Coworking: 4 Years and 10 Lessons (part 2 of 2)

Part 1, with coworking lessons 1 through 4, is here.

Lesson 5 - It takes a village. Find your village.

We were jealous of what we saw in other coworking comunities. Why didn’t our members post quirky sayings on a wall or hold jam sessions at night or organize a potluck dinner or do a video about the community? Why, when we tried to initiate such things did they not catch on? Silly us – every community is unique, shaped by its members. It does no good to try to make your community what it is not. You have to work with what you have.

2013-12-30 Matching SweatersOnce we got over worrying about what’s missing, we could better see what’s there, like members helping each other in some way or describing fellow members as family. We see them making fun of each other’s quirks, striking up conversations, connecting on social media, working together on projects. These same members were typically the ones also pitching in with random chores. It wasn't everyone (it never will be everyone). In fact, it’s just a handful of members, but there it was – a community (our village). The goal, then, is to find a way to help it grow, in quality as much as in size.

Lesson 6 – Purpose is powerful.

We realized people need a reason to be a part of Cowork Frederick that went beyond having a place to work or nice people to work around. To stay, members need to be more attached, feel more connected.

2014-09-wear-t-shirt-lunch-copyWe now routinely to talk to members to understand what they care about, their life and work situation and what they really want from being part of Cowork Frederick – and what they want to give. I mean really talk to them, one-on-one, and listen. Sending out surveys or asking for a show of hands in a meeting doesn’t (alone) do the trick. You have to listen to each person individually and find a common thread you can use to weave connections. At first, it may seem none exists, but if you talk to enough people and get creative you can find it. For us one such common thread was the desire to do good.

We launched a Charity of the Month program to give Cowork Frederick members something to rally behind. To create momentum, I handled much of the planning and organizing for our charity event in September. Here’s the great news: I’m hardly involved in the project for October. Cowork Frederick members are building Seed of Life a new website. One member is designing the website, another is creating content, and yet another is helping with PR. The website designer believes the project should include many members of Cowork Frederick and is actively seeking others to help. Wow. Purpose is powerful.

Lesson 7 - Get out of the way (It also takes a vacuum).

Envious of tech-focused meetup groups – groups we have sponsored with meeting space for years – offering to build a website for another organization, I finally asked why they hadn’t pitched in to help Cowork Frederick. The answer was revealing: “Because you already have everything done. You don’t need our help.”

2016-08-fearless-creativity-2Of course, if you run/manage/curate/whatever-word-you-use a coworking space/community, you can’t let important stuff go unattended. And, as members of the community yourselves, you should pitch in like everyone else. But if you always step up, you rob others of their opportunity to do so. You might have to leave the empty toilet paper roll for someone else to change or stop checking the printer on a regular basis to see if it needs paper. You might have to resist the urge to restock the fridge with soft drinks – even as you watch someone take the last one. When you care a lot and want everything to be just right, this might be difficult. Do it anyway. Odd as it may seem, this can strengthen the community. Leave room for others to make their mark. When they do, they will naturally feel a bit more ownership and, as a result, a stronger sense of connection.

Getting out of the way also means Glen and I must be open-hearted and open-minded, humbly and quietly part of the whole – just another part of the community, not founders or managers or owners or parents (as we sometimes are called). We must be smaller so others can be a larger in the community.

Lesson 8 - When the cat’s away, the mice really do play.

2014-03-07-when-the-cats-away-22014-03-07-when-the-cats-away-1We found these photos posted on Facebook while we were away for a conference, which made us laugh and filled us with warm gratitude. It was great to see Cowork Frederick members playing together – even if the place might be a wreck when we got back. 🙂

Lesson 9 – It’s personal.

Because we were busy, we liked automation. We liked shotgun approaches where one effort could reach many people. Automated “drip” emails with break room tips and routine events went out to new members during their first few weeks. Surveys asked for opinions. Labels mark the contents of break room cabinets and drawers. Step-by-step instructions for making 2016-04-floor-stickers-1coffee hang above the coffeemaker. There’s nothing bad about any of that, unless it's used as substitute for actually talking to someone.

Nothing beats face time, real time, for creating connection. Creating connection is essential early in a membership. Members need to feel valued. Notice I said “feel valued”, not “get value”.  If the relationship you have with your members is transactional and not emotional, it’s easy enough for them to do a different transaction elsewhere.

During a one-on-one talk with someone who had been a member nearly a year, I learned he hardly knew anything about the community or how to navigate the space or our systems. People communicate in different ways, so the signs are still up and emails still go out, but now someone personally invites new members to events and personally shows them around the space. Connections are personal.

Lesson 10 - The thing we do together is coWORKING.

By our second year there had been no less than four print articles, two blog posts, and even a TV news story about us, along with hundreds of social media posts. People came in for a tour and were intoxicated by the space and idea of coworking. They signed up on the spot, then came in to work once or twice (maybe), and ultimately canceled their membership. Some didn’t know how to do their work here among others. Some didn’t have work to do; they were searching for what’s next and thought they’d find it here. We learned to ask questions to understand more about the person visiting us, what they do, and why they are interested in us. We now require people work here at least one day before joining.

2016-08-focus-room-workers-1While being a part of Cowork Frederick means presentations and talks and happy hours and lunches, we are first and foremost community of people who come together to work. We are not a club or fraternity for "networking".  Cowork Frederick members have hired each other, teamed up on projects, and referred business to each other, but we’re not a place to come pitch your business. Here, networking happens organically, as a natural extension of working around each other.  We’ve learned to make such things more clear up front.

The revolving door has slowed significantly. In fact, the average length of membership at Cowork Frederick is now 18 months.

Experienced coworking folks may be thinking we need a membership for just being a part of the community and not working here. We’ve had a low-use membership available for years, but not an event-only or online-only type membership. It just wasn’t right for us, but it may be soon.

Bonus Lesson – Coworking really is awesome.

julia-fergusonTurns out, all that talk about great things happening in coworking communities is true. These past four years, I’ve been so inspired by the people I've met, by why they do what they do, and how they do it . If you want to know more about that, peruse past "Featured Member" blog posts. I’ve seen people team up and produce impressive results. I’ve seen people go out of their way to help each other. I’ve seen deep friendships form. I’ve seen self-professed introverts who only wanted to sit in a corner and work come out of their shell and blossom. This aspect of coworking is also true: what I’ve seen in others has challenged me to do better and - more importantly - to be better. Coworking really is awesome.