Free Coworking Spaces: Why They Deserve Our Attention

Gangplank
Gangplank

The notion of “free” coworking spaces is not exactly new; it’s a concept that has been steadily gathering steam for at least a few years.

Innovative free spaces like Derek Neighbors’ Gangplank, Ronald van Den Hoff’s Seats2meet and Lori Kane’s Collective Self, to name a few, are proving that an alternative approach to cash for desks is not only working, it is thriving.

Recently, Shareable, a website that provides a news and online gathering place for the sharing of information, posted a comprehensive series of interviews with these and other owners and operators of free spaces. And, as you may guess, they had a lot to say.

First of all, free coworking is growing. Back in 2012, Shareable first reported on the beginnings of the free coworking trend. Part of the movement involved the creation of a Free Coworking Map, allowing anyone, anytime, to locate free coworking spaces all over the world. Since then, the map indicates the number of spaces growing by 790 percent!

A sustainable model?

Despite the impressive numbers, to the uninitiated, the concept, at its core, may seem too good to be true.

Lots of talk about sharing, collaboration, trust building and use of words like “serendipity” can be easily dismissed as a passing movement, akin to communes back in the sixties. That conclusion, however, in addition to being a huge disservice to the dedicated free coworking spaces and those who inhabit them, would be inaccurate. There’s something happening here, and it’s far from exploratory and well on its way to being a truly viable, sustainable model of cooperative space sharing that refines its process through the concept of sharing skills, resources, time and creativity — all of which no one would argue hold tangible value in our business and social lives.

Furthermore, the successful free coworking spaces are, by all accounts, highly organized and well run.

According to Derek Neighbors, free coworking “removes desk rental from the conversation and by default has to focus on something else.” That “something else” comes in the form of exchange of ideas, sharing of thoughts, experts helping entrepreneurs get organized, and finding and filling the gaps. Where ideas form, plans form and companies are conceived. This collective energy creates viable, sustainable communities of individuals who support each other’s businesses and create a closed loop supply chain.

Threat

But what is the impact on traditional coworking spaces and business centers? Is there the threat of cannibalizing the trail blazers of alternative office spaces?

If there is, it hasn’t happened in any measurable way, at least not yet. According to Derek Neighbors, paid spaces such as Indyhall, New Work City and Office Nomads are not only taking notice of the free coworking community model, they are taking it seriously and placing it at the center of their own operating and marketing strategies.

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The truth is, free coworking isn’t right for everyone. There remains a huge market for those who appreciate the sense of collaboration a coworking space brings, but may not necessarily be up for the level of sharing and supporting that underpins a successful free coworking community. In other words, “free” shouldn’t be a free pass to sit and be left alone, without giving back to your community.

According to free coworking activist Felix Schürholz, publisher of CoWorking News, “If you only consider the three core values of collaboration, community and sustainability, you can see the strong link of giving. But it is not only giving, it is giving a little more than you take. If you take more than you give then it is not sustainable. There will be no community that can last like this and collaboration will stop sooner or later.”

Building networks

What can business centers and traditional coworking spaces learn from the free coworking model?

Perhaps more about the importance of community in any shared office environment. One of the reasons commonly cited that coworking spaces fail is an inability to identify a clear need within their communities and tap into the power of the human capital outside their own four walls. Free coworking spaces represent the epitome of community, cooperation and sharing that all serviced office space providers can weave into their own business models.

As to the future of free coworking, Ronald van den Hoff provides some parting words to ponder; “The early figures indicate that new economic value creation is moving away from the traditional value chain and that value networks have the future. We have to realize that people can get anything from themselves without the need for an organization, like in the old days. So the more networks there will be the more growth we can get. Growth out of the crisis, although it may not be growth visible in terms of our gross national product, as social capital often is intangible. Free coworking stimulates this movement, giving people access to others, hence its importance.”

How are you addressing the free coworking space phenomenon? Is it making our industry stronger? Perhaps time will tell. But new ways of working, combined with a younger, more idealistic workforce, may keep free coworking spaces thriving for a long time to come.

Thanks to Gangplank for the image.