It must have been seven or eight years ago that my old friend Neil Webster (@cyclonw) and I first climbed the steep and spooky steps of an old warehouse just behind Angel tube station to emerge somewhat speechless into a workspace with an open fire, teardrop-shaped six-inch thick cardboard desks and a host of people ‘co-working’. It was simply called The Hub. We were there because we were trying to get a research project off the ground via the BCO, looking at how the city was becoming the office – ahead of our time as it happened, we didn’t get the funding for what is now a commonplace idea. I had heard of the notion of co-working from attending the Tuttle Club at the now-closed incubator space, the Centre for Creative Collaboration (C4CC), although in those days it was more about an event called a ‘Jelly’. This was before they built the much swankier version of the Hub at Kings Cross. It felt raw, honest and original, in the same vein as the C4CC. You didn’t just rent office space, you joined a community and offered a skill set for others to share. It was about who was in the space and what happened – the space was needed to bring people together.
@AlexHillman in Philadelphia is a chap I always listen to when it comes to co-working – a tweet recently declared that co-working has ‘nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with physical workspace!’ (I hope I quoted that correctly). He and of course @BernieJMitchell, who lives and loves the dream. While it sounds a little naff now, it’s about people, community, connection, sharing and development. The physical space is not itself co-working, it is an enabler of co-working. But just like effective work in a corporate space, with the right ingredients – people, energy, purpose, commitment – it can happen despite the space as well as because of it. The C4CC and the original Hub were never going to win a design award or even be called ‘cool’, but they were captivating and fascinating for what was happening within them. The space was cobbled together with whatever could be found.
This piece hosted by Workplace Insight prompted a silent Munchian scream. Not for its inevitable Gen Z reference (cue a sub-scream) but for its commentary on co-working space as something different, and the implication that co-working was the space. The piece also suggested that all co-working spaces are ‘a truly vibrant and dynamic working community’ – it’s a myth, they’re really not all like that. Draw a normal distribution, as with for most things in life, and that will just about nail it.
The essence here is that the principles required to create effective co-working space are no different to those required to create effective corporate space. Co-working spaces have offered corporates a helpful nudge in drawing inspiration from other sectors, such as domestic, retail, leisure, hotel, and in letting the space speak for itself rather than exhibit themselves as throbbing beacons of brand – but otherwise the spaces and amenities needed to enable effective work, community, interaction and focus are identical. I wrote previously about the various uses of space meshing into simply one idea of ‘space’ determined by its multiple uses; co-working spaces have helped accelerate this too.
The main contribution of co-working spaces in their post-original Hub guise has been to build on the novelty-infused work effectively started on the West Coast, encouraging those commissioning and designing space to suspend their conservative pre-conceptions and think differently about space, in order to draw us in. They have made a significant contribution to the development of space design, which of course they had to, as they were asking people to part with their own cash to use the facilities in order to survive. They want you there, it’s not merely a case of having to have you there.
This is also increasingly the case for large organisations, realising that their space is part of the reason to join, or to stay. It has become an area of competition. The more that organisations demand flexibility from their commitment to space in an ever-more tech-enabled world, the more that what might be seen as ‘co-working’ space will resemble corporate space, and vice versa. The paths are converging. While buildings will need to be built and investments will need to return a profit, the idea of space is becoming singular in every respect. Space ‘as a service’ will mean that all physical space will need to appeal visually, promote and enable effective work, bring people together from disparate backgrounds, and facilitate the creation and sharing of knowledge.
Yet the behavioural changes are more important and interesting than the space: the space needs to understand, respond, promote and enable. Corporates are increasingly leasing co-working space due to its contractual flexibility (and often location), but more importantly are using the space to allow them to spin off small teams to develop ideas free of bureaucracy, an approach started by Lockheed Martin with their Skunk Works programme in 1943 (as in, it’s not new). Just as we shall see an alignment of space, we will see an increasing alignment of behaviours. People will operate, work and relate to one another in a similar manner, irrespective of their employer or with whom they are engaged for work. The convergence of our approach to space will enable and complement this, and so both strands will develop in synch.
It’s therefore not about the differences, it’s about the emerging commonalities. In this sense, co-working ‘as a thing’ will have made its essential contribution and will wither. We’ll all simply be working, in workspace. And what an amazing journey it will have been.