I have had the good fortune of working out of close to a dozen coworking places over the last 8 years, and have met some of the great minds and innovators and champions for the movement. I’ve seen everything from a small, non-profit, non-charging collaborative workspace like Gangplank to a multi-location megalith like WeWork. Regardless of the size of the building, or the number of people who work there, or the volume of the background music there are 4 things that mark a successful coworking place. Coffee, Connectiviity, Community and Culture.
Work and coffee have an intertwined relationship since the dawn of time. In this sense though I’m not talking about that bitter brown liquid that awakens the zombies into humans. I’m talking about the ACT of coffee. The standing around the kitchen stirring in the cream and sugar, snagging an extra donut when you think no one is looking, and getting the small talk chatter out. The kitchen or lunch area at a coworking place is often the first place that new visitors will be social with others. Whether it is over the new iPhone/fitness tracker/laptop or whatever that one of them has, or the baseball game last night, or the book someone is reading these communal areas are a natural place to talk about things other than core business.
Foster these spaces, allow them to be the nexuses of interactions and introductions. The hardest working people still need to get up and stretch and get a drink now and then – let it be productive as well.
This one goes without saying in today’s world but still places get this wrong. It’s not about having the fastest internet speeds (though that helps) or having more places to plug in than other places (though that helps too). It’s about making it easy for those connections to the outside world and the work that we do to happen. The wifi has to be easily accessible not only for the core members but for any clients or meetings they bring in. The network can’t be unreliable or unpredictable. There have to be places to plug in laptops and phones and charge up.
Any of these things make it hard for work to happen, or limit the amount of time someone is willing to try to work in your space. You can’t have coworking without people in the building doing work. Make it easy for them to do that.
This has to grow naturally. The people in your space will get to know each other around the water cooler and coffee pot. They’ll bump into each other coming and going from the space. They’ll overhear conversations at the table behind them and offer insight. They’ll go out for beers, lunch, or an event together. By providing a space where people of like minds are a community will grow so long as there aren’t restrictive rules or procedures that stop it. If everyone has a closed door office and there are no common areas to work in, you aren’t coworking – you are subletting offices. You won’t be building a community, you’ll be providing a service. If you have a “library” rule where people are disincentivized to talk and communicate with the people around them, you aren’t building a community either.
You have to be a part of this community whether you are a member or an organizer in the space. You have to introduce yourself to new members and new members to the rest of the community. Everyone in a coworking place is responsible for the community.
Wherein our intrepid heroes, highly caffeinated, jacked into the internet, and bonded together as a team like the Avengers decide what the space really is. The members build the culture. The members create, enforce, and change the norms and social rules. The members ultimately have to feel a connection to the space and the people around them not just in the fact that they share the same real estate, but that they can help those around them. The culture can be one of collaboration where everyone helps with others’ work. It can be one of caring where the members become a family unit that actually cares about more than just the business getting done. It can be one of competition where everyone plays in the fantasy football league or march madness pool or has ping pong and Street Fighter matches.
Whatever it will be though will be from the members. No amount of cajoling and rules will make it happen. The best thing an organizer can do is to shepherd the culture away from toxic and insular ideas and promote healthy and beneficial ones. Toxic cultures won’t last as people will exit quickly. Healthy cultures will bring more people in and welcome them as someone who can contribute.
Conclusion (see I snuck a 5th C in here)
If you’ve read this far and think that maybe I’ve gone a little more “Kumbaya around the campfire” than I should, then maybe you’ve missed the bigger picture here. Coworking is about people. It has nothing to do with the building, the desks, the chairs, the ambient music or how much things cost. It is about the people in the space, days and nights, from the ones that are there 5 days a week to the folks there 2 times a month. Without the people, none of the rest matters. To be a successful coworking space you’ve got to be good with people. The rest flows naturally from there.