What is Coworking?
There are a number of good descriptions out there, but, for the purpose of this article, we’ll go with this from the Coworking Wiki: “The idea is simple: independent professionals and those with workplace flexibility work better together than they do alone. Coworking spaces are about community-building and sustainability. Participants agree to uphold the values set forth by the movement’s founders, as well as interact and share with one another. We are about creating better places to work and as a result, a better way to work.“
Those values are listed on the Coworking Wiki as Collaboration, Openness, Community, Accessibility, and Sustainability.
I had the idea of writing about each of the coworking values back in April, and, as April is Earth Month, I chose to begin with Sustainability. It’s affirming to see that Alex Hillman, co-founder of one of the world’s most respected coworking communities, also started there when he wrote his five-part series on core values back in 2011.
I begin as he did, noting that “The coworking community rallied and bought coworking.com so that we’d have a place that tied the word “coworking” to the core values of coworking. These values originated with Citizen Space, and have been interpreted by dozens of coworking spaces around the world.”
More recently, members of the coworking community began work on a Coworking Manifesto project. There we find this about the values and code of conduct of the extended coworking community: “We have the talent. We just need to work together. Different environments need to overlap, to connect and to interact in order to transform our culture. In order to create a sustainable community based on trust, we value:
- collaboration over competition
- community over agendas
- participation over observation
- doing over saying
- friendship over formality
- boldness over assurance
- learning over expertise
- people over personalities
- “value ecosystem” over “value chain”
Are you as moved by that as I am? I’ve read that at least 20 times and still find myself wanting to stand on the highest mountain and shout those values to the world every time I read them. Of course, there is the small problem of getting choked up a bit, which makes it hard to shout (~sniff~).
My goal, with this post and those that follow, is to help sustain awareness and commitment to these values among coworkers and to promote visibility to others as a means of differentiating coworking from shared office, executive suites or similar workspaces and from business incubators. There’s so much more to coworking than co-working.
When one hears the word sustainability, “green” or “eco-friendly” often comes to mind. It certainly does for me, and that sort of sustainability is definitely, in my opinion, an integral part of coworking. By its very nature, coworking tends to be eco-friendly. Resources such as power, phone and Internet service, and even space are shared in a much more efficient manner than having folks work in separate offices (even if those are home offices). I would argue we should go beyond such sharing that comes as a matter of course of being communal, to purposefully conducting ourselves in a way that considers the impact our every-day actions have on the environment and on others. Seems fitting, doesn’t it? The whole “reduce, reuse, recycle” bit should apply to operating a coworking space. Cowork Frederick definitely operates in that fashion, buying local, organic, recycled and/or fair trade whenever we can, recycling, encouraging people to walk or bike to work instead of driving, etc. Oh, and soon, nearly 100% of our electricity will come from solar panels we’re having installed on our roof.
But, there’s a lot more to “sustainability” than buying recycled paper. Look up the word “sustainability” in Webster’s (online) dictionary and you’ll see “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged” and, of course, “capable of being sustained”.
Exploring further, we see that “sustain” means:
- to give support or relief to
- to supply with sustenance: nourish
- keep up, prolong
- to support the weight of
- to buoy up
And, THIS is where sustainability starts to get really interesting. Sustainability in a coworking community is about supporting, nourishing, about “buoying up” our fellow coworkers. It’s about giving, about contributing, for it is through these actions that the community itself – made up of individual people – is sustained. Much of this happens organically, serendipitously, as members of a coworking community work in close proximity to each other. Conversation turns into collaboration. One member overhears a conversation about website content curating and joins to offer some tips he learned in a recent class. Another needs a PHP programmer for a project and finds one looking for work at the next table. A member with a well established business and local connections sees promise in a new member and takes him under her wing. Next thing you know, that new member’s business is growing and he is now reaching out to help others. There’s a “pay it forward” vibe to a sustainable coworking community.
Sustainability is also about continuity, about keeping something going over time, about a “method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged”. I love this little dose of wisdom from Ron Finley in his TED Talk, “A Guerilla Gardener in South Central LA“: “The thing about sustainability is you have to sustain it.” Sustainability requires a contained system or process that can continue without drawing upon resources outside that system. Put plainly, as applied to coworking spaces, it means making sure our businesses, our communities, are structured in a way that a continuous loop of giving and receiving balances out so that the community can persist.
Some of that will just happen. We humans are social creatures. We want to belong, to participate, to come together for a higher purpose (or simply for survival). But, that’s a topic for a different discussion (coming soon: Community and Collaboration).
Back to sustainability, in a healthy environment, the balance of give and take will happen naturally among community members. But, we coworking space curators, community managers, or whatever we call ourselves, can muck it up and we need to be mindful of that. For us, sustainability takes intention. Growth has to be balanced. Grow too fast or in an unsustainable way and the system – the community – collapses in on itself. If that happens, we’re no longer “coworking” in the communal, collaborative, supportive way meant by that term. It means not rushing out to fill our spaces with any random person who wants Wi-Fi and a spot to work. It means putting our coworking values “out there” and inviting people to become part of a community that embraces them every day. I challenge everyone founding or running a coworking space to make coworking values central to your identity. Coworking is way more than a place to work. Let’s keep it that way.