Supporting Coworkers’ Well-Being in the Gig Economy

Yes! Coworking is here to stay.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Coworking, an alternative to and growing influence on the traditional office is defined as “A global community of people dedicated to the values of collaboration, openness, community, accessibility, and sustainability in their workplaces” (Capdevila, 2015). Societal change, evolving global economics, and the influx of digitally savvy workers has set the stage for the origination of coworking space as a concept and subsequent expansion. The ‘knowledge economy’ has instigated a greater emphasis on creativity and innovation, boosted by changing demographics and the millennials’ impact on how we work. Though coworking has been characterized as “working alone, together” (Spinuzzi, 2012), the influx of corporations into the coworking arena have begun to shift that equation.

Independent workers comprise 36 percent of the US workforce. Due to outsourcing, mobility, technology, and a growing creative class, in 2018 over 19,000 coworking spaces hosted 1.7 million gig workers, globally. At first, coworking space was identified as an alternate to working at home, alone—a destination or option for entrepreneurs and sole-practitioners. It was viewed as a trend, but no more. As noted by Liz Elam in her article, “Coworking Megatrend Predictions for 2019”, at this time corporations are deeply invested into housing their employees in coworking spaces and that demand is experiencing exponential growth. She states that “coworking is the fourth industrial revolution.” For corporations and smaller business alike, the coworking movement is empowering independent actions by prospective tenants over building owners. Furthermore, at times the tenant can bypass parties typically involved of the traditional leasing equation, including real estate brokers and/or leasing agents. The outcome is a shift that is not making everyone happy, though coworking brands like WeWork are certainly feeling the love in this strong, global economy. It is estimated that by 2022, there will be over 6,200 coworking spaces in the United States.

Yes, coworking is here to stay! There are too many economic and environmental benefits of coworking space versus the traditional ways of working to overlook. Evidence comes from the reduced cost and flexibility of contract duration of coworking space—especially by corporations. In fact, there has been an explosion of corporations entering the coworking market. As of 2017, 15 percent of the Standard & Poors 500 Index (S&P) companies were engaged in coworking to some degree—including companies like IBM, Facebook, and Cisco (Liz Elam, 2018). The ability corporations to occupy a smaller footprint—reducing the demand for building system operations and associated energy—if things are done right can benefit people and the planet.

However, beyond this body of evidence relevant to real estate occupancy rates, energy, and environmental cost implications, it is equally critical to identify the effect of coworking space on coworkers’ performance, learning, and well-being. Until recently, “wellness” or “well-being” were not even being discussed. However, engaging a human-centered design lens exposes a growing number of studies published globally, especially since 2016, about the concept, characteristics, challenges, and benefits of coworking space on the people who occupy them. Knowledge from academic research community is finally percolating down to coworking brands, building owners, and design teams to the benefit of coworkers.

Photo by Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash

Focusing on the “Non-Corporate” Coworkers

Coworking first evolved in 2015 in San Francisco as a type of “third-place” environment for those who were self-employed. It enabled them to work outside of their homes or singular office spaces to avoid isolation or reduce rental costs, respectively. In more recent years, corporations have engaged in occupying coworking spaces to balance their volatile space needs and to cut costs. This article focuses on support needed primarily for those who first engaged with coworking space—the self-employed. Their needs for support go deeper perhaps than those employed by a corporation, whose parameters and boundaries for work, direction by a leader, process, and systems are prescribed; whereas, the self-employed coworker is ‘making it up as he/she goes.’ Certainly, the physical space needs and amenities are critical for both types of coworkers. However, it could be argued that the emotional and psychological aspects of support needed by those who are self-employed, many in the creative or entrepreneur class, are greater. Though depending on the size of presence of the corporation in a specific coworking space, those untethered workers could have needs as great as their independent counterparts.

It’s All About Community

As many authors note, coworking space is not about space, but a movement to engage independent thinking around collaborative work without competition or boundaries, community its greatest benefit (Brown, 2017). Influences on coworkers’ success are place, routines, purpose, and people (Petriglieri et al., 2018). Coworking space is a cost-effective, member-based environment overseen by a manager who orchestrates engagement/opportunities. Members are freelancers from diverse disciplines; many are from creative industries (design, media, software technology, etc.), typically college educated, and 18-30 years of age. These “lone eagles” can struggle with work/life boundaries, isolation, and appearance of professionalism. Perspectives, values, experiences, projects, spaces, technology, and equipment are shared within the coworking space. Access to a professional atmosphere, a place to meet with clients, space for heads-down/reflective work, and privacy are most valued.

The Role of the Manager

Managers (also referred to as facilitators, hosts, or agents) have been found to be pivotal in determining the degree of success of the coworking space—equally with provision of a stable fiscal foundation for the coworking space. Initially managers were the founders of most coworking spaces. They provided a visionary demeanor and approach to meeting members’ needs. Given the growth of mega-coworking brands, the manager is more often hired as a service provider in terms of demeanor. Depending on the needs of the coworkers, the manager as match-maker/orchestrator and/or knowledge gatekeeper becomes important. Satisfaction of the coworker members are directly related their ability to leverage networking opportunities, collegiality, peer support, and interaction. Studies have indicated that contrary to what might be expected, “serendipitous encounters” are not naturally occurring in terms of innovation or business partnerships within coworking spaces. This is especially true for coworkers not coming from a corporation. In addition to business growth, structured experiences orchestrated by the manager can accelerate coworker maturity/confidence. The successful, sought-after manager focuses on assisting coworkers in identifying suitable collaborators and compatible interests among them, without boundaries.

Conceptualized as a place to collaborate, not compete, “community” is paramount—and the coworking space should function as a social hub. In addition, financial, professional, and emotional support is also courted by many coworking space members from the manager—and providing these supports can ensure the success of the members and thereby the coworking venture itself. The manager as match-maker has been found to be a valued benefit for coworkers. This approach enables coworker members to leverage relationships by augmenting their bandwidth of personal skills or knowledge to collaboratively build their personal success and productivity and that of other members.

Free Address Collaboration Space – Photo by Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash

Organizational Characteristics that Support Well-Being

Innovative organizational characteristics of coworking spaces have a significant impact on the well-being and overall success of the coworker. Structured experiences are needed to support a shared understanding, especially across multiple disciplines or specialties within a coworking environment. In this way, social cohesion has been found to accelerate the rate of business growth and coworker maturity and confidence—key attributes within a coworking space inhabited by young entrepreneurs. Social events held at the coworking space that open the space to participation from external or neighboring individuals or entities are especially valued as opportunities for networking and building business. Interestingly, they are not valued as collaborative opportunities between coworkers.

Unfortunately, coworking spaces can struggle from omission of management, mentorship, and/or “curation” and recruitment of membership, especially when located outside an urban center. Any can precipitate the failure of the coworking space. Coworking space can anchor an urban neighborhood, though they have also been found to threaten gentrification and displace people and culture—raising issues relative to social justice. Though coworking members have been found to value interaction with the neighboring business for growth opportunities, coworking spaces tend to not form significant, durable relationships the neighborhood. This outcome can be due to lack of engagement strategies formulated by the manager, interest by coworker members, and/or a lack of resources. Growth in this aspect of coworking space conceptualization and management could elevate members’ benefits in an important way. Though, overall, coworking space has not been found to be a quick fix in terms of urban renewal, unless paired with other initiatives.

Coworking space models vary: independent, profit or non-profit, private or public; corporately-owned/operated; or municipally or university sponsored. As coworkers’ goals differ, so do the models that work best for them and each influences the design of the physical space coworkers inhabit. For instance, the “Good Partners” model is designed to support collaboration through networking and formation of transient teams explored through social activities orchestrated by the manager. On the other hand, the “Good Neighbors” model also prescribes socialization, but only for the sake of being social, not for building working relationships. The hallmark of this approach is the support of parallel work, working with others—but alone (Spinuzzi, 2012). Based on needs, prospective coworking space members can self-select the management approach that is a good fit. However, to be successful they need to be aware of those needs and work to identify the personality of the coworking space.

Coworking space can also be organized as inward- or outward-facing as a cultural approach. Inward facing coworking space values community culture, comfort, and functionality; whereas, outward-facing coworking space focuses on clients’ perceptions (Spinuzzi, 2012). Depending on the maturity and experience of coworkers as well as their business profiles, one type of space organization will work well over the other. Degree of user or client access also impacts the atmosphere or culture relative to public, semi-private, or private entry and circulation restrictions.

Successful coworking space offers an environment that nurtures entrepreneurial learning and efficiency (Butcher, 2018) and enhances coworkers’ well-being by supporting business, knowledge, and skills building through appropriate physical space, amenities, and services as well as planned events and social interactions. How those amenities are fiscally supported varies by the coworking space’s business model. Most offer a shared expense plan that covers administrative services and other amenities. Overwhelmingly, the collective identity of the community that is created is unlike that of the traditional office. Coworking spaces are designed to help member leverage their creativity and innovation as core values. Visible leadership of adroit managers takes the form of role models and their presence offers continuity and balance—differing from the traditional office where leadership is often perceived as an enforcer or director of activities, focused on the clock and sequential measurements of achievement. In coworking space, professional networking, collegiality, interaction, and opportunity form more of a flexible web of activity and achievement—if actualized intelligently.

Heads down coworking – Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

What Could be Done Better to Support Coworkers’ Well-Being?

Dynamic innovation in coworking space exceeds levels produced in traditional offices and support the global knowledge economy. Community supports individuality, expression of unique perspectives, collective identity/sense of ownership, and fills the void experienced when working alone. Therefore, if orchestrated well from a management standpoint and designed to support physical needs, coworking space could boost coworkers’ psychological and physical health. However, we need to know much more to really address coworkers’ needs. Currently, lack of mediation, mentoring, and management; placemaking attributes and design features; and effects of personality characteristics are largely unstudied. For instance, trade-sponsored surveys have shown that coworker members perceive that their productivity has increased, and their professional networks have grown due to their residence in the coworking environment. However, those benefits have not been substantiated in findings from scientific studies. We do know from those studies that experience is valued over loyalty and that flexibility and cross-discipline sharing is essential to coworkers’ perceptions of coworking space satisfaction. Also, physical colocation does not predict interaction—here is where an insightful manager has a huge role to play.

And finally, we need to consider if the void of “visible leadership,” (as described above) evident in traditional offices is a benefit in coworking spaces? Broadly thinking across coworking spaces for either self-employed or corporately employed coworkers, does this mean that a manager motivating workers as a role model is the new paradigm? Coworking spaces are places of great transformation, a transition from a known workplace environment and/or etiquette impacted by society, economics, and technology. Based on what we know so far from scientific inquiry, coworkers themselves are evolving due to the nature of work and shifting demographics of the gig economy. Though how these factors impact coworkers’ learning, performance, and well-being and influence behaviors is to date largely unknown. From a human-centered design perspective, more information is needed for designers to fully support the well-being of coworkers.

References

Brown, J. (2017). Curating the “Third Place”? Coworking and the Mediation of Creativity. Geoforum, 82, 112-126. DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.04.006

Butcher, T. (2018). Learning Everyday Entrepreneurial Practices Through Coworking. Management Learning, 49 (3), 327-345. DOI: 10.1177/1350507618757088

Capdevila, I. (2015). Co-working spaces and the localised dynamics of innovation in Barcelona. International Journal of Innovation Management, 19 (3), 154004 (28 pages). DOI: 10.1142/S1363919615400046

Elam, L. (2018, December 6). Coworking Megatrend Predictions for 2019 (and a Bombshell. WorkDesign Magazine.

Petriglieri, G., Ashford, S. J., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2018, March-April). Thriving in the Gig Economy. Harvard Business Review.

Spinuzzi, C. (2012). Working alone together: Coworking as emergent collaborative activity. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 26(4), 399-441. DOI: 10.1177/1050651912444070

More from Caren S. Martin, PhD, CID, NCIDQ, FASID, FIDEC

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