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Shaping Serendipity: What we can learn from the cowork movement 

Photo courtesy of NextSpace CoWorking, reprinted with permission.

Ever walk into an office and sense a great disconnect between employees? In the hyper-connected world-of-work, where emails and conference calls keep us constantly plugged in, we often forget that workers still crave face-to-face interaction. Human beings are social creatures, and creativity and socialization go hand-in-hand. Companies that want creative work cultures, and designers who want to create the innovative offices of the 21st century, need to consider the entire experience of work, including the social aspects.

I recently discussed these ideas and others with Jeremy Neuner and Ryan Coonerty, founders of the company NextSpace, and Gensler principal Gervais Tompkin at Shaping Serendipity, a panel discussion hosted by Gensler in San Francisco. Among the many insightful comments by the panelists, one point stuck with me above all: business is a social act, and we should be designing a social architecture for it.

NextSpace, founded by Neuner and Coonerty in Santa Cruz, Calif., is a prime example of how social architecture and shared work environments appeal to creative people. NextSpace provides a shared workspace to entrepreneurs and other creative-class professionals who don’t want to spend their days in isolated environments.

Neuner and Coonerty started NextSpace as an economic development tool for the city of Santa Cruz (Coonerty is currently the Mayor of Santa Cruz). The premise: instead of trying to draw a 200-person company to the city, they decided to entice 200 one-person companies to come to the city. The results have been so successful that they’ve opened a second location in San Francisco and are preparing to expand to Silicon Valley.


Photo courtesy of NextSpace CoWorking, reprinted with permission.

NextSpace isn’t the only cross-sector workspace of its kind. Cowork spaces are popping up in many cities. The appeal of NextSpace, and of coworking, should not come as a surprise: for the past 50 years, office workers have congregated around water coolers and common areas to exchange ideas and socialize. While the cowork movement is focused on freelancers and small businesses, the lessons learned from this movement apply to larger companies seeking to promote innovation and recruit or retain talent.

Neuner and Coonerty argue that we are “hardwired to collaborate,” and that the biggest leaps happen when individuals blend work and socializing. They call these moments of innovative collaboration—when human interaction helps workers reach a breakthrough—the “NextSpace Effect.” And they believe they are more likely to happen in workspaces that foster socialization.

Gensler principal Gervais Tompkin has observed that employees in traditional office settings are underutilizing soft seating areas like lounge spaces and break areas. In some companies, these spaces carry a stigma—employees think they should be working at their desks instead of socializing. In other cases, the spaces aren’t designed to accommodate work—they lack power outlets for laptops or easily accessible Wi-Fi—so employees shun them. Employees crave social interaction, but don’t want to be relegated to spaces where they can’t multitask. Companies that break down the barriers between “work” and “social” spaces by retrofitting offices to provide well-equipped informal spaces are encouraging collaboration and innovation amongst their employees.

It also might behoove companies to reconsider how employees are allocated. Traditional thinking says employees should be seated by department and profession. This type of seating arrangement may increase office efficiency, but, as many have argued, the 21st century economy prioritizes invention over efficiency. At NextSpace, professionals get a chance to sit next to individuals with completely different skill sets—in fact Neuner and Coonerty have seen a number of start-ups begin this way. The collision of different expertise can lead to new ideas. As Neuner put it, “you need diversity in the room for innovation to occur.”

Laura Crescimano is fascinated by the un-likely, the unheard of, and the in-between. At the intersection of research and architecture, Laura focuses on using design as a strategic tool–formally and organizationally–in both the public and private sector. She has led classes on public space and the culture of design. Laura is a designer and strategist at Gensler San Francisco and serves on the Board of Directors for AIA San Francisco. Contact her at laura_crescimano@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

To me, this is the essence of rethinking how offices are designed: "the 21st century economy prioritizes invention over efficiency."

There's a real tension between what people need to be inventive and creative and what companies hope to accomplish in terms of real estate efficiency. I'd love to hear more about what the principles of those inventive spaces are. Who is really changing the paradigm from department-based to idea-based??
03.8.2011 | Unregistered CommenterKEK

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