Coworking at the Nexus of a Community-Based Workplace Movement
Mike McKeown in Coworking, Workplace Design, consulting, fifty On

The first floor coworking and social area at Atlanta Tech Village. Image © Michael Moran

Earlier this year I attended the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, which in a few short years has grown to host hundreds of coworking operators and enthusiasts from around the world. The word most often mentioned across the conference was “Community.” Coworking, at its core, is less about space and more about creating strong communities and fostering synergies to add greater value to everyone who chooses to participate.

The Rise of Community-Based Working

People have been working in communities for centuries. Over the past 50-60 years, the rise in American coffee culture has helped shape the experience of independent workers and thinkers. From the beatnik coffeehouse gatherings in the 50’s and 60’s to the proliferation of Starbucks and chain coffee shops in the 70’s through the 90’s, the coffee shop became a natural place for people to meet for business or social interactions. When Starbucks first offered Wi-Fi to customers in 2001, it marked a significant shift to tell people: “we’re not just about the coffee.” Suddenly, for the cost of a cup of coffee and Wi-Fi, people had a cheap place to sit and the ability to feed off the buzz of other people doing the same.

Coworking exists today, in part, because of coffeehouse culture. But coworking in the U.S. thrives because of the health of the entrepreneurial movement in this country. While a coffee shop may suffice for a solo freelance worker, entrepreneurs have a desire to connect and build something larger. They are seeking the community aspect that is sometimes lacking in the coffee shop.

So in true entrepreneurial spirit, people started finding cheap space to set up shop and started inviting other like-minded people along for the ride. By putting the right mix of people together, those who used to work in isolation found an environment where they could teach, learn, share, collaborate and support each other’s efforts.

Coworking and Corporate Workplace Strategy Collide

Coworking is often successful due to its loose, entrepreneurial spirit (keep it small, simple and nimble), but as far as an effective workplace, early coworking spaces left much to be desired. While some of the raw aesthetics have had some appeal there was not much consistency when it came to design, furniture and technology. Conversely, a problem we see with larger corporate workplace strategy is too many “rules of engagement.” For all the talk of agile and flexible workplace, many companies are organized in a way that slows down the workplace innovation process. Designers, strategists, corporate real estate, IT and HR professionals all spend countless hours developing detailed strategies, guidelines and roadmaps for the workplace, which can be overwhelming and complicated to implement. This is the opposite of early coworking, which in many cases did not have much strategy at all.

However, as coworking continues to mature, more sophisticated business models and design strategies are emerging. Simultaneously, businesses and designers are realizing the importance of keeping things simple and focusing on community and culture in the traditional workplace (less “rules of engagement,” more “back to basics”). Essentially, coworking wants to become more structured while traditional workplace design wants to become less structured.

Open workstations at the Crystal City Tech Fund. Image © Michael Moran

Working with a Greater Purpose – The Future Ecosystem of “Co-Everything”

As coworking diversifies, we’ve identified five types of coworking models:

  1. Non-Specific Focus: the universal model; come one, come all, open to any individuals or small companies
  2. Specialty Focus: spaces catering to workers with common focus (e.g., tech, creative, financial, medical)
  3. Company / University Focus: spaces within larger companies, universities or incubator programs, open to anyone falling under the larger organizational umbrella
  4. Building Amenity: spaces within a large building or campus, positioned as an asset available to all building tenants, as well as outside individuals. These spaces can be leveraged as a way to introduce potential future tenants to a building.
  5. Neighborhood Infill: spaces that bring new life to old, underutilized buildings, maintaining the original integrity. Examples include old movie theaters, churches or libraries converted to coworking spaces.

With all this diversification, coworking offerings have become woven into the fabric of our communities. They now serve multiple purposes as event spaces, art galleries, pop-up shops, community education centers, entrepreneurial accelerators, Airbnb spaces, etc.

Coworking is also scaling up. Most spaces used to be small scale (under 8,000 square feet, storefront locations). We are now seeing companies like WeWork snagging up several full floors in multiple buildings and creating more sophisticated brands. This creates not just media buzz, but investor buzz. With more financial backing, we’re seeing investors redeveloping and repurposing entire buildings into coworking and entrepreneurial hubs. In Dallas, for instance, 211 Ervay St. (Alto 211), a once underutilized mid-rise tower, was purchased by an outside investment group and, within a few short years, the building has been referred to as the “tech mecca” of Dallas. More recently, Gensler helped Verizon in their partnership with Grind coworking to create hybrid work environments in targeted locations to bring their people closer local talent and centers of knowledge. These are just a few examples of innovative ways that coworking is scaling up.

The Next Evolution of Coworking

Where coworking initially led the way for people to find synergy in a single workspace, we are now seeing the opportunity for synergy within an entire building, as well as among various buildings in the same neighborhood. This now gets beyond “coworking.” We are in the next evolution, including co-learning and co-living spaces.

This evolution will affect our industry in a few major ways. Our clients are already influenced by the design of coworking. Next they will begin to setup their own coworking/innovation workplaces, some being drawn to the innovation districts to get their people closer to the action. We will also see some of the larger, sophisticated coworking spaces partner with companies to create hybrid/branded corporate coworking spaces.

This evolution is also changing the real estate game, and will change how we work with clients and brokers. As the U.S. office vacancy rate hovers somewhere around 15 percent, there are millions of square feet of unused office space in buildings throughout the country. Add in the underutilized space many of our clients already have in their portfolios and coworking starts to become a viable real estate strategy to create and extra revenue stream in these otherwise unused pockets of space. Given Gensler’s global relationships and diverse expertise, we are in a prime position to help our clients tap into the successful characteristics of coworking to help shape the future of our buildings and cities.

Mike McKeown is a Consulting Practice Area Leader in Gensler’s Dallas office. For over 15 years he has provided design and workplace solutions that align with the evolving business goals of clients. Mike specializes in workplace strategy, change management, benchmarking, and research. His experience spans a wide variety of industries including energy, technology, financial and professional services, media, law, and not-for-profits. He received a M.B.A. from Southern Methodist University with concentrations in Real Estate and Entrepreneurship. He has presented at national design conferences, written articles for industry publications, and is the creator of the workplace trends blog, The Best Workplace. You can follow him on Twitter at @mckeown_mike.
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