Coworking: Is This The End of Business As Usual?


Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. -Confucious

In the months and years following the 2008-09 economic collapse, those who had been fired or laid-off found themselves questioning a return to business as usual. Competition was stiff, with hardened veterans squabbling for jobs barely fit for recent college grads.

Some saw their unexpected unemployment as an opportunity to finally make a change: they traded in corporate careers for a chance to strike out on their own. Of job seekers who gained employment in the second quarter of 2009, nearly one in 10 — 8.7 percent — did so by launching their own businesses, according to outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas’ quarterly Job Market Index. By 2011, Mashable declared “the era of the 9-to-5 job is over,” replaced by the mobile workforce: a new generation of location-independent professionals who value flexibility and autonomy over the corner office.

Still, even independent professionals need community. One thing the traditional office environment do provide is constant interaction with peers and colleagues. It’s through these interactions over coffee and cubicle walls that good ideas are born and problems solved. While working from home or a coffee shop has its advantages, a big drawback is the almost immediate isolation.

After a few months of fighting over electrical outlets at Starbucks as a new freelancer, I knew I needed to find a better place to work. By chance, I noticed some friends tweeting about a new coworking space opening near my house. After a few weeks of prodding by the owner, I gave it a try. It was exactly what I’d been looking for: a desk, fast Wifi, printer, conference space, and most of all awesome PEOPLE with whom I could chat, commiserate, and collaborate.

“Traditionally, society forces us to choose between working at home for ourselves or working at an office for a company. If we work at a traditional 9 to 5 company job, we get community and structure, but lose freedom and the ability to control our own lives. If we work for ourselves at home, we gain independence but suffer loneliness and bad habits from not being surrounded by a work community. Coworking is a solution to this problem,” said Brad Neuberg, the first person to use the term “coworking” and founder of the first coworking space, The Spiral Muse in San Fransisco.

Types of spaces are just as diverse as the members who work there. By placing a high priority on personal connection, coworking spaces become hubs of collaboration and innovation. Some are for developers, some for hackers. Some cater to multi-employee startups while others offer childcare for working moms and dads. Just in my own experience, I’ve seen countless examples of coworking members sharing or referring work, starting businesses together, or banding together to support a fellow entrepreneur, and these scenarios are being repeated daily in spaces all over the world.

The concept of coworking is especially attractive to Generation Y, an entire crop of professionals who’ve grown up with the internet and mobile technologies–talented, creative workers who no longer aspire or expect to spend 20 years at the same company. Through its Visa Program and various regional alliances, the coworking community makes it possible to find a familiar place to work anywhere in the world.

Companies like Google and Pixar have demonstrated that the old culture of business, where ideas only come from executives and secrets are kept close to the chest, is dying. Desperate to access the most creative corners of their employees’ minds, these companies are leading the charge to get workers out of the office and into close proximity with people and places that will encourage free thinking.  Major companies including financial-services giant American Express, drug maker GlaxoSmithKline, and accounting and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers are shifting large groups of workers into shared spaces. Some companies are taking it a step further, turning their own unused office space into temporary coworking environments where random professionals can spend a day or two rubbing elbows with the employees. Not only does the dynamic workspace encourage new interactions and reduce wasted space, it also gives these companies first crack at the best and brightest freelance professionals who might be passing through.

Despite Marissa Mayer’s recent decree that employees must work in the office or not at all, many believe that coworking is the future of work culture. “The realization is that the sea of cubicles is not quite conducive to deep employee engagement and it’s time to evolve the open office space concept to fit a more dynamic digital economy,” writes Steven Kinder, Founder of LOFTwall.

To resist this shift from office imprisonment to location-independence is to become instantly irrelevant. In order to assemble teams of the most talented, creative minds, companies must surrender the idea of a centralized workplace. The most agile firms have already realized that although the perfect person for the job may live half a world away, inability to be “in the office” no longer means they can’t be hired.

Image: The Hub LA