‘There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader’
Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rolin (1807 – 74)
There is a popular belief that shared (co-working) workspace was invented by the likes of WeWork. Most would be reasonable to assume this, given their seemingly meteoric rise since Brad Neuberg coined the phrase ‘co-working’ in San Francisco in 2005, conceiving of a space that would save freelancers from the torment of being alone all day with the dishwasher. Contrary to this belief, however, they were actually invented by a stubborn, time-locked and unconscious partnership between institutional landlords and large corporate occupiers. Yep, you didn’t know – but you did, you invented co-working.
Between yourselves you conjured a reaction to the decades of predictable stagnation over which you presided, and having now watched it all pass you by are struggling to regain some semblance of control. You’re starting to buy in, more by magnetised pull than conscious push. You actually had everything you needed at your disposal to create this new working environment, but through profit orientation (landlords) and self-imposed constraint (corporates) you let the skinny-jean cohort take the initiative. It had to happen. Now, you’re running along behind a bus that’s pulling further away with every formal-trousered pace. Co-working spaces are no longer the preserve of the freelancer, they’re the spaces people want to work in.
Landlords, you could have granted shorter leases, taken more of a risk – heaven knows, your paying customers have been pleading with you for years to do so. You could have set aside the letting agents for a moment and challenged the banality of the design of your speculative spaces, in the belief that all anyone ever wanted was a double-height marble clad echo chamber and characterless sleeves in which to slide neat rows of white desks, like a ship in a bottle at the pull of a cord. You could have pondered what the ‘service’ in your ‘charge’ meant, beyond flicking a dirty mop around the toilet floor at twilight and changing filters at half the recommended frequency, then nudging the solicitor for a pro-forma warning when anyone dared complain. You could have considered what actually moved through the fibres you coiled into your risers, and thought it might be relevant to you, too. You could have looked at how people really wanted to work, but instead you created your own spaces in the mirror image of your inhumane creations, and so believed and perpetuated your own beliefs. So, you carried on building the same building, over and over again, named it, printed a brochure, let it, sold it, built another one. You had it all. What did you do with it?
Corporate occupiers, you could have lightened up. You could have shredded the manual of prickly prohibitive policies. You might have considered that the global space standards and supply agreements and behavioural dictats proscribed only the imagination of the people forced to stoically bear each day in the serried ranks laid out in their honour, compliant, desolate. You might have realised that your people only craved their desk, their office, their name on something because you talked about trust and then didn’t trust them to make the choices that might have given them the energy that comes with freedom. You could have shown you valued them in ways other than saying you valued them, buying them a decent coffee, cleaning and supplying the toilets, bathing them in daylight, giving them fresh air. You could have thought that instead of providing the minimum possible technology that would deliver the minimum possible results that people were then told once a year that weren’t good enough that by gifting the best possible kit and the fastest, most reliable connectivity that they could achieve amazing things that went so far beyond their ‘annual objectives’ that you would want to talk about every day because they were so amazing. You could have provided space for everyone, without making anyone feel like an outlier, a special case, someone with an issue, so that no-one ever had to feel embarrassed or awkward or have to go and see someone to explain. You might even have taken the view that when people built relationships that sometimes became more than business relationships that it was fantastic and instead of frowning and looking for the policy manual, smiled. You could have let Janice bring her dog to the office, instead of sending them both home. And you could have invited other companies to share your space, for the ideas and energy and buzz and people they would bring, and considered security beyond the binary finality of a portcullis. You could have put the beer tap in the café for the social magnetism and sense of trust it brings. You had it all. What did you do with it?
The likes of WeWork amongst many others are just doing what landlords and corporate occupiers could – and should – have done. Incredibly they’re getting people to work in tiny, acoustically-challenged claustrophobic glass boxes at less than six square metres a person and fitting out space for less than £1,000 a square metre, ideas and metrics that would never hold sway in the crusted world of traditional officing where we are bombarded with ‘evidence’ (most isn’t) about the satanic curse of open working and noise.
How? By providing spaces we want to go to not the space we’re told to go to, and the services we want when we’re there rather than the ones we’re forced to accept. The private spaces are tolerated because the shared spaces are energised and fascinating, not because of the beer tap and neon slogans on the wall and exposed brickwork but because of the spirit engendered by the sense of freedom and being treated like someone capable of making their own choices. The first choice after all, was parting with the membership fee. Rules are minimal – so drink beer when you want, bring your dog, wear a ra-ra skirt, no-one minds as long as you’re a good neighbour…. just be excellent to each other. You want to talk to the other people who don’t work for who you work for. And you can walk away when and if you want, you won’t need to file for chapter 7 bankruptcy as a result. There are rarely soporific gimmicks on display, they’re not needed because they’ve replaced the toys that were once thought to be the answer with the human benefit of community. They’re far from perfect – all this and even they still can’t clean a toilet properly – but they feel right. That counts for so, so much.
Landlords and corporate occupiers, you could have done this, you had it all. What did you do with it?
Thanks to Caleb Parker for the image of Bold in London (showing real people working)