Why we mustn’t lose the soul of co-working

Why the movement that started as the antithesis of corporate life mustn’t lose its magic

Co-working has exploded in the last few years, with start-ups, small businesses and freelancers all eager to find a more dynamic and flexible way of working. There are now 14,000 co-working spaces in operation globally, twice the number there were just three years ago. London alone has over 150, hosting 31,000 people, with new providers battling it out to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

The rapid growth and success of co-working shows how desperate small businesses were for an alternative to the staid serviced offices and inflexible long-term leases of the past. But, as growth in the sector intensifies, and it becomes more established and mainstream, it’s not hard to wonder whether it’s losing some of the magic that made it special in the first place?

Co-working was founded on the ethos of maximising cheap warehouse or office space to build a supportive, family-like community of start-ups and self-employed. The first official space, which opened in San Francisco in 2005, was organised as a non-profit co-operative, prioritising collaboration and wellbeing. And in the early days, co-working spaces were run by start-ups, for start-ups, all collectively scrapping away to fight against the big corporations - and the status quo.

But twelve years and 14,000 co-working spaces later, the heightened competition has, unfortunately, seen a growing absence in the delivery of the right environments and services for start-ups and freelancers. In some cases, new providers come into the market unprepared, without the necessary planning and understanding of what is required… In other instances, there is a hyper-commercial approach, with pressure on small businesses to sign up to restrictive terms with little flexibility on costs – a model that is frequently out-of-reach for most start-ups and freelancers, for whom every penny counts.

Even as new terms, such as ‘workspace-as-service’, trend  it is still apparent that the high-level of personalised service, that was customary in the early days, is now waning with members feeling they are just a number. When co-working first started, the priority was on providing a serious but approachable environment where people could work and connect, rather than the offering of short-term gimmicks that can frequently be seen in an attempt to stand out in the market.

The term ‘member’ is a reminder that co-working is about building a collaborative community and a two-way relationship with each individual. The member, in a sense, has a stake in the community - a concept far removed from the traditional landlord/tenant relationship. The focus should always be on the members’ needs, rather than the co-working space imposing its values and culture onto them from above.

The shift in co-working’s ethos has also been affected by its popularity amongst large corporates as they strive to benefit from the start-up energy and innovation on offer. But the danger is that the original open plan, collaborative and dynamic environment of co-working will come full-circle to the corporate world that start-ups and freelancers were trying to avoid.

Of course, many will argue that this is all a natural progression; part and parcel of the development of a hugely successful concept, and proof that the industry is moving with the times. The enormous growth of co-working shows how effective and valuable it has been for start-ups and the self-employed, and it’s fantastic that so many can take advantage of what it offers.

We just need to ensure, as the sector becomes more commonplace, that we retain some of the initiatives that made the co-working movement special, such as offering free or lower cost spaces for those who can’t afford full membership. For example, at The Brew, as well as our full-time co-working memberships, we have the Coffice – a café you can work in – where anybody can come and work for as long as they like for free, utilising our reliable, superfast 300Mbps Wi-Fi and plug sockets at every seat. There are also examples where co-working spaces offer discounted membership to start-ups with a social purpose, and we love an idea developed by Spacious in the US, which connects under-utilised restaurants as workspaces with cash-strapped start-ups and freelancers.

It’s these kinds of initiatives that will ensure co-working doesn’t lose what made it a worthwhile revolution back in the 2000s. Let’s hope we see more of it. 

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