Coworking is cheaper than renting a solo office or executive suite, and provides access to a tresure trove of benefits that home office dwellers can only dream about. Most coworking spaces are real, profitable businesses (or at least headed in that direction), so there are still costs involved. As we've discussed before, however, the for-profit model isn't a requirement for a coworking space's sustainability or sucess.
Late last year, Deskmag reported on an experiment catching fire in the Netherlands: free coworking. Seats2Meet, the company featured in the article, has been renting meeting rooms to companies that wanted to interact outside of their offices for 20 years.
Four years ago Seats2Meet expanded their concept by creating large open working areas that offered their visitors a buffet lunch and free tea and coffee. All for the grand price of nothing at all. Instead, users are expected to pay with “social capital”: "We offer them (facilities) in exchange for their knowledge and added value,” said Vincent Ariëns from Seats2Meet Utrecht.
Many coworking space owners balk at the idea that mobile workers should be able to access their communities without paying. After all, many of these spaces are truly extraordinary, offering modern aesthetics and sophisticated technologies for their members. But according to Felix Schürholzm, publisher of CoWorking News and self-described "free coworking activist," no-charge access is the next, inevitable evolution of the coworking movement.
Shareable caught up with Schürholzm just after the Global Coworking Unconference Conference in Austin to learn more about his quest for free coworking. Here's what he had to say:
Shareable: When did you first discover coworking?
FS: I discovered coworking around the beginning of 2009. As there was no coworking in Munich at the time, a colleague and I traveled to Berlin to look at the HUB Berlin which unfortunately does not exist anymore. The combination of entrepreneurship and coworking that we found was something that fascinated me.
Shareable: The paid coworking industry is growing rapidly, why do you think it should change?
FS: Paid coworking is fine for people who like to work by themselves. They find encouragement and in some cases valuable feedback. They like paid coworking because it gives them more structure and decreases the number of distractions they might otherwise face when working from home. This is fine! But coworking can easily offer a lot more. And it should, otherwise what would be the difference between a coworking space and a business center?
Shareable: OK, so what can free coworking offer that paid coworking can't?
FS: When you look at the core values of coworking, namely collaboration, openness, community, accessibility, and sustainability, you see that paid coworking actually aims at something else. Working by yourself, for example, does not really have much to do with collaboration. There's a big difference between the way you work on a personal project or a collaborative task. Think about the way you will listen to and participate in the "background noise" in your coworking space. When working by yourself, you tend to close your ears and try to shut the noise out. If you work in a team and on a common project you will open your ears and happily receive all the information because you know everything is valuable and important for you. You will start to interact straight away when you receive a new information or when you can offer assistance. That is true collaboration and openness.
Shareable: You say that free coworking supports collaboration and a "connected economy." What does that mean?
FS: A free economy is a connected economy. Only when you're connected can you receive services for free. Paid coworking on the other hand sets a limit on collaboration and openness. When you practice paid coworking you operate in a totally different mindset and framework. A framework where distrust and scarcity play an important role. Many people believe that good intention is a scarce resource. The contrary is true. Think about it. What is your own intention? This world is just as good or bad as your own intention.
Shareable: But how can coworking spaces be successful if they don't charge a fee?
FS: There are different models of what free coworking can be.One model for example is the Seats2meet model. Here the operator offers the choice between free or paid coworking. If you choose free coworking, you do not just get a free space, but also a free meal. How is that possible? You enter into an exchange of social capital for services or financial capital. From a purely balance sheet point of view, the operator generates the necessary financial income from renting out meeting spaces. According to the operator's experience, sooner or later the free coworker will either personally require this meeting space or will attract a project partner who will pay for the meeting space. The business model I favor is even more project or team oriented. And it is based on a different ownership principle. In this model, the common infrastructure is owned and developed by the coworkers. It is very important to understand this point: While coworking spaces do not charge a fee to the individual coworker to use the space, they still receive "conventional" revenue to pay their bills and to run the space. The difference in free coworking is that the money is generated in a sustainable and connected economy.
Shareable: Well that certainly makes sense! So how can people help expand the concept of free coworking?
FS: It is a question of consciousness and design. The consciousness refers to the individual recognition to posses the power for change. Everybody has this power. And design. By design we can and should do it together. We should build and own the tools together to expand free coworking.
One important process tool is consensus decision making. For common ownership to be effective consensus decision making needs to work well. There are other tools and resources already in place. For example to start there is already a Facebook Group called "Free Coworking" that everybody can join, and a Free Coworking Directory listing participating spaces/events around the world.
Michel Bauwens recently observed something very important concerning peer to peer production: When people create something in common, they create their own infrastructure. But when people link to share their experiences, they tend to use a corporate infrastructure like Facebook or Flickr. Therefore free coworking needs its own infrastructure. We've already set up various other tools that we need to develop on a shared and common basis, like the Free Coworking Skill Sharing list. These tools are there to use now, but we need to make them better.
If you're a coworker, or a peer-to-peer sharing advocate, please join the discussion and visit the free coworking resource page to learn more. Share and design the future of free coworking with us and everybody around you!
What do you think? Is "free coworking" a more literal expression of the coworking movement's core values? Would you like to work in a free coworking space? Share your thoughts in a comment.