The Commodification of Coworking and Why it Doesn’t Matter

The New Sardine Can

For the past decade I have been a consistent and vocal advocate of coworking. Years ago I co-owned and ran two different coworking businesses, and over the past six years I have been a partner at OpenWork Agency, a global coworking consultancy. With two wonderful colleagues, I also co-wrote the first book on coworking- I’m Outta Here: How coworking is making the office obsolete.

The notion that coworking would actually make the office obsolete was, at best, premature, and at worst, hopelessly naive. Nonetheless, since we wrote that book (over a decade ago), coworking has indeed become a thing in the world. The recent near collapse of WeWork notwithstanding, it is safe to say at this point that coworking has crossed the trend chasm and is now simply part of the mainstream officing industry.


That said, I think it is also possible to make coworking out to be a bigger deal than it really is. Now, before I go further, there are coworking spaces that are truly inspiring places to work. The interdisciplinary and come-and-go-as-you-want nature of such places make them imminently compelling work environments, more so than just about any conventional corporate office.

At the end of the day coworking spaces, of just about whatever shape or stripe, are now just one of many places where people can plug in and work. They have become fully commoditized with relatively little differentiation beyond pricing and purported “premiumness.” A desk or chair or office is just a desk, chair, or office.

As more firms allow their employees to work remotely (between 39%-70% of workers, depending how it is counted) at least some of the time, productive corporate work is happening in all sorts of places- the office, coffee shops, coworking spaces, home offices, kitchen tables, airport lounges, hotel lobbies, hotel rooms…As the growing global community of digital nomads demonstrates, the world itself has become an office! The workplace is now infinite.

Liquid Space, the work and meeting space marketplace, seemed to point to this liquid future some time ago, but for whatever set or reasons it has not (nor has any other platform) become the airbnb of work. Not that this really matters, but it is worth pointing out. I think it speaks to the glut of workspace out there in the world.

The Autonomy/Mobility Imperative

As anthropologists we know that humans were not originally wired to be sedentists. We are hard wired as nomads but live in a sedentary world. Sitting in any one space all day long (no matter how beautifully designed it may be) is unnatural. Each year the mismanagement of humans (combining chronic pain, type 2 diabetes, presentism, stress and anxiety, hypertension, obesity, etc) costs American firms around $500B. Yet in the worlds of coworking and workplace strategy the race continues to design the perfect mousetrap (or the prefect cage).

What we need, instead, is a re-commitment (by companies) to acknowledge and honor human nature. This boils down to fundamental corporate assumptions (about people), and the policies that act on those assumptions. Unfortunately, what often gets in the way are dodgy formulations regarding ‘corporate culture.’ For forty years business folks have pursued the other holy grail- the ‘excellent culture’ (thank you Tom Peters)- as if once that is discovered everything else will fall into place. This too is a mirage in the desert.

Humans @Work

In my forthcoming book (Humans @Work), I address the mismanagement of human nature from an anthropological perspective. It is simply too easy (and misleading) to say that once you have designed the perfect activity based working (ABW) office or coworking space, then all of your people will be happy campers. It is even more misleading to suggest that becoming a culture of this or culture of that will make all of your dreams come true.

Something much more fundamental yet nuanced is missing here. Much of the subtlety is lost between the silo of space (facilities management) and the silo of HR, as our dualistic and binary approach to managing people proves to be inadequate.

What are Values, Anyway?

What can help here, as I outline in the book, is a fresh does of pragmatic anthropological thinking. It is one thing to talk about the values and beliefs of your company’s culture (integrity, performance, innovation, customer-centricity, etc), but if the most overt and even primary value is shareholder value (manifest in the form of share buybacks and ever increasing dividends), then all of the culture-talk in the world amounts to nothing.

If “values” are measured by tangible commitments in the world, then it can be said that the $1 Trillion that American firms spent on share buybacks in 2018 constitute those companies’ “corporate cultures” anyway. No amount of words or vision/mission statements or platitudes can change this.

What employees (humans) want is the opportunity to be themselves. This is the most basic thing. And this is manageable. Stay tuned for more thoughts on how to better manage humans @work.

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