6 Lessons We Can Learn from Coworking Spaces

Insights provide design guidance for corporate workspaces

Membership-based coworking spaces are more than places where people go to work. For designers, they’re fertile ground for discovering what makes a workspace effective.

In the coworking model, office space is rented to independent workers, like freelancers, remote workers, and other professionals. If the space doesn’t serve members’ needs, they can easily find a new place to work. Coworking spaces must respond to their members’ needs—or they’ll quickly be out of business.

A survey featured in Harvard Business Review found that people who use coworking spaces see their work as more meaningful. The trend toward these collaborative spaces is only expected to grow. JLL, a Fortune 500 professional services firm specializing in real estate, predicts that by 2030, 30% of the US office market will be flexible space. The aspect of sharing space might have been predicted to hit coworking hard post-pandemic. However, coworking spaces may in fact thrive, as organizations seek to give employees continued flexibility and more options to work closer to home, while still enjoying office facilities.

Although coworking spaces are widely viewed as places that generate innovation, collaboration, and community, there’s been relatively little research on their design. To learn more about them, and see if there was any knowledge that was transferrable to traditional corporate workspaces, we sponsored the research of Imogen Privett. She recently graduated with a PhD from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art and co-authored the book Life of Work: What Office Design Can Learn From the World Around Us.

“In the furniture industry, it’s quite easy for organizations to jump on trends without really understanding why they are doing it,” Privett says. Her research, which covered analysis of 73 coworking floorplans over three years, helped deepen our understanding. She discovered six design principles from coworking spaces that can be adopted for corporate workplaces that became the basis of her thesis.

1. Experience Matters
Coworking spaces provide their members with an experience that goes beyond the physical facilities. The experience relies on multiple factors, including all the touchpoints and interactions—in-person and digital—with members and others, journeys to and from the space, sensory aspects, and the way home and work life is balanced.

Choice, autonomy, and flexibility are hallmarks of the coworking experience. Community management requires facilitation rather than control. The coworking experience is closer to models used by retail and hospitality providers where, from the outset, the space is built around member needs and desires. Thinking carefully about user experience will be key in the coming years and months. This is both to soften the impact of social distancing measures in the short term, and to encourage people to keep coming together in the future. 

2. Share What Works—and What Doesn’t
The second design principle Privett identified is freely sharing of best—and worst—practices among space managers. Particularly among the original coworking spaces, development was very bottom-up and has been compared to open-source data. People openly shared what worked and what didn’t, even among those who might seem to be competitors. The sharing of success stories as well as failures results in fewer repeated mistakes.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, space managers use member input and lessons learned from other coworking spaces to tailor the experience for their specific community.

3. Everything Can Change
Shifting to a beta-space mindset is the third principle corporate workplace designers can adopt from coworking spaces. This means nothing is too perfect to change. Constant tweaks in response to what members need are a common theme at coworking spaces for continually improving the space and the ways it can be used.

Design isn’t just done and delivered. Instead, Privett says, “Treating the workplace as if it is constantly in beta testing implies either continuing the role of designers beyond the initial design process or providing spaces and tools that empower occupants to change them according to need.” The ability to flex in response to changing circumstances seems ever more important in the current climate, when we’re all asking fundamental questions about the future of our workplaces.

4. Focus on the Community
Successful coworking spaces are user-centered. Often, a bottom-up approach allows a community to be built even before the actual coworking space is built.

In contrast to traditional workplace design, where employees are the recipients of a design in which they may have little input, coworking spaces treat members like equals. Privett says this suggests a need for new tools and approaches to understand experience, needs, and values from the end-user’s perspective.

“Before you embark on a project, understand the people you have, the kinds of work they do, and more than just the functional aspects. What kind of experience do you want people to have at work? And how can you enable that? Build all that into a briefing process, so by the time you’re actually building a space, it’s really responding to the community that’s going to use it.”

Imogen Privett

Design Researcher and PhD graduate
Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art

5. Take a Hybrid Approach
Coworking is fundamentally a hybrid workplace design model that draws on several settings. It makes sense that building a workspace-as-a-service would look to other industries in order to provide value-added elements. Doing so allows coworking spaces to extend the use of their space beyond traditional working hours.

Privett’s study found that coworking spaces draw on elements from hospitality, member clubs, educational spaces, and leisure spaces to serve their members. As organizations discover that focused work can be done elsewhere, these references may be increasingly relevant for the future of the corporate workplace. 

6. Curate the Community
Community, a key motivator for those who join coworking spaces to reduce feelings of isolation, is not left to chance in coworking spaces. Many people have suffered from the lack of social interaction recently, and until social distancing measures end, it needs to be more intentionally organized. This makes actively curating a community one of the most valuable design principles that can be adopted from coworking spaces.

Experience managers (sometimes known as vibe managers) at many coworking spaces have a responsibility to create, shape, and maintain community and interactions through events, apps, internal messaging, and introductions by internal hosts. Members are free to decide on the extent of their involvement in these opportunities. Some are very active, while others simply appreciate the sense that something interesting is going on.

What We Can Apply to Corporate Workspaces
When applying the principles of coworking to other workplaces, Privett says, “Coworking spaces tend to be very curated around their membership communities. Providing people with a really great experience requires dedicated attention, and that’s not a role that has really existed in traditional corporate workplaces. It requires us to work across the traditional boundaries of organizational functions. Experience is multi-faceted.” For example, issues affecting experience cross over HR, facilities, and IT; they need to all work together.

“It’s a really tight match between the space itself and how it’s actively curated, hosted, and programmed,” Privett says. In the workplace of the future, she expects the boundaries to blur between inside and outside spaces, as well as a softening of hierarchies. With less formality, people will find themselves sitting down to work side-by-side with anyone in the organization, including executives. There will be a blurring of what we think of as “office” and what doesn’t feel like “office.” Workspaces will have more of a hospitality or domestic feel.

Careful consideration of the activities, experiences, and interactions the workplace needs to support are going to be key ingredients as we move towards a new normal. To discover more about what the coworking movement can bring to the design of the corporate workspace, download the research brief.  

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