This year at OT, we have focused a good part of our efforts into creating more industry awareness. As we’ve said many a time, there’s a work revolution underway changing how and where people work. Freelancers are rising in number, flexible workspaces are booming, and companies are embracing remote strategies.
The flexible workspace is a key player in this work revolution. Workspace operators are the ones providing solutions to those seeking somewhere to work in a way that is meaningful and fulfilling in more than just the professional aspect.
This year’s Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC.ALL) was an effort to bring the flexible workspace industry together. It sought to join business center and coworking operators alike, as well as real estate investors and technology providers.
Looking back at this year’s conference, executive producer of GCUC.ALL, Liz Elam mentions how “We all need to do a much better job of learning from each other and sharing knowledge. It was good, it was a first step, but there’s much more to be done.”
Elam is referring to this year being the first conference in partnership with the Alliance Network, a network that has been around for over 20 years and which, up until recently, had focused heavily on the business center part of the industry.
A Different Perspective
A recent article on Shareable also addressed this transformation, but in a very different light. It discussed how GCUC wasn’t what it used to be. “What is new was that GCUC.ALL, which has been an essential way for coworking space operators and enthusiasts to connect, share and strategize, felt like it had been hijacked,” the article reads.
Though I hadn’t attended previous versions of GCUC, I quite enjoyed this year’s conference, particularly considering that the mix of content available was seeking to address the fact that (using Frank Cottle’s words here) “the DNA of flexible workspaces is changing.”
Even considering there was new mix of content, from where I was sitting, the conference was (still) highly coworking oriented, with only a few presentations drawing on the experience of classic business center operators. The face of coworking has changed and GCUC.ALL addressed this change by including more topics that balanced the business part of coworking with the community part. Some of these topics were growth, sustainability, scalability, legal issues, and revenue.
Like Elam said during the conference, “if you’re not thinking about growth, you’re not thinking,” and most presentations strengthened this point while linking it to the ‘organic’ community element of coworking and other types of flexible workspaces.
Besides the fact that coworking is changing, part of the purpose of the GCUC.ALL alliance was to create a sense of belonging between coworking, business center, incubator, maker center, and accelerator center operators. Like Cottle, founder of Alliance, mentioned in his presentation: “We all (business centers, coworking, virtual office, maker center, etc) offer people, place and technology coupled with flexibility. We just do so at a different ratio.”
The partnership’s goal was for business centers to learn from coworking spaces and vice versa. Like Elam mentioned in an interview call, “it’s time for everyone to learn, pivot, or die.” Yet, perhaps GCUC.ALL didn’t do as good a job as possible in carrying this message throughout the meeting as some would have liked.
For instance, some attendees kept calling it only the GCUC conference and mainly didn’t understand why business center operators and real estate investors were doing at the conference.
Did you attend GCUC.ALL? What were your impressions on this?
One of my impression was that Elam was constantly trying to encourage attendees to open up and learn from everyone attending, regardless of the type of space they represented. In our interview, she even mentioned how “People were very comfortable with being fully coworking focused.” Which wasn’t the aim of the conference. Yet, both Elam and Cottle knew it would be a challenge to find the right balance in the content presented, and they did well by most accounts.
Like I mentioned before, even among the talk of growth, profit, scalability, etc., most speakers were as concerned, if not more so, about the community, collaboration, and sustainability part of flexible workspaces. One point that was addressed by many, if not all, of the speakers was how the ‘modern workspace’ is all about the individual, they need to be ‘user-centric’.
From Bob Fox we learned that, “the workplace is now even more social.” A claim strongly supported by Jean-Yves Huwart’s work.
Jerome Chang mentioned that, “you want to design a space that people want to be in.” A statement strengthened by Melissa Marsh’s claim that, “the true measure of a successful place is occupancy; it’s that people have chosen to be there.”
Bill Jacobson during his tech presentation stressed the importance of giving members what they want and need in order to work from your space: “it all comes down to an experience, if you want to limit churn you need to have a robust IT structure.”
Cottle himself proposed an industry mission statement with a focus on members, not operators. “To create value which helps our clients grow their business through flexibility, community, and an excellent service culture.”
I believe, in the end, that the main challenge at the conference wasn’t the new mix of content, but instead the fact the “the terms business center and coworking were being used so interchangeably,” as the Shareable article says.
These are only a few of the instances that highlighted community, individuals, and culture as the most important part of any type of flexible workspace.
Granted, coworking spaces and business centers are not the same thing; but they’re no stranger to one another either. (Though I personally believe Cottle hit the wrong button shortly beforehand by stating that ‘community is a product’ – but more on that later)
I believe Cottle’s mission statement is a valid one, one that speaks to the broader flexible workspace industry–not just coworking and not just business centers–it’s a start at finding a way in which to position the industry as a whole in a very competitive global market.
Cottle made this point clear when he said that all flexible workspaces offer people + place + technology, they just do so at different ratios. And I believe it’s important to recognize that coworking spaces are an evolution of business centers, and like Elam said during our call, “it’s short-sighted to think you can’t learn from those that came before us and are different from us. We need to embrace our differences, instead of isolating people from them.”
Business centers don’t focus as much on community and culture as coworking spaces do, yet this doesn’t mean coworking operators haven’t got something to learn from them. Afterall, the concept of providing individuals, companies, and startups with a space to work in a way that could facilitate their jobs and make the experience a better one is a concept that business centers first implemented several decades ago. Which means business centers have been successful for many years by now; and all new operators of all types may be able to learn a thing or two from them and vice versa.
Focusing on profit and growth doesn’t have to mean that operators will need to leave the human aspect of workspaces aside. Quite the contrary, it should be part of their strategy to strengthen and grow their own community. Regardless of the type of space you run, in order to help your community and nurture it, you need to keep your doors open, and one can’t do that without profit and growth. This is what some speakers were getting at during their presentations.
Jerome Chang spoke design and numbers, how to make your workspace more profitable through design, stressing the importance of both the work part and the ‘co’ part of coworking. Don Ball and Kyle Coolbroth spoke about cash, profit, and how to grow to keep revenue coming in. Bill Jacobson, Tony Freeth, and Steve Ryan all spoke about the role technology has in a workspace and how it can eventually make or break a space.
What I’m getting at is that community doesn’t have to be sacrificed in order to make profit and achieve growth. The Borg-like organism the Shareable article mentions and fears coworking will turn into will only happen if independent and local operators (of any type of workspace) don’t find a way in which to collaborate and work together. We’re all in the business of collaborative workspace, so we should all regardless of our differences collaborate together, just like Elam and Cottle set out to do with GCUC.ALL.
Let’s join forces, embrace our differences and celebrate what we do best–work collaboratively.