Coworking is a growing movement of spaces and people, usually independent contractors, who have realized that working together makes for happier, more productive work lives, so they’re making it happen without the hierarchy. The spaces vary, but they’re generally membership-based and value-driven. People who belong tend to believe in collaboration, openness, accessibility, and sustainability. There are thousands of coworking spaces listed in the coworking Space Directory (a wiki collectively owned and updated). More than 450 of them participate in what they call a coworking visa program, where you can belong to a space in Iowa, for example, but spend a few days working at the one in Italy.
It’s hard to come by reliable statistics, since it is such a decentralized movement, but Deskmag does an annual survey of nearly 3,000 people across the world and in 2014 found that seven out of ten coworking facilitators report that the availability of desk space in coworking spaces can’t keep up with the public’s demand in general. WeWork has built a coworking empire of sorts, with 52 locations in 16 cities around the globe. It was recently valued at $10 billion.
Most coworking spaces, however, still have a mom-and-pop mentality—one-off spaces with a highly local, customized spirit. You might head to Oaktown, a spot in downtown Oakland, to work on your small business or write your dissertation, or to check out the Tupac Birthday Celebration or various exhibits by black artists in the gallery space. In New Orleans, there’s Blue House, where you can learn about community-fueled renovation during a coffee break from your own grind. In Denver, Colorado, there’s Green Space, which is—true to name—100% solar-powered and filled with Patagonia-sporting startup founders.
The explosion of coworking spaces is a physical symbol of the renewed belief in the security that comes from having a really broad and diverse network—what sociologist Mark S. Granovetter calls “the strength of weak ties.” Particularly for those in the information-based economy, job opportunities—like good ideas, as documented extensively at MIT’s Building 20—happen by bumping up against people and seeing where serendipity leads. Genuine friendships, it turns out, are the seed of a lot of the most fulfilling jobs of the 21st century.
In a sense, freelancers are scraping the parts of company life that sucked the life out of them—toxic culture, compulsory collaboration, unnecessary busy work, rigid business hours—and rebuilding the parts that fed them in friendlier, more flexible form. And it’s working. Researchers Gretchen Spreitzer, Peter Bacevice, and Lyndon Garrett wrote in Harvard Business Review:
“As researchers who have, for years, studied how employees thrive, we were surprised to discover that people who belong to them [coworking spaces] report levels of thriving that approach an average of 6 on a 7-point scale. This is at least a point higher than the average for employees who do their jobs in regular offices, and something so unheard of that we had to look at the data again.”
It all checked out. They found that there were a wide variety of reasons for coworking happiness, but the most central were communities characterized by authenticity, autonomy, and diversity. They write: “Unlike a traditional office, coworking spaces consist of members who work for a range of different companies, ventures, and projects. Because there is little direct competition or internal politics, they don’t feel they have to put on a work persona to fit in.”
These spaces are not just glorified Starbucks, as one might imagine. There’s some powerful intention behind the environment created by coworkers in these spaces, starting with the manifesto (collectively created and now signed by people all over the world working in 1700 different coworking spaces.) It begins: “We envision a new economic engine composed of collaboration and community, in contrast to the silos and secrecy of the 19th/20th century economy.”
The gospel of the new economy is the transformative power of a diverse, genuine network. Social media, of course, has helped supercharge our networks, but there’s something fundamental to the experience of creating relationships face-to-face. People no doubt benefit professionally from sites like LinkedIn and Twitter, but the “action” on those sites is made exponentially more interesting and productive when the online linkages are grounded in offline relationships. Which means that even if you feel safest behind the warm glow of a familiar screen, you have to venture out and seek human contact. You have to ask good questions of people that work far afield of you. You have to bump into enough people that you eventually latch right on to your ideal collaborator.
Which is, once again, why coworking spaces are so well-designed for the 21st-century worker. We all crave community—both on and off the proverbial clock—but we want community born of bottom-up serendipity, not top-down mandates. We want to collaborate with people who work in fields and mediums totally unlike ours, people with different styles and backgrounds, people who push us to grow, not because they’re anticipating that quarterly evaluation, but because they want to do impactful work in the world. That’s the sort of social cohesion that a company picnic once a year simply can’t create, no matter how good the hot dogs.
Adapted from The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, by Courtney E. Martin, published by Seal Press.
Courtney E. Martin is an author and entrepreneur living in Oakland, Calif. She is a weekly columnist for Peabody-award winning radio show On Being and the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. You can learn more about her at courtneyemartin.com.