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.