Design Debate: To Cowork or Not to Cowork?

Design Debate: To Cowork or Not to Cowork? 1

Comfortable armchairs, frothy cappuccinos, friendly collaborators, and rubber plants that seem to rise higher than the clouds. On the surface, what’s not to love about coworking clubs? 

For freelancing creative professionals today, hunkering down together in formerly abandoned warehouses to foster collaboration and idea sharing has become somewhat of the status quo. Research shows that 33% of today’s workforce is independent or freelance—and this workforce naturally needs desks to occupy—so it’s no wonder that in 2018 over 2,000 coworking membership spaces opened worldwide. And these numbers continue to rocket.

If it’s between Skyping in pajama pants (“has it really been three days since I last left the house?”) or the regularity and community that a collaborative work space espouses, it’s very easy to understand why so many freelancers are opting for membership packages these days. But is the price tag, which can easily surpass $250 a month, really worth it, or are we better off sticking with coffee shops and the local library? And given the meteoric rise and current crisis of WeWork, should we be more mindful of which cozy, bean bag-laden haven we embrace?

For our newest installment of Design Debate, we spoke with a remote freelancer traveling the world with his laptop, a researcher of Urban Planning studying the effects of coworking hubs on a neighborhood in Ontario, and the co-founder of a feminist, intersectional membership space in Minnesota. To cowork or not to cowork, that’s the question today—so ready, set, debate! 

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“Whether or not coworking is right for you depends entirely on the business you’re running, and what kind of environment you work best in.”

Alex Deruette, Design Director and Co-Founder of Kickpush 

“Coworking spaces can be very useful. When I started my own company, being part of a membership workspace helped us with promotion and it introduced us to a lot of people. But for some individuals, maybe working in more creative roles, the atmosphere of a coworking space can ultimately be a problem.

“In 2014, I left my job, hired my friends, got an apartment in the suburbs of London, and founded Kickpush. We worked out of the apartment for an entire year but then decided to become a ‘real’ company, and so we rented a little studio out of a coworking space in central London. When I say little, I mean it—it was the size of a bathroom. 

“It was fun to start with and a good move for the company. Our neighbors were a virtual reality production studio called Visualise, and we ended up working on a very, very cool project with them for The Economist. The coworking space itself was a beautifully designed environment. We were exposed to a lot of great people as well as nice food and coffee.

“But after six months, we all started to feel like we were back to a nine-to-five job. And while the space looked amazing and was a great place to bring clients, it was not comfortable at all. There was a big problem with the chairs for example: We had these old, very cool chairs from the ’50s that were impossible to work in.

“Eventually, everyone on the team decided we’d had enough. We all just wanted to travel, while still working together but remotely. I first went to Lisbon and now I’m in Mexico. I now spend my mornings in a coffee shop, and then I finish my day at home where I can play my own music and have access to all the things that inspire me. When I’m working creatively, I find it very difficult to concentrate when there are lots of people around me in one crammed space, which is why I ultimately stopped renting from coworking spaces. I can understand why people do it though. Luckily, I’m disciplined enough to work office hours, but for some people, coworking can be invaluable if they’re finding it hard to start the day.”

“Coworking is not meant to be exclusive—and membership clubs have turned the practice into one of privilege.”

Filipa Pajević, PhD candidate at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University

“Coworking as a work style is nothing new. ‘Coworking’ is defined as a community-orientated practice of sharing resources and contacts when both are in short supply, and it’s easily detectable in creative professions, where the unpredictable nature of the work warrants shared space.

“What is new is the appropriation of coworking as a business model—and as a form of ‘membership club.’ Now, the practice is tied to the real estate market and real estate development. Coworking in this new sense is not just about work, but also about cities. The buildings housing coworking businesses have an impact on the neighborhoods where people live—not just work—because they are overvalued, which raises prices and makes it harder for other people to afford living and working in the vicinity. 

“The fee component of coworking is founded on exclusivity. We shouldn’t ask whether coworking businesses create community, because they do, but rather we should ask what kind of community do they create? And to whose detriment?

“It’s also a concern that coworking spaces present themselves as a home for the digital nomad. Freelance and remote work is increasingly correlated with anxiety, due to its temporary ‘gig’ nature and the lack of regulations to protect freelance workers. Coworking spaces profit from this anxiety, because they present themselves as an antidote to isolation and loneliness. 

“The casualization of work has produced two specific needs: The first is the need for flexibility, and the second the need for comfort. This is why coworking spaces are flexible and cozy in design, with rotating desks and bean bag chairs. It’s easy to be distracted by all the furniture, the beer, the gym, the social events—the general playfulness. But if you take a step back from all that, you realize that all these perks are dissolving the boundaries between work and leisure. And not only is your whole life revolving around work, but also the same workspace. Coworking providers rely on rent, and so it’s in their interests to keep you there for as long as possible.

“By equating work with leisure, we are essentially removing the very boundaries that exist to keep work from becoming overly exploitative. I’m not saying that work shouldn’t be a joy—but I’m saying that we need to be mindful of our limits, and the need for mental breaks.”

“When you have camaraderie—a feeling of sisterhood—you can achieve great things.”

– Bethany Iverson, co-founder of The Coven 

The Coven is a network of inclusive community and work spaces for women, non-binary, and trans folks. Our mission is to create the physical and psychological safety that people like us need so that we can do bold and courageous things—both professionally and personally. There is something really powerful about women, non-binary, and trans folks moving together with purpose—and membership clubs like ours can help foster and create a space where that’s possible.

“We think about ourselves as a catalyst for professional transformation. We do that through workshops, connections, coaching. A lot of our members use us to work out of and as a resource to network and build. We try to equip our members with resources so they can start the business they’ve always wanted to start, or get a promotion if they work in the corporate world, or have healthier relationships with their friends or partner or kids, whatever it might be.

“We do all of those things through an intersectional lens. Having a membership base that is reflective of the community that we’re a part of is very important to us. And so here in Minnesota there are some really, really big wealth disparities that you would find around race. That led us to create a social enterprise at the heart of our business. We give a membership away for every five that we sell, and we make sure that those go to folks from historically marginalized communities.

“When you’re sitting across the room from peers who are also trying to figure out how to accomplish something, that creates a collective energy that’s very potent and can lead to great things. Two of our members, for instance, met when they were sitting across from each other and one needed to borrow a power cord. They got to talking, and now they run a business where they consult with women-owned startups to help them raise money. We also have another member who joined The Coven after leaving a really toxic work environment. In a year, she’s helped open five black-owned businesses out of our space. 

“We’re always mindful of having lots of different identities and experiences represented. So we have a beauty and self-care room, for instance, that features hair and skin care products for every hair and skin type. We aim to create physical and psychological safety for people who maybe never have never felt that professionally, or who are dealing with some really serious trauma, either in the workplace or in their personal lives. What spaces like ours can offer is a sense of community that’s lacking elsewhere, along with a vital support network.”

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