Future of Work: How Coworking Spaces Are Destigmatizing Mental Health and Designing for Wellness | Laura Shook Guzman


Psychotherapist and coworking space founder, Laura Shook-Guzman, on why coworking spaces are uniquely positioned to normalize & destigmatize mental health and pave the way in designing for wellness.


Laura Shook Guzman



Ceci [00:00:17] Hi, everyone, and welcome to the future of work podcast by Allwork.Space. My name is Ceci Amador and I am your host for the day. With me here is Laura Shook Guzman. She is a thought leader for coworking, self-care and entrepreneurial mental health. She’s an early adopter of coworking and she launched her co-working space Soma Vida in 2008, making it the world’s first wellness coworking community of its kind. In 2016, Laura partnered with coworking thought leader Iris Kavanagh to launch WOMEN WHO COWORK a global supportive platform for Femme-Identified coworking founders. She’s an accomplished psychotherapist, trauma specialist and devoted community leader. Therefore, she brings enormous expertise, insights and energy to her work. And as we near the half of Mental Health Awareness Month, Laura is the ideal person to talk about all things mental health, wellness and how to incorporate a robust wellness strategy into coworking spaces and the positive impact they can have on the local community. Laura, welcome. 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:01:28] Thank you, Ceci. It’s wonderful to be here. And this is one of my favorite topics. 

Ceci [00:01:33] I know it is. I’ve heard you talk about wellness so many times. I think I’ve heard you talk about this since probably I first entered the industry like five years ago. So I know you’re an expert. You’re amazing at this. And with the current global crisis, the situation covered 19 people stuck at home. I’m assuming and I’ve read that there’s a lot of mental health issues arising from all of this. And so speaking specifically about co-working spaces and how they can help support their members, whether they’re open or closed. What are some things that you’re observing? What are some things that people can do? What are some steps operators can take? How do you see the field right now around mental health? 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:02:20] It’s such a great question. And I’m grateful that we’re framing it around the coworking industry because there are a lot of articles coming out. There’s research surveys showing that half of Americans are struggling with some type of mental health issue. 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:02:36] And there are a lot of recommendations out there about how to spread awareness around mental health, how to increase it in your workplace. There’s definitely campaigns right now enduring mental health awareness about how to stop, you know, stop the stigma, how to speak to it as a leader of your company, how to speak to it in your family and to a loved one. So I really am grateful to see that. And there’s so many organizations, not just within the United States, but across the world. And we’re all or, you know, all uniting. This month, we want to talk about mental health. Every day and every month. But May has been some months that we have been setting aside for quite some time to all come together in these efforts. And I want to definitely be a voice within a coworking industry, because we have a unique positioning. You know, we are not companies with an H R department and we’re not going to be able to execute these employees. You know, we have employees, but in our members we can’t necessarily do it for them. And the way that traditional companies do. 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:03:45] But I think that’s exciting because we can be innovative in bringing some of the most vulnerable parts of mental health and business to entrepreneurs. So, you know, there’s a lot of support out there for you if you’re employed by a large company, say, Google or Facebook. You know, you’ve seen a lot of wellness initiatives in those spaces, but what do co-working spaces do? What can we do? And I think there’s a lot. 

Ceci [00:04:13] OK, so you say that co-working spaces are positioned to have an impact in their members and their employees, in their local communities and that there’s a lot of things that they can do. Do you have any specific examples that you use in your coworking space that you’ve seen in other coworking spaces that have had an impact before the current pandemic and that operators are currently implementing and seeing positive results? 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:04:40] Yes, absolutely. Really, what the coworking spaces that do this effectively are really the ones that put people at the center of their business model. And they’re very human centric in their design to their space and in their approach to their coworking model. And so, you know, that has been something within the movement that we’ve seen. And as you mentioned in the intro, I joined the movement in 2008. And so I’ve seen a lot of trends and a lot of things that have come and gone. But I would say the thing that’s always been there is that we are. Rooted in the human element. We’re talking about our people. It’s not about that. We’ve said all the time. You know, you go to our conferences for Juicy Global and for different places that we gather and you’ll hear us say it’s not about the desks. It’s about the people. So the co-working spaces that are really doing that are those that build culture around. 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:05:35] A couple of things that I feel are just I’d say like the core, like the gold guidelines of talking about mental health. So the first thing about that is transparency, like the ability for a coworking founder to be transparent about the challenges of entrepreneurship to bring it into your program. So you’re programing like the types of classes and events. So I’ve seen some other spaces successfully. Do you know what they are? I think it’s Tony from new work cities. He told me that they had a funeral for their startups. It was like a startup funeral. And they came together as a community to help that founder let go of that loss. Right. To collectively grieve the loss of that startup. So what that does is it creates normalization. Right. Normalizes the fact that we as entrepreneurs are going to succeed and fall. Some of our ventures are going to take off. Some are not. And we’re gonna have to let those go. But entrepreneurs that are alone out there, they’re having to sit in there in their own home office or with their own team and have to hold it together for everyone. But when you are in a co-working space that does that well, that coworking founder and the staff in the culture as a whole, their whole peer group can hold space for their emotional experience. And by doing so, they’re modeling. 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:06:59] So this is what we do for our children when we want high emotional intelligence. What I do as a therapist with a client is I model emotional transparency. And that’s one of the core things that I believe that co-working spaces can do right now without actually investing a whole lot of additional money in funds or coming out with a whole new program is thinking about where in your culture building and in your messaging are you modeling transparency around mental health issues? Can your members talk about it? Are you providing them with additional information? And if not, where could you do that? So I’ll pause there, because you may have known, it could kind of go off on that one. But I think that’s really the easiest way to think about how open you are, indeed, stigmatizing mental health in your co-working space by making it a part of your culture to talk about it. 

Ceci [00:07:55] And that last part that you said, destigmatizing mental health, I think that’s one of the biggest contributions to co-working has done to mental health over the last couple of years because it’s helped de-stigmatize it. Mental health remains a pretty taboo topic in most traditional workplaces, company headquarters. And I think that normalizing it and destigmatizing it can go a long way in kind of improving the mental health of people. And so in that sense, co-working is already doing it. What are some other ways? Because coworking members so they have intrapreneurs, they have freelancers. And like what you mentioned, they can provide that mental support that entrepreneurs need to let go. But what about the contribution that they can make to employees of large companies or medium sized companies that allow them to work from a co-working space? Because who’s responsible there for the mental health of the employees at the company or co-working operators responsible for their members mental health as well? How do you strike a balance without conflict crossing a line with your corporate clients? 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:09:09] Yeah, this is a great question. And I think I’ve heard this one floating around as people wonder, OK, if I’m going to do something for my members, what is my responsibility as a coworking founder? And if they’re employed and I’ve got a corporate client that is working with me to provide an experience for their employees. You know, in my co-working space, what does that look like for their mental health? So one thing that I want to say is that, you know, companies are in and in an advantage over a sole provider or a practitioner or freelancer, and they have resources and H.R. department so they can provide different types of insurance and mental health care. So often, you know, if you are employed, you’re going to have those benefits. What’s really interesting right now, a position and an opportunity that we have is co-working spaces is really to become a part of those companies HR packet. And to become a part of that packet. We have to make that appeal to the companies. Why would coworking be valuable to your members? And I think it goes beyond giving them. Able workspace. I think it’s giving them community that makes them more likely to be resilient in times of stress. And it’s giving them opportunity to co-working spaces that are providing onsite wellness or a culture that has events like I just talked about that supports mental health. Right. So there’s layers here and it’s very exciting. And that’s why I love that. We’re the Future of Work podcast right here, though. I’m talking to you, Ceci, because this is our opportunity to reimagine and innovate in these ways that we can support not only entrepreneurs, mental health, but employees of larger companies, freelancers, digital nomads. There’s ways in which the coworking model is a new structure. It’s an infrastructure for belonging is what I’ve started referring to. When people ask me what is co-working? It’s infrastructure for belonging and we need belonging to be well as human beings. And so if we can talk to corporations and say, hey, your H.R. the department is missing something. And we have it as co-working spaces. And this is what we do to give your employees a place of belonging and connection for their well-being and mental health when they’re outside of your headquarters, when they’re out of reach, you know, of a company. 

Ceci [00:11:33] So do you think we could say that someone who is dealing with mental health issues could potentially be better off in a coworking space rather than a corporate office, a home office or even a coffee shop? 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:11:48] Yeah, I think we actually can. I think we need research. I’m actually speaking to some researchers now to look at how we’ve submitted a grant to see whether we could study the actual improvement of mental health well-being over a certain amount of time. So you take somebody who’s in a traditional workspace or just working from home and you compare that to someone who’s working more, flex the ability to flex into co-working, to do home office and to go into a corporate environment. 

Laura Shook Guzman [00:12:19] So the ability for I mean, our theory, right, is that the more we are flexible and we’ve seen this and other research, that the more that humans can actually choose the environment that makes them feel most supported and most productive creates a higher yield. It’s a return on investment in their mental health and their flexibility actually benefits the company. So I don’t think that we have a lot of hard data yet on that, but I think that the opportunity is there. And based on what we know as far as other psychological research in Michael Freeman, he is a psychologist that has published on this topic and he is the one that actually you see a lot of people quoting that 50 to 70 percent of entrepreneurs struggle with mental health. That comes out of his research. And I’ll actually share a quote. I’m going to read it so that I don’t mess it up. And he says that mental health is as essential for knowledge work in the 21st century as physical health was for physical labor in the past. And so coworking is a 21st century knowledge work infrastructure. We’ve been designed to do this work and we, I believe, can show that those employees and workers that do come to co-working spaces do show benefits. And we’ve seen some of that data like through DeskMag and Steve King’s research, you know, emergent research. We’ve seen some data on showing that we do see increases and self-reports of happiness and less stress from working people. 

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    Ceci [00:14:03] That’s a really powerful quote. And there’s something that you said that coworking spaces are designed to help support the knowledge worker. Now, I want to dive into workplace design. And this is from a conversation I think we had several years ago. You have a background as a therapist, so I’m sure that has been very useful to you in creating so moving to the co-working space that focuses on wellness. And I remember one time we were talking about you said colors, shapes, textures, all of these things can definitely influence how people feel in a space. And so I want to ask you, what are some workplace design basics or elements that you think co-working space operators should include into their spaces? So one of the things you already mentioned is giving people enough choice because people can then choose where they feel better, where they work better. Then what are some other insights that you’ve kind of like implemented from being a therapist, from working with people and then the environment, the built environment that you have applied into your space and that you’ve seen have a positive impact in your members? 

    Laura Shook Guzman [00:15:14] Yes, I am really excited to talk about this topic. And I’ve I’ve seen a lot of trends. You know, people are predicting trends, postcode it and how that’s going to impact coworking. And one of the things I feel like is missing on that list that needs to be at the top is really that the way that we design the spaces for health and well-being even more than we’ve done before. And what I have talked about with you in the past, Ceci, like we, you know, had this connection and at a GCUC in New York around designing for the human nervous system. And what that means is the implementation of both environmental psychology and psychology of design, which looks at how space impacts people’s emotional responses. And there’s a lot being done in that field. And I think that co-working in general has done a pretty good job of playing, paying attention to the comfort of their members. And we heard a lot about Biophilia design and natural lighting. And I think I want to speak to this to encourage founders to think a little bit. Next level is not just that they’re going to be comfortable now, that they’re going to be just more drawn. But the spaces that you’re creating with intentional design can honestly calm and heal the nervous systems that are all going through a collective trauma. The global pandemic, regardless of how you feel about it, creates a collective traumatic response in the majority of people, even if they’ve not been affected by covering themselves or lost a loved one. They’re feeling the angst, the anxiety, the uncertainty. And so that means that as a whole collective world nervous systems are more activated or more like in that hyper vigilant. So this is, you know, when people kind of are quickly reacting, when something drops, you know, when you notice your body jump, well, people are going to be more jumpy, more sensitive to light. And they’re going to need to think about this in the design of their space. Where in your space do you offer low sensory environments? They do this in educational and in hospital environments. Already, when you have people that are over and over trying to be overwhelmed is kind of this ramped up, overactive, nervous system. And so you’ve got to think about that in your co-working space as now, you’re not just trying to do bright lights and get people productive and creative. 

    Laura Shook Guzman [00:17:48] You also want to invite the nervous system to shift down. So that means quiet spaces using circadian lighting. So this is where health tech, I think is really fascinating. I’m excited to hear more and more about the different health technologies that will help co-working spaces be able to monitor lighting use of aromatherapy. Smell also can elicit a sense of calm and relaxation. So using diffusers with aromatherapy is something co-working spaces can do right now. And there’s even an oil called thieves oil that is good for reducing bacterial and viral things in the air right you can use in your home or in your spaces. And so those are the kinds of things. 

    Laura Shook Guzman [00:18:39] And then of course, design as far as what the mind season is and here we’ve talked about this. I think you wrote on it in a previous article, you can use the sound of water. You can play nature sounds in your space instead of, you know, loud. You’re gonna be rethinking your playlist. People don’t want that as much of that active sound. They might respond more to sounds of nature and lower lighting. And so we could have like, you know, a whole people I suggest people go read that article that you did write about that Sassy, because we really talked about all the different examples. But that’s what I mean about designing for the human nervous system, is that we have to be really thoughtful about that right now. And that’s going to set co-working spaces that do that. They’re going to really set themselves apart and people are going to feel more drawn to go work in those spaces. 

    Ceci [00:19:25] I could hear you talk about this for hours on end. I find it because it’s so interesting and I feel like it’s a design approach that’s not talked about enough. And like you said, as we go back to the workplace following the covered 19 pandemic, this stuff, it’s what’s going to be really, really important. So like you said, people are talking about touchless experiences and sanitising and disinfecting surfaces and all of that. But there’s this other bigger issue that you mentioned, and it’s that collectively, everyone has been so anxious and stressed that it does make people more jumpy. It makes them kind of like close up, more intense, up more. 

    Ceci [00:20:12] And they think part of the workplace design of the future will need to definitely think about ways in which the built environment, physically, emotionally, mentally, socially impacts those in ways in which it can kind of like not only make us feel safe, but comfortable and much more relaxed. 

    Laura Shook Guzman [00:20:32] Exactly. To elicit the emotional response that we’re looking for, which is more calm. 

    Ceci [00:20:39] Yeah, exactly. We’ve talked about how coworking spaces are in a unique position to help destigmatize and normalize mental health issues in the workplace environment. How co-working spaces are kind of like leading already in workplace design wellness programs. And I want to ask you if there is anything else that you would like to add as a therapist, as a co-working space operator yourself, anything that you’d like to close off with? 

    Laura Shook Guzman [00:21:10] Yeah, I think I just want to underline that those that are thinking about mental health right now in a very proactive future forecasting type of way, as a coworking founder, you’re really going to be needed and you’re really going to set yourself apart from the other spaces. So as a founder. Just think about, you know, one of the most. I was on a call recently just about funding opportunities and what all of the panelists were talking about as far as even just going after funding is they said, you know, rethink what your customers need. 

    Laura Shook Guzman [00:21:45] First of all, don’t go forward just like you were planning on pre Cauvin. It’s time to rethink and reimagine and let yourself see what your customers need. And I guess what I’m a big advocate for is that our members and we all need more support around our mental health. So if you can start designing your programing, designing your spaces, and that does not mean that you have to become a therapist, you just become educated, you become aware, you become willing to be vulnerable in front of your members so that we can break this stigma. We don’t have to manage our impression of ourselves with everyone and come out looking like that amazing entrepreneur that never struggles. We want to tell those stories to our members so that they know it’s OK. And one last thing that I didn’t mention that you hear often in the advocacy world. And so just define that for people when you hear the word mental health parity. What that means is as an advocacy for coequal that we treat mental health with the same type of awareness and accommodations that we do, a physical descent, you know, different ability. So you are putting will you know, you’re putting elevators and wheelchair access and those things in your spaces, which is great. I’m so happy that we do all those things. Now we got to start thinking, what does that mean for mental health? What are the different things that we would like to bring to our space? I could imagine a world where that’s just as much of a requirement for a building design. I would love to see that we think about what is actually impacting our human beings in this space. And how do we put mental health? On the same page. So that’s what that means by health parody. And it’s also accommodations, meaning that if you have a staff person that you are also like one of your community managers is struggling, just really make sure that, you know, you’re giving them accommodations, that you understand how to support them, how to refer them to the proper support. 

    Laura Shook Guzman [00:23:47] So I just think that all of us need to be thinking into the future about how we as a collective and as an industry and coworking as a movement, because that’s my favorite thing about coworking. It’s a movement for social change. So we have the ability to integrate health and wellness, mental health, physical health, well-being into our design, into the infrastructure of belonging that coworking was intended to be. 

    Ceci [00:24:20] That’s awesome. And then the one thing that you said stood out that you would like to see, just like they do, elevators and wheelchair access for physical health elements that would do that for mental health. And I am really curious to see if after Covid-19, new building or space certifications pop up that deal a little bit more with mental health and not just new cleaning protocols. And I think that we’ve already seen a movement kind of edging towards that with well building Yeah. And so I think that maybe. And I don’t know. But. After Covid-19, it could be that a new certification pops up for how the built environment can reduce anxiety, it can support mental health. Other than just keeping people calm from everything. Every surface they touch could be contaminating risk. So I think a lot of mental health, wellness issues and changes are in the future and not long term. I think short term we’re going to start to see that. 

    Laura Shook Guzman [00:25:36] Yes, absolutely. And, you know, I just think if people are curious and interested about this, you know, in their co-working spaces, I’d love to have people reach out to me, reach out to each other, you know, start these conversations. I’ve been really, really impressed by the innovation and the creation that I’m already seeing. So I would love Ted to be a resource. And that’s kind of you know, what brought me into co-working is I was a therapist that understood the power of systemic design and changed that if that we can change the way that we work in order to be able to have a better way to live. And I think that there’s an opportunity here for us, even though it’s really scary and uncertain, we don’t know. And there are co-working spaces that are going to have a hard time getting through. But if we can all stick together and share best practices and talk about this topic more and more, then we really have an opportunity to to make a big impact. 

    Ceci [00:26:40] I agree. So why don’t you leave your email or where can people contact you if they want to start a conversation with you about brief topics? 

    Laura Shook Guzman [00:26:48] Yeah, I think Ceci so people can reach me through my private practice website for all the mental health resources and that is consciousambition.com and people also know that are listening to me. I’m also very involved in WOMEN WHO COWORK. So you can also always email me Laura @ women who cowork . com and I can just get right back to you. But if you visit conscious ambition dot com, there’s also a resource page, mental health resources and there are hotlines and different types of advocacy groups. And at the very bottom of that page, there’s also training that you can do as a founder, you can sign up to go through that training or have your staff go through those training sessions. And they’re usually just like one to two days of virtual training that will also give you guys more support around, you know, how to address crisis and trauma recovery in the co-working space. 

    Ceci [00:27:45]  Awesome. Thank you, Laura, for joining us today. And thank you, everyone, for tuning in once again to the future of our podcast. Remember, you can also tune in on Allwork.Space, Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn Radio and Podbean. 

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