The loneliness of the long-distance co-worker

Not sharing a workplace or publically available space with casually-dressed strangers all staring into their Macbooks, or talking loudly on their smartphones? Not averting your glance, if any of them catch your daydreaming eyes? Not reflecting on the old ways of working for the man…. sitting at desks, drinking coffee, staring into a VDU and talking on a fetchingly grey cordyphone?

Then you’re probably living the reality of “co-working”, the latest term in use for people “working” outside of a corporate or organisational space, in the “co”mpany of others . A recent study (published by Deskmag) showed co-workers to be mainly university-educated males in their mid-30’s, just over half of whom are freelancers working in predominantly creative industries. So it could be you.

If you have been outside of the earth’s life-sustaining atmosphere and haven’t heard of it, the proposition is that the relative isolation felt by working at home or in the sticky corner of the clatterfé is replaced by the relative isolation of working with strangers in a place that ever more resembles, of all places, corporate or organisational space. Desks, meeting rooms, breakout spaces, open kitchens, convivial undefined collision zones with offcut furniture ideas. You know the drill.

Last week, a new idea called the WorkShop was launched to nudge Mary Portas into the poundstore on our decaying high streets while unused units are transformed into smart, pulsating caffeine-spurting workspaces full of mainly university-educated males in their mid-30’s, just over half of whom are freelancers working in predominantly creative industries. Like you. Or so they say. It is a brave initiative, with a strong purpose and ethic, and may just catch on. The idea has been launched and there is a white paper on its way – odd that the paper wasn’t ready for the launch. Maybe because its paper.Good to see old ways of working stuffing up a new idea.

The natural design convergence – between co-working spaces and corporate spaces – has been afoot for several years, as people naturally conclude that in reality whether they are working for themselves or the man, they need similar things. There is also a developing convergence between the commercial proposition of the more advanced co-working spaces and the more enlightened corporate, illustrating that in order to provide for similar needs , the costs of doing so are not too disparate. Eu-bloody-reka.

Meanwhile, many freelancers and displaced corporate employees are content (and will remain so) to stumble through the pitfalls of available space whose income is derived from its core business, and not the occupation of the space itself. In exchange for a little inconvenience and a small investment in refreshment or similar, there is no need to pay for the privilege. The drawback to such – in addition to the teenagers innit-ing their latest interactions – is cited to be the lack of community and social contact. You’re freewheeling, but alone.

For many co-workers however, the challenge of feeling part of a community is the same as that felt by individuals in a corporate space – simply because the latter carry the same access control card doesn’t mean to say they talk to one another, like one another or enjoy the company of those with whom they have been fatefully thrown together. It is the challenge that corporates have wrestled with for years, and one that I have frequently cited as being able to be met by the practice of tummeling. Nevertheless, it remains..

Co-working – while an admirable attempt to combat the loneliness of the long-distance i-worker – is not a panacea, or a solution in its own right. It is certainly not a solution to the challenge faced by corporates, in terms of getting people out of the corporate space and into the cosmopolis to experience the co-workers’ headrush of creativity from their new-found and newly-defined liberty. There is a reason why the more enlightened corporate invest in the best possible workspace for their people, to try and draw them to the nest, not push them out of it hoping they’ll fly.

In many respect we are falling into the age old Nietzschean trap of believing that because we have named something we understand it.

Co-working is only collaborative if co-workers “collaborate” – that is, initiate and develop ideas together. Co-working only alleviates the sense of isolation if co-workers address it outright and communicate, assuming they actually want to speak with one another – they may be like many corporate apparatchiks at an open plan desk, and just want to be left alone to get on with “their” work. And the co-worker is not, as is often inherently assumed, relieved – by virtue of wearing the badge – of the anomie of the modern professional, spiritually and emotionally unshackled in the manner of Sillitoe’s long-distance runner. There is only a “co” for the co-worker if company means more than simply being in the same physical space.

Otherwise they’re just workers. Like the rest of us.

7 thoughts on “The loneliness of the long-distance co-worker

  1. Oh crap, I’ve been rumbled!

    On the advice of the very smart, toffee appreciating, media savvy guru that is Bernie Mitchell, I recently joined something called Kindred Jelly. It is not, as its name suggests, a group for like minded lovers of a certain kind of dessert, but rather a collective of coworking freelancers. At least – that is what it says on the tin (I know – jelly doesn’t come in a tin). Here is some blurb:

    ‘It’s an informal co-working event where freelancers, home workers and small/micro business owners bring their laptop or other work and work, chat and collaborate with other small business owners…..Co-working means meeting up with like-minded people to work together in a different environment, to exchange help and advice, and maybe come up with a new idea to collaborate on.’

    I attended my first coworking session recently at the Centre for Creative Collaboration. The C4CC was a pioneer of co and project working, I’ve been there a few times and had some good conversations there for sure. It’s also a bit shambolic, and the wifi sucks when you can get access to it that is. So – as a coworking hub I think it needs to up its game. At the session a few people left early due to the poor online access but the thing I was most struck by was the almost total lack of conversation, let alone collaboration. We all ended up working at our own laptops on our own thing. It felt weird. I asked if I could be of help to anyone and I did receive some useful feedback on a small project for a friend, but I left earlier than I originally intended figuring I’d be better off skipping ahead of the impending rush hour. I fed back my perspective afterwards.

    I don’t like to make decisions on workplace things based on one off experiences, so I decided to go back and have another go. Before going I commented on the group’s online space that I was keen to help others with their projects. Yesterday I coworked at a shabby place near Kings Cross with decent wifi and a wonky chair. The coffee was good enough and I had a brief and useful conversation with Nicole. But….once again there was a distinct absence of coworking. Everyone was doing their own thing, someone even chose to wear headphones. I stuck at it longer this time but still left earlier than originally planned, the lack of substantive interaction losing out to the prospect of a pre rush hour dash home.

    Convinced I’m missing something, I’m going to have another go. however for now – coworking ain’t working, for me at least.

  2. Fascinating observations Doug – thanks so much for sharing. I had always seen Jellies as the next step on from co-working – properly intended to involve interaction and a lot of the “co”…. especially at places like the C4CC. Fortunately you didn’t commit to paying £50 a month for the privilege of watching people work with their headphones on at a shiny new co-working centre……

    • I have also jellied a couple of times out here in the ‘burbs. Like Doug, I found a lack of any meaningful co-working. However, instead of everyone beavering away at their own thing it was nigh on impossible to get anything done because of constant interruptions from people curious to know what you’re working on and asking questions of varying degrees of daftness. Whether imposed or organically formed an equilibrium of behaviours holds sway in the workplace. In co-working spaces, as in cafes and on public transport, people seem to either form an invisible shell or get stuck on transmit. You might be super productive if its some drab, repetitive task or completing a piece of reading that requires a level of absorbtion that only drowning out all other noise will make possible. Unless the experience is curated you’re just going to get the same messy experience you always get when humans are left to their own devices (pun very much intended)

  3. Hey folks – just to keep you updated – I’m going back again on Monday. I will make an open offer to listen, share, whatever I can and see where that takes me/them/us. It is interesting to read Simon’s perspectives too, right now – I’d love a bit of daftness!

  4. Bit late to the conversation, but it’s a fascinating one! Really interesting post and comments.

    It kind of reflects how I feel – I guess I’m guilty of using coworking spaces, but not really coworking. I go along to jellies and more formal spaces, because I feel I should get out of my house and isolation for my own good, but – like most people there – I kind of want to be left alone. Maybe I’m stuck in my ways, working alone. I like working in laptop friendly coffee shops a) because of the ambience and b) because of the anonymity.

    However, good coworking spaces also offer a programme of events that can aid interaction, but for the most part the people I collaborate with are the people I meet through my own work, rather than where I work.

  5. You can’t just put a group of desks in a room and call it a Jelly or a coworking space. Both need to be well-managed if they’re going to be a useful experience for the people who turn up.
    As one of the first Jelly organisers in the UK, I used to go home shattered after a day that only lasted from 10 pm to 4 pm, with a maximum of 7 other people! An organiser needs a light touch, to encourage those who are quiet to contribute, but also to be able to rein in anybody who is likely to ramble on, or those who can’t help themselves from selling whenever they’re in company.
    Similarly a coworking space only provides value if it makes sure it’s getting a good balance of personalities and businesses, finds out what they do and what they need, and actively introduces people to each other.
    Well done, Doug, on giving it another go, and I hope your efforts pay off.

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