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The Google Mega-Campus Can't Compete With Coworking Spaces

Trying to find creativity outside the cubicle

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

It’s generally agreed upon that the environment where work takes place has a crucial impact on the quality of work that’s produced. But approximately one-third of U.S. employees are contingent workers based outside the office—freelancers, temps, the self-employed—and their numbers are only expected to increase in the near future. These millions don’t even include the nearly four in ten otherwise in-office U.S. employees who spend some time working remotely. That’s a lot of people trying to find a seat at Starbucks.

While working remotely is not without benefits, there are a significant amount of drawbacks. A 2012 study by University of Texas at Austin professor Clay Spinuzzi found that people who are out of office often feel isolated, cut off from networking opportunities, distracted, and unsatisfied with their work and home life boundaries. Said one of Spinuzzi’s interviewees, “I got really depressed at home because I didn’t talk to anyone all day long.”

This is where coworking spaces come in. Bruno Moriset, an associate professor at the University of Lyon, describes them as “serendipity accelerators” designed “to host creative people and entrepreneurs who endeavor to break isolation and to find a convivial environment that favors meetings and collaboration.” In less eloquent terms, it’s essentially individualized office space for rent. Some spaces bring together folks from similar industries; others host people from completely different backgrounds but who may inevitably need the insight of someone from a different field. And with about 100,000 people working at 3,000 locations around the world, coworking spaces have a very good chance of becoming the new normal when it comes to work.

As Deskmag, the self-proclaimed “coworking magazine,” shows in their meticulous timeline of coworking’s history, programmer Brad Neuberg is credited with opening the first official “working space” in 2005. But the idea of strangers forming a working community isn’t a new idea. From the hackerspaces of the ’90s to the cafés littéraires of the twentieth century, people—and especially creative people—have tended to come together to make inspired work. This essentially makes for good professional survival: In his “Encyclopedia of Creativity,” University of California, Santa Cruz professor David Harrington writes that, “Psychologists generally believe that creativity almost always involves combining, building upon, and transforming pieces of information.” As creative people amplify each other’s inventiveness, the key is finding a place where they’re likely to find each other. How they find a coworking space varies; web searches, personal referrals, and social media campaigns are all frequent drivers of new membership.

So while collaborative spaces aren’t new, what’s expanding now is the commodification of these “third places,” or locations outside of the home and the traditional office. Seven out of ten coworking business operators report that the availability of desk space can’t keep up with the demand. While expansion plans for coworking spaces have slowed somewhat in the past few years (the cause of which isn’t totally clear, but might be because operators want to see current locations mature), there was an 83 percent gain in coworking spaces globally between 2012 and 2013. Moreover, nine out of ten spaces expect to increase their membership numbers in 2014. Moriset writes that the interest in coworking spaces probably stems from multiple factors, including the economic downturn breaking apart companies, the flexibility of the workplace through technology, and the rise of the start-up “creative economy.” But Felena Hanson, founder of the coworking space Hera Hub, argues that the movement rests largely on a changing workforce.

“I think people are looking for more autonomy, especially Generation Y,” says Hanson. “The modern worker is looking for better work-life balance and control of their time. They also want the ability to decide where they work, how they work, when they work, and the option to choose work they find fulfilling.”

Hera Hub, which launched in 2011 and now has three San Diego sites (all of which were all profitable within their first six months of operation), hosts independent workers ranging from lawyers to lotion makers. While Hera Hub’s members may come from different industries, Moriset’s idea of accelerated serendipity is a prominent part of what they hope to provide. If a content provider is looking for feedback from professionals in different fields, or a writer needs a tax preparer, the idea is that they can look within the Hera Hub community first before going elsewhere.

Mary Wenzel, a Hera Hub member and owner of legal website content provider Write Law, worked at three other coworking spaces before choosing Hanson’s. She says while there are a few disadvantages that come with the territory—no office to store her things, the temptation to chat with other members instead of working—the payoffs have been worth it. (She actually turned down an office space to stay in the coworking community.) “I was at a conference last week to launch a business I started with another Hera Hub member and one of the main points of discussion was how hard it was to connect with people when you are self-employed, especially when you work from home,” Wenzel wrote in an e-mail. “For me, coworking meets that need—I don’t need to harass the Starbucks guys for my daily dose of human interaction anymore.”

Hanson has recently received some collaboration interest from the Small Business Administration, as well as the economic development groups of various cities. While nothing official has been finalized, this interest in Hera Hub is part of the growing trend of public agencies becoming involved with coworking. Moriset writes that more and more public programs are beginning to incorporate coworking spaces into regeneration plans, a push by policymakers to build “creative cities.” Currently most coworking sites are nestled into “textbook examples of creative cities” like San Francisco and Berlin—places that frequently spur innovative and successful businesses and are thus economic models to be copied.

Despite these successes, we’re not exactly seeing the death of the company office. Coworking’s main competitor in becoming the future of work is the expansion of mega-campuses like Google’s headquarters and the Technocentre of Renault in Paris, both of which thrive off the opposing camp in work doctrine: Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and others like Google’s CFO Patrick Pichette have promoted the philosophy that workers perform best at the company office and it’s necessary to preserve “culture and employee morale.” 

Even more than the alternative campus, the growth of coworking spaces may be hindered by their costs and conditions. Full membership is certainly not cheap: San Francisco’s Citizen Space charges $425 per month for their all-inclusive “Resident Member” package; an “Open Coworking Membership” at New York’s The Yard is $225 per month. Many subcontractors who could benefit from coworking space may not be willing to pay the price, given the inherent insecurity of being off staff. 

Most coworking spaces also use the often-criticized open-office layout—making an environment ripe for distraction (particularly since people could be pursuing tasks so different from their neighbor’s). Writing in The New York Times, Rebekah Campbell, chief executive of the app Posse, explained why she “ditched” her coworking space: overeager networking, distracting noise, and an uncomfortable sense of competition with other start-ups. “People wandered up to me and asked about Posse and whether they could partner with us—even when there was no rationale for doing so,” writes Campbell. “My breaking point came when a competitor tried to entice one of our engineers with a more lucrative job offer.”  

Yet, of the 100 million Americans who hold full-time jobs, only 30 million say they are engaged at work. People are clearly looking for a way to shake up their work lives and find inspiration. If a change of scene keeps a few Peter Gibbons from sticking around their cubicles, that’s probably all for the better.

Image via shutterstock.