With rare exceptions, many coworking spaces obsess over work-life balance and quality of life for their members, but when it comes to their teams, they don’t have that same priority.
This is ironic, of course, because coworking spaces are marketed as beacons and hubs of a new way of work, a more human way of work, a better way of work. And yet sadly, in many spaces, this simply isn’t the case.
There are two reasons this happens.
Coworking is Still Counter to Established Work Culture
Think about the individuals, companies, teams, and other organizations you’ve tried to educate on the value(s) of coworking. It’s hard to do, especially in new markets without proven examples. That’s because over the last century or so, we’ve been trained to think about the world of work in a very specific way. Employees go to the factory or office, work from eight to six, go home, then repeat. In recent decades, for many in high-responsibility gigs, the work didn’t even end when workers left their place of employment. It carried into the night and even onward throughout the weekend.
All these challenges aside, over time, coworking founders became quite good at espousing the aforementioned coworking value(s) to others. They saw the benefits for themselves, began to convey them to others effortlessly, and the people in their regions eventually got the joke (some regions still pending).
And yet, when it comes to our teams and employees, we are still trapped by the predominant paradigm of work-life circa 1990. When it comes to our teams, we treat them like the corporate slaves to which we’ve so fervently attempted to show the light. We expect our community managers to be available all of the time. We give them an impossible load of responsibility and work, pay them as little as possible, and only allow them strict and finite vacation policies. We then proceed to call them on those vacations. We pressure them to innovate, ideate, promote, and sell. However, we do not accept risky ideas with no proven ROI and we don’t accept failure lightly.
Many of us are slaves to the old gods of work. Their pull is something we hate, but one which we comfortably conform to when things seem uncertain or stressful.
Founders Lack Leadership and Management Skills
I think it’s safe to say that most coworking founders love leadership. They love it in the sense that they love working for or with good leaders, reading leadership books, attending leadership conferences, etc. They know the difference between a good leader and a bad one is the difference between making the world of work a whole lot better or a whole lot worse. But many, perhaps most, don’t practice good leadership.
What’s more, I think coworking founders believe that proper management is the key to making an organization, project, or business scale properly. They dream of efficient operations and communications procedures that solve problems before they’ve even started. They aim to have everything in its place and a place for everything so that everybody gets what they need when they need it. And yet, many of them struggle to utilize even basic systems, be they technological or operational.
It seems apparent to me that overcoming the prevailing work culture requires great leadership and exceptional management. However, such skills are increasingly lacking in coworking founders, especially with the rampant corporatization of the coworking industry. Perhaps the worst thing about the corporatization of coworking isn’t the cookie-cutter workspaces nor the extremely well-funded competition for indie spaces, but the obvious facade with which corporate coworking spaces build their brands. They claim to be changing the world of work, but all they’ve really changed are their architects, marketing practices, and business models.
Additionally, coworking founders often lack a proper perspective on their own abilities as leaders and managers. Because they’re “in it” all the time, they can’t see where they are lacking and where, therefore, improvement is needed. And because employees are afraid of offending the old gods of work, they don’t speak up for fear of retribution.
Practice What You Preach
The way forward is clear and simple, but it isn’t easy.
You must practice what you preach.
To really change the way the world works, you must change yourself and your team first. For example, if you’re hosting a remote work conference you must have a great remote work policy. If you’re offering innovation consulting services to corporate clients, using your coworking space as a showcase, then you need to be comfortable with the same types of risk and ideation from your employees to which you’re advising your clients.
To be a better manager and leader, you must be self-aware and humble. Great leaders don’t make the right decisions all the time, but they do take responsibility for those decisions. They give away credit to subordinates at every turn, because they know a well-motivated team is more important than their ego. Great managers inquisitively look at their businesses and see how things can be made more efficient, effective, and cost less. They automate work that doesn’t matter, so their teams can work more on the work that does.
Certainly, you should continue reading books, attending conferences, and observing other leaders and managers, but know that the work doesn’t stop there. You must follow up on those activities with self-reflection, thoughtful analysis, generosity, and hard work. Not the hard work you normally do to run your space, but the hard work of managing and leading other people, which is a whole lot more difficult than it sounds.
Perhaps one day we’ll cross into the foretold mythical new world of work, where people are treated with respect, dignity, and given the flexibility to live their lives on their terms. Then again, perhaps not. The only thing I know for sure is that if we’re going to get there, it’s on you. You’re a critical piece of the puzzle. Without you, the old gods of work prevail. But with you, we have a chance to make work better, kinder, more inspiring, and more impactful.