How Do We Define Coworking?

How Do We Define Coworking?

“And we made it to 11:24 until somebody asked, ‘how do we define coworking?’ 😂.” That was a tweet by yours truly at Coworking Europe 2017 in Dublin, Ireland.

The question-asker was my friend Stéphanie Brisson from Techspace, and it wasn’t my intention to poke fun at her with this tweet. Actually, I began the tradition of tweeting this question’s time of arrival as a way of pointing out the obvious. In truth, none of us know how to define coworking, so much so, that it comes up in the first session or panel discussion at every coworking conference. Seriously, pay attention next time you attend one.

In this article, I want to explore what coworking really is and then offer an alternative model for further differentiating spaces within the ecosystem. I hope that this will allow us to continue this conversation more constructively and that I’ll never have to tweet the words “how do we define coworking” ever again.

What Coworking Actually Is

Coworking is a methodology whereby people and/or groups of people work alongside one another, but not for the same organization or on the same project.

That’s it. Period.

Why doesn’t my definition include all the typical tropes we hear within the coworking sphere, things like community, collaboration, open space, inclusivity, etcetera? Because all of those things are symptoms or types of coworking, but none of those things are coworking itself. What’s more, we need a simple baseline with which to start the conversation of what coworking actually is.

So it’s time we got rigid with our definition.

Think about the restaurant industry, as which we often use as an analogy for the coworking definition problem (BTW we owe Alex Hillman for that idea). Whereas a restaurant is a place where various people go to consume food that is not prepared by the people who eat it, it is clear that the inclusion of what food type, restaurant style, or the restaurant’s price are entirely nonessential to the definition of a restaurant. With this logic, we can see that a place where people go to eat and must prepare their own food is by definition, not a restaurant.

By that same token, coworking doesn’t require an enclosed space, nor does it need wifi. It merely requires a group of people working alongside each other, so long as not all of them working for the same company or on the same project. Coworking can happen on the moon or the internet. It can happen with industrial parts or laptops. So long as it conforms to the definition, it is coworking.

That means that the tech startup with a hip open office plan it shares only with its own employees and partners is not coworking. However, it also means, and I’m sorry to burst so many people’s bubbles here, that WeWork totally is a coworking space. Moreover, Regus absolutely has a coworking component at many of its locations. It might piss you off that they have way more money than you do and that they don’t have the same values you do, but you can’t reasonably claim they aren’t coworking spaces or, at the very least, spaces with coworking areas.

I speak for many when I say we’re all tired of the this-is-coworking-and-that-is-not soapbox. So let’s get over it. Let’s move on.

We Need to Codify Our Spaces

Going forward, it would be much better for members and operators alike if we could identify spaces in a more meaningful way. Perhaps a code of sorts.

Hmmmm. Yes, I like that.

In fact, the real estate industry already has codes for zoning purposes, so perhaps we can mold the concept to our goals. For example, we might use R1 for a single-family residential home. Hence the “R” for residential. However, C3 might be high-density commercial space such as an office highrise.

This coworking code idea is precisely that at that this point, an idea. However, we could structure it like this:

Niche

G: general, no niche
N: has a niche of some kind (childcare, foodtech, social enterprise, etc.)

Inclusivity

I: inclusive, anybody can join
E: exclusive, must apply and not guaranteed approval

Vibe

P: professional
C: casual

Size

S: small, 0–30 members
M: 31–150 members
L: 150+ members

Let’s try it out.

For example, a so-called coworking space that focuses on a niche, that is exclusive, has a professional vibe, and is quite small could be NEPS.

On the other hand, a space that doesn’t focus on a niche (general), is inclusive, has a casual vibe, and is very large, could be GICL.

The Benefits of This Approach

The advantages to codifying coworking spaces are straightforward.

Better End Users Understanding

This approach will create a better end-user understanding of a space’s approach to flexible workspace. The codes will allow at-a-glance information gleaning of a brand’s values and structure, as opposed to needing to sign up and find out after it’s too late.

Better Directory Filtering

The codes would be filterable on coworking directories, allowing potential members or day pass users to sift through the dozens or hundreds of coworking spaces. That will enable them to narrow down their choices more quickly, and reduce friction for becoming a coworking member.

Neutrality

Whereas many so-called coworking spaces have called themselves such as a potentially deceptive marketing tactic, the new code system provides no advantage to those who would misrepresent themselves. That is because the terms are neutral. Being small, medium or large doesn’t matter much to members as a population. Nor does inclusivity or exclusivity. The market of potential coworkers is indifferent at the population level because there’s a type or style of coworking for everybody.

Additional Options

I’ve put together a few extra possibilities for the coding system or extensions of it. These might be a bit overkill, but worth considering.

Events

Y: yes, there are events
N: no, there are no events or they are rare

Niche Type

Ch: childcare
We: women entrepreneurs
Fi: fintech
Etcetera

Price

1: cheap (for the region)
2: average
3: expensive
4: hot damn!

Urban vs. Rural

U: urban
R: rural

Topography

C: city
B: beach
M: mountains
J: jungle

What’s Next?

I’ll begin to experiment with this methodology over the coming months to see if I can reasonably codify and differentiate spaces around the world. I think it would be interesting to have some back and forth on this idea, and possibly talk about it at one of the upcoming coworking conferences.

So tell me, what do you think about this idea? What criticisms do you have of it? Which attributes should we include that aren’t present? Which aren’t important at all?

Feel free to comment or send me an email with your opinion to [email protected]

Ryan Chatterton
[email protected]

Ryan is the founder of Coworking Insights, a coworking media platform focused on delivering unique and in-depth insights for coworking founders and their teams. He’s the Marketing Director at Habu, a quickly growing coworking management platform that is simple, fast, and intuitive for managing recurring billing, bookings, and other admin tasks. Formerly with Impact Hub and PARISOMA, Ryan now has over 4 years of combined experience in a variety of roles in the coworking industry, including marketing, events, operations, sales, software, and partnerships. He’s a digital nomad and a lover of wine and tacos.

11 Comments
  • Doris Schuppe
    Posted at 18:10h, 26 July Reply

    Hi Ryan,
    after reading the proposal I thought, ok, let’s see if this may work (we discussed sth like this from time to time among hosts in Germany)
    So this came into my mind:
    • “SIZE” – the proposed scale is about “members”, for me this does not display the “size”; this might be ‘seats’ and then in a second part of SIZE: ‘community’ xy ‘members’ (but be cautious, what ‘members’ should be. Anyone ever signed up for a day?)
    • ‘URBAN vs RURAL’ – recently I had a discussion about this urban-rural-issue with a host of a coworking space not feeling to be rural, but it is also not a really urban location.. Can I haz three choices?
    • I would like to add sth that displays whether coworkers are attended by desk personnel or by the owners themselves, because I feel that this is a huge difference if I as a coworker can expect to be connected with others or just given the login credentials
    Sunny regards,
    Doris

    • Ryan Chatterton
      Posted at 18:21h, 26 July Reply

      Some really interesting thoughts, Doris. I agree with the size idea. I like using members as a baseline though because a space could be huge but only have 15 members, which is likely not what a prospect is expecting. I don’t think prospective members care as much about square meters as they do the number of other people. But this could be a reason to list both.

      Yes you can haz three choices. 😀 What would the third be though? Suburban maybe?

      I like your third point. This would be owner-operated vs staffed? But here there is also a mix. A great one though as this definitely changes the vibe of the space.

  • emilie tassel
    Posted at 12:18h, 31 July Reply

    Bom dia Ryan, thanks for this article! interesting to find the coworking space you need even if i dont like to put things in a box maybe the duration of the stay ? we manage a coworkation so it seems really different if the workers are staying one day but throughout the year, one week during their vacation to work in an office, one month to discover the environment (it is our case) or more like coliving.. the aim is not the same: work and meet people or work and live with others for a while, organise trips, dinners… what do you think? thx emilie from Novovento coworkation Azores

  • Paula Blair with SOAR Co-Working
    Posted at 17:44h, 31 July Reply

    Entities doing business with coworking spaces always deliberate on what classification of theirs we fall under. BNI (Business Network International) originally plugged me into Real Estate, and moved me to Office Services at my request. Insurance Carriers have no idea what to do with us! I land squarely in their special risk category because of that. It would be super beneficial for the corporate world to embrace us and any classification system adopted.

    • Ryan Chatterton
      Posted at 15:34h, 10 August Reply

      Very good point Paula! It’s happening. The corporate world and CREs are tuned into what’s happening with flexible workspace and they are jumping on board in a big way. Hopefully, your insurance problem will be solved soon as well!

  • SANDRA JATIVA
    Posted at 21:24h, 01 August Reply

    Hola Ryan. interesante artículo y forma de conceptualizar lo que es un coworking,
    En realidad es una palabra que puede provocar confusiones a la hora de explicar a los interesados en que consiste.
    Hoy por hoy yo tengo un espacio que, de acuerdo a tus conceptos encajaría en la terminología de GIPS, somos un espacio General, Inclusivo, Profesional y S pequeño, sin embargo compartimos experiencias, áreas comunes, beneficios como café y agua ilimitada, internet, sala de reuniones, servicio de recepcionista, sala de espera, servicio de limpieza.
    Estamos ubicados en un edificio en la zona urbana de la ciudad de Quito y lo que nos diferencia es justamente la variedad de pequeñas empresas que se han afianzado aquí, contamos con variedad de disciplinas como publicidad digital, programación de apps, paginas web, programas de software, mercado digital; también tenemos una exportadora y productora de flores, una psicóloga infantil y un broker de seguros.
    Como pueden apreciar la variedad es amplia, sin embargo nos hemos convertido en compañeros cercanos y profesionales ocupados, compartimos los días de trabajo y los éxitos como si fuéramos una familia, personalmente considero que todo esto también forma parte del concepto de la palabra coworking.
    Muchas gracias por el articulo.
    Saludos desde Ecuador

    • Ryan Chatterton
      Posted at 15:43h, 10 August Reply

      Hey Sandra,

      You bring up a good point. The suggestions in the article are merely a place to begin.

      But that said, I think what you describe is maybe some form of diversity or a multidisciplinary environment. I expect most coworking spaces that are done well to have a diverse group of people and business. And the sharing bit goes without saying. Certainly there needs to be more to describe what you are saying.

      Let’s do some more thinking on this.

  • Ben Kolp
    Posted at 08:39h, 20 August Reply

    Hey Ryan! Nice idea for a sort of coding system to classify coworking spaces. It would be interesting to take it a level higher and think of creative hubs in general wherein coworking spaces are just one type. You would also have Maker Spaces, Fab Labs, Virtual Professional Networks, Coliving Resorts, etc. Our space, The Living Room Coworking, is part of a European programme called European Creative Hub Network, which brought together space owners to exchange knowledge and grow their respective hubs. From traditional coworking spaces to loads of very creative models and hubs, mainly for creative industries, made it really hard to understand what we are and what we do. When I started to go out there and look at all the spaces that fit your initial definition of coworking spaces (a group of people working alongside on different businesses), I started to see that there are so many different types, that it becomes even harder to classify and define. For that reason I really like your very high level definition. Whether a more in depth coding system creates more order or confusion, I’m not sure about myself.

    • Ryan Chatterton
      Posted at 14:47h, 05 September Reply

      Hey Ben,

      I totally know what you mean. It may be less of a classification coding system as it would be some naming conventions. I have an article coming up on http://habu.co tomorrow that adds more to the thoughts I’ve written about in this article. It uses a formula “We are a SPACE TYPE for AUDIENCE NAME” convention. I’ll link it here when it’s live.

  • Emer (Ward) Powell
    Posted at 10:41h, 15 October Reply

    Hi Ryan

    after getting over the “What is a Coworking Space,” definition, surely the cowork space can define it’s own services on it’s website rather than getting into coding? Are we not complicating something even more but defining each individual space and what it has to offer?

    Regards

    Emer

    • Ryan Chatterton
      Posted at 10:43h, 15 October Reply

      Possibly, but for people searching for a coworking space in a new city (especially frequent travelers), going through dozens of websites, of varying design and information quality, isn’t very interesting.

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