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Protecting Your Coworking Community: Establishing and Enforcing Policies

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A Story

I had an experience recently where I sent a very diplomatic email to the members of my resident coworking space, informing them of a new policy regarding noise at events. One one hand, I conceded that we ought to keep music off until a certain time in the evening. On the other hand I said that members should respect speakers when they are presenting and keep noise down even if they are still working. The email was, by all accounts, very well-written and considerate, and even received praise from a few of the members as a policy that desperately needed to be put in place.

A few days later, I wrote another email outlining a very short policy on eating the food provided by event rental clients for their events. The policy was simple: “if you’re going to eat the food, participate in the event” (no taking food back to your desk).

*Full disclosure, this happened after the caterer showed up at 3pm to actually cook food in the space, causing a fairly large disturbance in the space. Something I should have apologized for immediately. Additionally, we allow members to attend all events in our space for free, rentals or otherwise.

There was quite a bit of backlash against this second email. The timing was off. There was no apology for our mistake of allowing the caterer to set up so early. People felt put out and pushed aside.

Now, aside from the apology email that ought to have been sent about the clamor that was going on in the kitchen, there is one highly profound reason that people were so taken aback by the sudden increase in policy-setting/enforcement: nobody had been establishing or enforcing policies on much of anything for some time. Members, in my opinion, had become a bit entitled.

The Balancing Act: Dictator or Democrat?

Now some of you might be saying, “Wait! Isn’t the space all about the members?” I don’t think so. I think it’s about something bigger. It’s about building a safe haven, a real community, and a place where people feel productive and inspired. It’s as much about having a great place to work for your staff as it is your members. I’m a huge believer in staff happiness, dignity, and growth.

With all that in mind, it could be said that I run my spaces somewhat dictatorially. In some sense that’s true. I do try to run a tight ship. However, I also believe in community and the power of crowdsourcing, and with that I believe that communities require strong leaders.

Your job as the leader of your community is to connect, protect, and expand that community. That doesn’t happen by letting people do whatever they want. It happens by doing everything you can for the needs of the few, without sacrificing the needs of the many, and this means sometimes some people won’t be happy. When it’s your space, you get to set your rules.

This is why I believe strongly in consistent and regular policy-setting from the very beginning. This is why I believe in creating systems that make the lives of your staff and members easier. This is why I believe in enforcing policies every single time. Don’t fool yourself, a lack of structure is actually a lack of caring and an excuse for laziness.

You may elect to include members in your policy-setting activities. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve found that if you invite everybody to the table, you get a lot of special interest. If you’re going to include members, select the ones who most aptly reflect your space’s values.

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Short Notes on Good Policy Setting

Good policies do the following:

  • Protect your members’ privacy, productivity, joy, and sense of belonging
  • Ensure that members, staff, and guests are having the best experience possible (possible means possible, not everybody will be happy all the time)
  • Make the space easier to manage and grow
  • Streamline and automate business practices
  • Increase clarity
  • Get replaced by hard systems whenever possible (more on this in a later article)

Policies should have these characteristics:

  • Simple and easy to communicate (your grandparents could understand it)
  • High impact and easily enforceable (low impact policies solve problems that are too small to care about meaning they won’t be enforced; if it’s difficult to enforce, your staff won’t consistently enforce it, and neither will you)

Here are some policies I like to have established:

  • Members-only access. Guests must always check in at the front desk. Unless a person is a member there ought to be no ability (technical or otherwise) for them to freely wander into the space without checking in at the front desk.
  • Member code of conduct. This outlines the expected behaviors of members such as respecting one another’s privacy, keeping the space tidy, treating staff with respect and dignity, outlining inappropriate language and conversation topics in common areas, etc.
  • Noise policies. No yelling, use headphones, meet in meeting rooms only, quiet vs. collaborative areas, etc.
  • Liability policies. “We’re not responsible for lost or stolen items, period.” Unless you can shelter all your members under your insurance policy, make it clear that they can obtain their own renter’s insurance and absolutely should. I’ve seen way too many things stolen in coworking spaces to even think of leaving my belongings behind without insurance, especially overnight.
  • Late payment. Most people don’t pay their other bills late, so why should coworking membership be any exception? If you let people get away with this, they will abuse it either out of need or neglect.

Policy Overwhelm

Before you get too trigger-happy with your policies, remember that many things won’t and can’t become policy until you discover there’s a problem. You can’t possibly outline everything in the beginning, but when something does happen, write it down and make a policy around it.

Also note that inundating your members with too many policies or setting policies too often will be overwhelming. Batch new policy rollouts whenever possible and try to set them no more than once per month.

Enforce, Enforce, Enforce

Once a policy is made, enforce it every single time. The one time you don’t enforce a policy on a particular member will be used as leverage when you try to enforce it upon them later. The excuse you’ll get is, “Well I’ve done that before and nobody said anything.”

Set a 3-strike rule for policy infractions and always inform the member of an infraction. Don’t be afraid to kick members out of the community on strike three. If they aren’t respecting policies, they aren’t respecting the community. People who don’t respect the community are detracting from the community’s value.



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