Could coworking be the top candidate for a “multivitamin” of entrepreneurial life and the future of work? Tuukka Toivonen argues it can, but only if we develop a more sophisticated understanding of its potential value through dialogue that transcends silos.
Coworking, it appears, has become a tremendously beneficial "multivitamin" for entrepreneurial workers. Scholars claim it can alleviate the symptoms of loneliness among digital nomads and those with freelancing tendencies. Office providers preach its potential to stimulate collaboration among autonomous innovators suffering from creator’s block. Designers believe that, through beautiful interiors and smart layouts, it can relieve us from work- and screen-related dread and dullness, freeing us to reconnect with ourselves.
Assume, for the moment, that all of this is true: through a lucky series of experiments, humanity has invented the perfect package-solution to the ailments of entrepreneurial living, with remedies for various psychological insecurities and digital maladies.
However, there’s just one problem: where exactly does one download the “nutritional facts”? In other words, how well do we really understand the types of value that coworking and specific workspaces can offer to individual creative workers?
While it is easy to browse the fee plans and glossy photos of hundreds of coworking spaces on platforms such as Hubble, very little systematic information exists on how users actually experience the benefits of a particular coworking space and how it helps to propel their creative projects forwards (though narrative accounts abound). It’s one thing for coworking providers to signal value through a cool brand image, inventive designs or symbols of “community” – it’s quite another to show how value is created in practice for/by diverse users.
I argue that this problem – pointing to a new kind of “good work gap” – is rooted in a stubborn refusal of a number of relevant sectors and disciplines to enter into a common conversation and co-develop a shared holistic framework of coworking value. Providers remain concerned mainly with selling deskspace and developing their brands; designers stress the power of aesthetics and spatial layouts; social scientists analyse (and perhaps over-emphasise) the role of communities in coworking.
This clearly needs to change and laying out a set of key dimensions of potential value creation is a good place to start.
I propose that a holistic lens on coworking can be developed around the (aggregate) dimensions of well-being, work efficiency, learning, creativity, collaboration and resourcing. The first three can be supported on the short-term and through spatial designs as well as on-site services that promote comfort, healthy routines, friendly sociality, focus and (formal or semi-formal) learning events. The last three may be categorised as long-term sources of value, as they depend more on member-driven interactions and networks. These are much harder to provide as a “service” and images of fancy interiors and meditation huts tell us very little about how a particular space stimulates useful feedback interactions or lasting collaborative relationships.
The beauty of building a holistic framework along these lines is that it can incorporate everything from workspace user experience perspectives (emanating in fields such as environmental psychology and facilities management) to sociological and organisational assessments of collaboration, identity, community and the creative process.
To contribute to the growth of this approach, colleagues and I have developed an original methodology for assessing the “creative value added” of a given space or programme through tracing, over time and with digital techniques, the vital interactions that end up shaping a creative worker’s emerging business idea (see this report for examples). Various other data-driven methods already exist for capturing more general workspace usage and interaction patterns. Also, relatively straightforward online surveys and interviews can be employed to capture evidence on both short-term and long-term elements of value enjoyed by coworking space users.
Why does all of this matter in the broader universe of coworking and the future of work? For three reasons, to boot:
(1) With a better understanding of the value of coworking, selecting a particular workspace or community becomes a genuine, informed choice for the individual creative worker (who will also be prompted to develop a clearer understanding of her primary work needs at a given time);
(2) By defining and assessing multiple dimensions of value, we gain a stronger rationale for cultivating and protecting adiverserange of coworking spaces by clarifying the distinctive needs they address well (and, by the same token, showing where dominant spaces excel and where they fall short);
(3) By developing a multi-dimensional framework, we create a basis for re-imagining the future of coworking – and the future of workspaces more generally – at a far more sophisticated level, helping us also to rethink the role that technology should play within them.
Wouldn’t you like to be able to choose a workspace that, with a fair degree of certainty, will effectively nourish your personal creative journey by responding to all your key needs? We can reach this scenario through integrative thinking as well as bold collaboration across silos.
Tuukka Toivonen, PhD (Oxon.), is a researcher at UCL STEaPP and the founder of Creative Friction Ltd. He helps innovative organisations demonstrate their “creative value added” from the vantage point of the people and ideas they seek to support.