowd funding cafe’s, and all kind of events which may lead to new groups.

Coworking at home at Collective Self in Seattle

The worldwide coworking movement is booming. What’s the relationship between free coworking and paid coworking?

Felix Schürholz: Free Coworking is not only a reminder what coworking is all about, but also a motor for new coworking spaces. There are very few paid coworking spaces around that did not start with a free coworking community. Free coworking is an integral part of coworking, and it is always present even in “paid only” coworking spaces, but then of course to a lesser degree. By developing free coworking more and more, coworking evolves as a whole focussing on the core values of collaboration, openness, community, accessibility, and sustainability.

Lori Kane: I’d call the relationship a friendship. It’s not an abstract thing. I am friends with the people who run many of the other paid spaces. Here in Seattle, we’re all part of the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance and we help each other out however we can. We try to get to know each other’s spaces so that we can be better resources for the people who show up in our spaces and help people find places they’ll be happy working. I have pointed people in the direction of Office Nomads, Agnes Underground, The Mill, and Works Progress, for example, and they’ve done the same for us. We aren’t their competition. Each space may have different goals and ideas (yay!), but I think we share common values and we’re all interested in helping people become closer as community, happier in their lives, and helping create a city/region/area/planet that’s a joy to live and work in.

Derek Neighbors: Paid coworking is a modified version of shared offices which has opened people up to whole different type of working in open environments. Collaborative workspaces have opened people up to whole different type of living. Free collaborative workspaces like Gangplank have led that charge. Now you have people seeking the community more than the desk. Spaces like Indyhall, New Work City and Office Nomads, while not being free, are making community the core of their environment. The relationship is that now there are many flavors of coworking in the same way there are many flavors of restaurants. Technically a big player like Regus can offer open office plans that are coworking or a local building owner can sublet in a way that is coworking or a community can be built that could care less about desks (we call this a collaborative workspace).

Ronald van den Hoff: The relations simply are there. We start with free coworking. Then when people group, get assignments or start a company we see a demand for desk spaces, office spaces, meeting spaces. The newest demand is “office for a day,” where a loosely-operating company still needs an environment one day per week to “play office” in order for people/group members to bond and get a feel of belonging.

How does free coworking intertwine with the sharing movement at large?

Felix Schürholz: If you only consider the three core values of collaboration, community and sustainability, you can see the strong link of giving. But it is not only giving, it is giving a little more than you take. If you take more than you give than it is not sustainable. There will be no community that can last like this and collaboration will stop sooner or later.

It is the same with sharing at large. If you start sharing you give a little more than you take (in terms of financial input), but you create so much more social capital and value for everyone, so that more capital (financial and social) is produced for you and everyone else.

Lori Kane: Free coworking creates an obvious space for sharing to happen and surfaces the gift economy as a real, already happening, working, and very-easy-for-humans thing. We share things. We swap and barter. We give and receive a ton of gifts. When you offer free coworking, people show up generous, bearing gifts of their own: from food to skills to ideas to information and access to resources. I gained about 10 pounds the first year from all the food people brought! It’s also helped me relax and take the time to recognize gifts that I might have missed before.

Derek Neighbors: It has the ability to set the tone in a different way because it removes desk rental from the conversation and by default has to focus on something else. We are seeing libraries, schools and other forms of third places folding in the concept of coworking into their offerings. Soon the lines will be so blurred we may not have coworking as you currently think of it. Sharing buildings and finding ways to accelerate collaborative consumption intern links closely with the larger sharing movement. We have seen neighborhood coworking where someone opens their kitchen to the neighbors to work together.

Ronald van den Hoff: Free coworking thrives with sharing and vice versa. Free coworking is based on sharing the abundance for social capital and that is the economical philosophy behind the whole sharing movement. Money may be involved, but it must have a proper balance with the social capital to make it a sustainable ecosystem.

At Seats2meet, you cowork for free and rent conference rooms when needed

Any free coworking success stories you’d like to share?

Lori Kane: I have a million. Here’s a big one for me personally. After running the coworking space for almost two years in our central Seattle neighborhood, my writer-self began longing for quiet and for a place our Australian Shepherd puppy could run off-leash, easily, every day. We began looking for places on Whidbey Island, and for a week I was full of guilt and worry about what us moving away might mean for the neighborhood and the coworkers in our space. The next week, a woman I never met before came to coworking. It turns out, she’s the partner of a friend of mine who used to work at Office Nomads. They needed a place to live and she fell in love with our house. They moved into the house in December just two days after we moved out, and they now run the coworking space. There was just a two-week break, over the holidays, and then Collective Self was back in business! I join them once or twice a month for coworking when I’m back in Seattle. I’m so thrilled they came into our lives. It was like magic.

Derek Neighbors: Gangplank, Arizona State University’s Alexandria Project [Editor’s note: the Alexandria Network opens collaborative spaces in libraries.]

Ronald van den Hoff: There are many individual stories of smaller networks and groups like the above mentioned Broekriem which are getting funding [from] different municipalities to fight local unemployment, as they have proven to be very successful in their approach and collaboration within the Seats2meet.com mesh.

For ourselves, creating a mesh of connected people, of successful coworkers, means that we, as an organization, get back a lot. The return is immense. Our stakeholders appreciate our products and services tremendously and help us to position Seats2meet.com on the “free agents” mesh. They create an enormous flow of buzz on the web (we used to call that PR in the old days); they feed us with tips, reviews, knowledge, and their time (that used to be called marketing); and actively promote us to other knowmads and to corporate and governmental organizations (that used to be called sales). Whenever they have real business, they book their training and meeting rooms at Seats2meet.com locations without asking for a discount. So, at Seats2meet.com, we no longer have a PR, sales, or marketing and reservation department. How do you think that works out for our operational costs? And the still-growing army of fans who do our commercial activities is staggering.

Gangplank members seek the community more than the desk

What’s your big picture vision for the free coworking movement? What would you like to see happen?

Felix Schürholz: Free coworking puts people first, not so much the space. In the past, coworking has largely, of course, been driven by coworking space operators looking to open up and run a coworking space. While this is great, it puts the coworker in a more passive role. Another aspect of this development has always been that the coworking spaces have been more visible than the coworkers working there. Free Coworking can change this.

We like to see the coworker in a more active role, we like to see a more visible coworker. Free-Coworking.org now has a programme called Certified/Registered Free Coworker. The idea is as follows: For coworkers to receive a free desk and free wifi etc., in spaces that have offered only paid coworking until now, the coworker has to give something in return. This something in return is 30 minutes of their time per day in the coworking space they like to work in. To make sure, that this something that they give is of interest to everyone, the Certified/Registered Free Coworker has to demonstrate that she or he is an expert or specialist in a particular field or area.

[The Certified/Registered Free Coworker] is where I see free coworking very soon; very active coworkers who work for free in any coworking space in the world [that] supports this program. This will be great for the coworkers, but for the coworking spaces as well. Free coworking makes coworking that much more attractive for potential coworkers, companies and customers. Social capital attracts financial capital. This is the way I see a sustainable economy work.

Lori Kane: I don’t know that I feel a big picture vision is necessary. However, in my own life, I see free coplaying spaces as the next thing. That’s what we’re setting up our new island home to be. I want people to come and spend a whole day or weekend with us, dropping work worries for a while, and relaxing and having fun together. Great ideas often come when we’re relaxed. I want to be present for that and part of that happening for our friends and coworkers from the Seattle space who come visit here.

Derek Neighbors: Every city in the world has a watering hole for creatives to congregate, share and create.

Ronald van den Hoff: Research by the Rotterdam School of Management in the Seats2meet.com mesh supports that “many people at S2m actively engage in interaction with other coworkers and that the payoffs are manifold. Not only does working at S2m increase their social network, it helps also to develop people’s skills and improves their products and services. These personal business outcomes are then followed by concrete business outcomes such as collaborating on a project or targeting prospects together. Even finding new jobs and assignments are not uncommon outcomes.”

The early figures indicate that new economic value creation is moving away from the traditional value chain and that value networks have the future. We have to realize that people can get anything from themselves without the need for an organization, like in the old days. So the more networks there will be the more growth we can get. Growth out of the crisis, although it may not be growth visible in terms of our gross national product, as social capital often is intangible. Free coworking stimulates this movement, giving people access to others, hence its importance.

I would like to see more locations work with us, as the larger the network, the better the quality and opportunities. We offer collaboration by means of using the Serendipity Machine Dashboard where coworkers, once checked in, have real time access to the whole global network of professionals present in one of the locations. This way, physical locations keep their own identity, but still benefit from a larger network, stimulating serendipitous meetings, or locations can even become a Seats2meet.com location and use the reservation and property management software.

Anything you’d like to add?

Derek Neighbors: Don't mistake no cost as inexpensive. Paying in alternative currencies can often be far more expensive.

Free Coworking Resources

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