Coworking Might Not Need A New Definition, But It Needs To Broaden The One It Has

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Should the definition of coworking expand in line with the industry’s evolution?
  • Some pioneers argue that the principles of coworking — community, openness, collaboration, accessibility, sustainability — are being sullied
  • The coworking movement is now part of a larger, growing industry that involves designers, users and investors, in addition to its early adopters
  • Instead of redefining coworking and risking alienating some people, a better approach is to broaden the original definition in line with the industry’s evolution

A couple of weeks ago Allwork.Space published an article titled “Why Coworking Needs a New Definition”. Written by Carolyn Cirillo, the article reported on one of the panel sessions that took place during the New York City chapter event of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Shortly after its publication, Liz Elam — whom I respect — responded to the article with one titled “Coworking Does Not Need A New Definition” and published it on her LinkedIn page.

Elam writes, “I feel very strongly about the word (coworking) and what it stands for because I believe that people that produce real authentic Coworking founded on principles are the future of work.”

A few years ago, when coworking started capturing the attention of real estate owners, landlords, developers, and investors, coworking pioneers didn’t take to the attention kindly, arguing that the original values on which coworking was founded were being sullied.

In fact, in September this year during the UK edition of GCUC, Carsten Foertsch stated that “the first coworking spaces were built not to create profit, but to improve the working lives of people by forging connections, building communities and beating loneliness.”

Real estate owners, landlords, developers, and investors that have ventured into the world of coworking might agree with the second part of Foertsch’s statement, but definitely not the first (that coworking spaces needn’t create a profit).

Elam’s response to Allwork.Space’s piece on the panel discussion during the AIA event is a clear example of how these two visions of coworking continue to clash.

“I suggest that the folks from AIA leave the term coworking to the vast majority of the market that embraces the principles of the coworking movement which, in case you didn’t know are: community, openness, collaboration, accessibility, sustainability.”

My question is, is there a way to reconcile both sides?

As coworking became known and as it grew, it evolved. This is the way it works for services and products across industries. The ones that survive are the ones that are able to retain their essence as they pivot and adapt to meet the changing needs of any market.

While Foertsch and Elam are right in that coworking originated as a movement to improve the working lives of people, coworking today is much more than that. It’s no longer just improving the lives of workers, but improving organizations and companies as a whole. Coworking has helped raise awareness about the importance of wellness, community, and culture at both the individual and organizational level.

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    And in order for coworking spaces, large or small, to continue to do just that, they need to be profitable, they need to stay in business; they need to be sustainable.

    Coworking spaces are about collaboration, accessibility, community and openness. Does that not extend to all who are involved in the industry, to lending a hand to newcomers to show them the way, to make them feel welcome in a growing, revolutionizing industry? Does that not extend to its definition?

    I believe it does, or it should.

    I believe that those involved in the industry should be able to have a say on what they believe coworking is; that goes for coworking pioneers, owners, users, designers, suppliers, vendors, investors, developers, and more.

    Instead of changing the definition of coworking, I propose broadening the one that currently exists by taking the coworking movement’s original principles and the characteristics proposed during the AIA event.

    I’m thinking of something like the following:

    Coworking is a hospitality-driven and flexible working environment that has revolutionized how people experience real estate, that allows for diverse groups of people to work together, and that centers around the principles of community, openness, collaboration, accessibility, and sustainability.

    On a side note, maybe we shouldn’t be discussing the definition of coworking. Maybe we should be discussing the “bland” — as Elam described it — term of flexible workspace.

    Earlier this year in an interview with Allwork.Space, Steve King from Emergent Research stated the following: “Language often shifts, and I think the industry should begin to use a more reflective and descriptive term.”

    The industry has come a long way since it first took off in the early 2000s. As coworking spaces have evolved from open space to hybrid space, more people and organizations are increasingly using the term flexible workspace. Under this umbrella, coworking is one of the various services flexible workspaces can offer, which may sit alongside private offices, dedicated desks, virtual offices, and meeting rooms.

    As the industry continues to evolve, so will its terminology. I believe it’s important that we, as an industry, remain open to all possibilities. Instead of focusing on differences, it’s important that we stick together and focus on what we have in common. One thing is for certain, coworking has revolutionized the way we work, it is the new norm, and it is the future of work.

    Instead of narrowing the scope of coworking, we need to broaden it.

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