The rise of the coworking space – sign of the times or flash in the pan?

A coworking paradise. Impact Hub, CC BY-SA

Back in 1980 Alvin Toffler coined the concept of the Electronic Cottage. While this might sound like a feature from Tomorrow’s World, it was essentially the idea that people, particularly those engaged in “knowledge work” – using their brains – would in the future be less bound to a traditional workplace. Technology would increasingly make working from home possible.

Thirty-five years later, there is evidence that teleworking is not as ubiquitous as Toffler might have envisaged. But data from the Office for National Statistics does show that there are now more than 4.5m self-employed workers in the UK. While we should keep in mind that there are still 25m people in “normal” employment, an increase in self-employment of more than 1m since the turn of the millennium (and 15% since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008) suggests that something significant is happening when it comes to employment.

The two occupational categories with the highest increases in self-employment during this period have been “managers, directors and senior officials” and “professional occupations”. So perhaps this is where the inhabitants of the electronic cottage are to be found – not working remotely for someone else, but for themselves.

The rise in self-employment since 1992. Nick Clifton | Data: ONS

Following the recession of the early 1990s, the chart above shows self-employment declined as firms began to take on workers again. But though the UK economy is now in recovery, self-employment is still rising. This may indicate a more fundamental shift to new ways of working.

These trends are by no means restricted to the UK. For example recent research has shown that almost one third of the total US workforce is engaged in some form of “contingent” labour, which means it is largely project-based.

This in turn of course begs the question as to where these activities are being carried out. As a freelancer you can either rent your own office – which will be expensive and for many tasks probably not necessary. Or you can work at home – with the various distractions and disadvantages that entails. One other option might be to use “third places”, your local coffee shop, perhaps. Although often convenient these will inevitably have drawbacks of their own, not least the somewhat random set of encounters to be found therein.

The self-employed freelancer’s dream. shutterstock.com

And so the idea of “coworking” has arisen. Different from co-working, coworking is about working independently but in the presence of others.

If one person can be identified as the pioneer of the coworking movement it would be Brad Neuberg, who founded Spiral Muse in San Francisco back in 2005. Neuberg sums up how coworking solves one of the central tensions of the working at home versus working in an office dichotomy:

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 nine-to-five 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.

Individual preference

The rise of coworking has provoked much debate on whether or not is it a good thing. Coinciding as it does with the rise in self-employment, critics have objected to the lack of security, sometimes lower wages and benefits that freelancers who cowork have compared to their employed counterparts.

Champions of coworking, meanwhile, have celebrated the creative flexibility that it brings. Coworking spaces have been touted as hotbeds of collaboration, interaction, and innovation. The emerging evidence is that this is most likely when interactions are facilitated rather than relying purely on serendipitous encounters between unconnected individuals.

In my research on the issue, I’ve found that individual experiences differ, and as researchers we should be wary of projecting our own world view onto the phenomena we are studying. It’s an emerging concept and we still don’t fully understand people’s motivations for joining coworking spaces – both positive and negative – and whether they really do improve creativity and collaboration, or are just a lot of buzz over nothing.