With a little help from my friends

No Coworking related word cloud without a big COMMUNITY

A personal account of the core values of Coworking, what they mean in practice and why Coworkation might enhance them.

It has been two months since I gave up my flat, put my things in boxes, stored them in my parents’ cellar and set off to explore the world of Coworkation. No one forced me to leave my cosy home behind and I could have quite easily written my Master’s Thesis from the comfort of my own desk. Maybe that would have been more efficient, maybe I would be done by now.

However, I wouldn’t have learnt and seen nearly as much as I did and I wouldn’t have met any of the great people I met. But most importantly, my research would be missing some — if not strictly academic, nevertheless crucial — preliminary findings. These first few weeks of Coworkation in different Spaces strengthened my faith in the power of sharing and the philosophy of Coworking. They gave me confidence that the concept of (Co)Workation makes sense and that it doesn’t just work but might even amplify the core values of Coworking.

Wondering what Coworkation means?

No, it is not a spelling mistake. Maybe you have heard of Workation: a compound noun made of the two words work and vacation. Any trip combining work and vacation can be considered a Workation — combining longer travels with work, working whilst on holiday or any other form of combining recreational time with work in a place away from your usual residence. If a Coworking Space or a similar service — such as a temporary Coworking Camp — is used to combine leisure and work away from home, the Workation becomes a Coworkation.

The formula is simple: Coworking + Work + Vacation = Coworkation.

So far, not much is known about who does this, why people do it and what they actually do while on Coworkation. This is exactly what I am trying to find out with my Coworkation survey. It is designed for anyone who has recently combined a holiday, a quick break or longer travels with (some) work and used some form of Coworking-related service to do so.

Because I felt that it would seem utterly paradox to study a concept built on the fact that more and more people can work more and more flexible and mobile whilst not making the most out of my own flexibility, I decided to emulate my research subjects’ deed and write my thesis on the move.

Luckily, there are already a handful of Coworking Spaces that — on top of the usual shared workspace — offer an option for shared accommodation (called Coliving). I was going to make these places my home for the next few months and try to better understand the phenomenon by experiencing exactly what other Coworkationists experience.

Doing so, I learnt a lot. Not just about Coworkation but also about the fundamentals of the Coworking movement in general. Some of these insights I would like to share in this article — it is the story of how the making of my Coworkation Survey became much more than just a prerequisite for the empirical part of my Master’s Thesis.

Doubts: heavy books, hypes and air-built castles

There are several things I doubt early September, shortly before I set off. I have already handed my flat including all its furniture over to the next tenant. There is no way back. The decision I made a few months ago is now having consequences — due to the fact that I no longer have a home I now have no other option than to follow through with my plan and “move in” to one of the few European Coworking Spaces that offer Coliving. For how long exactly I don’t know yet — as long as it takes. Suddenly this seems a bit scary and I am wondering whether I might have made a hasty decision. My confused and slightly worried parents certainly seem to think so.

Am I ready for this?

A few days before leaving, I realise myself that I might not be quite ready for “digital nomadism”. I still have a pile of library books (physical ones) and need a signature (by hand, with a pen with ink) from my lecturer so I can hand in the thesis registration form (an actual printed out piece of paper, to be handed in personally). I schedule in a last meeting with my lecturer and explain that I won’t be able to come in personally for a while now. I get his signature, hand in the form, drop off my suitcase full of books at the library and decide that only digitally available literature is relevant for my thesis. Problem solved.

But there is something else I am dubious about. Something that worries me a lot more, than the possibility that I might not like the nomadic lifestyle, miss the comforts of home or neglect some relevant non-digital books.

Myth or Movement?

I had been following the Coworking movement for nearly two years. In the beginning I was enthusiastic and so seemed everyone else. Coworking was proclaimed to be the future, a bright future. It was lauded for being more economical, more ecological, the remedy against long commutes, the cure for burnouts and isolation, the solution for working mums, the key to the revitalisation of abandoned rural areas, the answer to a whole array of social problems, the foundation for an improved world of work and a better society as a whole.

In fact, Coworking has its very own manifesto, clearly expressing its aspiration to be more than just a business model or a physical space. It has been signed by many showing their solidarity with the movement and its basic principles:

  • collaboration over competition
  • community over agendas
  • participation over observation
  • doing over saying
  • friendship over formality
  • boldness over assurance
  • learning over expertise
  • people over personalities
  • “value ecosystem” over “value chain”

Lately though, I had been hearing more critical voices. On one hand, some had started to peg Coworking down as just another hype, a nice idea soon to be replaced by a new trend. A utopian concept for which the supply was getting bigger than the demand, a concept built on pretty thoughts that didn’t make any business sense.

On the other hand, there had been murmur about the movement getting too big for itself, about too many opportunists, businesses, big companies and big investors jumping on the bandwagon for purely commercial reasons and thereby threatening the spirit of Coworking. Indeed, some people had told me about their disappointment with the concept. The Coworking Spaces they had been to, did not provide the promised community feeling — there had been no mixing of members, no contribution of strengths, no learning from each other, no sharing but that of the physical space. People in the Spaces they had been to, so they told me, had stayed in the groups they had come with and mixed neither with fellow coworkers nor with the local community.

Wishful thinking or Reality?

Community! There it is — the keyword. Community, community, community — it’s all about the community. They repeat it like a mantra. Build your community before you even think about renting a space, the community is your most valuable asset, community manager is not a job but a calling, don’t outsource the community management — it is your main task as proprietor, etc. Have we all just been repeating this tune over and over on websites, in blogs, in discussions, in surveys and at conferences until we had convinced ourselves of its existence? Were people lying to themselves?

In their 2014 publication The Fascination of Coworking” the Frauenhofer IAO states and explains the five basic values of Coworking, initially formulated in »Citizen Space« — one of the first Coworking Spaces in the USA:

  • Collaboration
  • Community
  • Openness
  • Accessibility
  • Sustainability

Suddenly it dawned on me: for the next few months I would, at least to some extent, depend on this promise of an open and accessible community willing to collaborate with me and each other. I had dived in to the Coworking scene so much, that I had basically built my research plan on the assumption of the existence of this much praised Coworking Spirit — it better not be an air-built castle.

Later in their report the authors of the above mentioned study remark:

“Nevertheless, the question naturally arises as to the extent to which these values are actually put into practice. Unfortunately, we are not aware of any investigation that surveyed all of these values in terms of their relevance.”

I had to find out myself — so here is my own personal investigation, my assessment of how real the Coworking Spirit is. It is based on the first stage of my “Coworkation route”, my experiences with the three spaces I visited so far.

Itinerary: Coconat, bedndesk, Rayaworx

To be clear, my doubts about the existence of a Coworking Spirit weren’t founded in any personal experience. Whilst I am not doubting anyone else potentially disappointing experience with Coworking, all my experiences up to that point had been good. Even when I first attended the Coworking Europe Conference as a complete newbie with nothing to offer, people would take time to talk to me, introduce me to others and patiently answer all my questions. I had met countless friendly and open people and managed to make some contacts that I was now planning to draw on.

First on the list: Coconat A Workation Retreat near Berlin. I had met co-founders Julianne and Janosch at said conference a year before. After that I would fly to wherever I had another contact accessible via a cheap flight. This turned out to be Mallorca, where I knew Doris and Rainer that had founded Rayaworx there one year ago. And although I had never met owner Matias before, I decided to also pay a visit to his oasis for digital nomads bedndesk while on the island.

Assessment: Explanation, Experience, Enhancement

Below I will give a short explanation for each of the first four core values of Coworking, an account of how I experienced it and my thoughts on how I think the concept of Coworkation might enhance some of these principles. I won’t be talking about the last value (Sustainability), because it is a more complex and controversial topic and would therefore take up too much space whilst only being remotely relevant for my experiences so far.

Collaboration

EXPLANATION: In The Fascination of Coworking the authors state that “The value »collaboration« describes the fundamental willingness and will of the coworkers to work together.” This broad understanding of collaboration contains two main aspects:

  1. For coworkers it should be a matter of course that they can approach respective specialists in the community if they have a specific problem and vice versa that they can be consulted by others. Importantly, responding to a favour is not directly associated with the same person. The aim is to maximise the pool of resources and skills as a whole: “the support among co-workers »fluctuates« and in the end, which is the idea, everybody benefits from their efforts appropriately.”
  2. On top of this, the Coworking Manifesto postulates »Collaboration over Competition «. This again emphasises the community aspect and shifts importance from the result to the path.

It is meant to be one of the great benefits of Coworking: get to interact with all sorts of people from the most varied backgrounds and with a wide variety of knowledge and skills.

EXPERIENCE: My goal for the first few weeks of my Coworkation journey was to design the heart of my thesis — the online survey.

Conducting a survey by definition means that you rely on other people collaborating with you. In my case specifically I am relying on very busy and often critical people to take some of their time — a resource many of them value more than anything else — to fill in my survey. Risky, one could say.

The survey has been up and running for a few weeks now and it is going okay. How long it will take until I have enough participants only time will tell — for now, let’s focus on the path: The survey the way it is now, is the result of some amazing collaborative work!

Of course I had my hypotheses and ideas about what I wanted to find out. The final questionnaire, however, has been shaped by the countless questions, answers, feedback and inputs of many people. Even its draft was already a result of previous discussions at conferences, in Coworking Spaces and on skype with existing and future Space operators. The process of creating and refining the Coworkation Survey, to me, is the living proof for the existence of the collaborative spirit in everyone I consulted about it. During my stay at Coconat, where I started to work on the survey, I got to talk to the operators about my thesis and my hypotheses, I got to ask and discuss things with very helpful and open guests and even had some of them taking a lot of time to test my drafts, talk out loud while filling in the unfinished survey and work on it together with me until long after dinner.

During that whole time and in all these cases that I got feedback or inputs I never felt like someone didn’t want to exchange ideas, like I bullied someone into helping me! It all came very naturally — it felt like a matter of course to approach the proprietors and ask about what would be interesting survey questions for them, to talk to the guests and turn their stories and comments into questions.

Vice versa, it was obvious to me to share my insights with the operators and to help other guests with any of my business or tourism knowledge that could be useful for their projects — not because I felt like I had to, but because it was fun to work together and learn from each other.

In terms of »Collaboration over Competition« I was very happy to witness the collaborative interaction between the operators of different Spaces and Camps all over Europe. There is no competitive element to their dealings with each other. To the contrary, they are inviting each other to their respective Camps and Spaces, telling their guests about other Spaces that might be interesting for them and even promoting each other by blogging and posting about the others. There is, at least for now, a feeling of community between the operators and a joint effort towards something they all believe in. Of course, there are only few Spaces and concepts that offer accommodation and workspace as a package and there is virtually no competition. Still, even in the case of the two Spaces on Mallorca where one could understand at least a slight feeling of rivalry, there was nothing like it. Instead, Rainer, Doris and Matias openly exchange ideas and tips, invite each other to work in their respective Spaces and refer guests to each other.

To any readers that feel like they are part of the Coworking Movement, I apologise if all of this sounds obvious.

Community

According to the Frauenhofer IAO study, the community principle describes the fact that “work is not only performed side by side in coworking spaces but also in an atmosphere characterised by trust.”

Without trust, there is no collaboration. In order to share ideas and be motivated to help and support each other there has to be some social bond between the coworkers.

The community feeling is the backbone of Coworking and the precondition for all the other principles and ideals — hence the constant evocation of this value.

Community has to be created, looked after and maintained. Coworking Spaces do so by providing common areas such as cafeterias or a kitchenette and even areas with a living room atmosphere where coworkers can meet, have a friendly chat and maintain personal contacts. Additionally, most Spaces foster community-building by holding events in their premises. Such events can, for example, come in the form of work related talks and presentations, networking evenings or more leisure orientated excursions or joint dinners. In terms of the Coworking Manifesto this corresponds with the two principles »Community over Agendas« and »Friendship over Formality«.

EXPERIENCE: All my above praise for the collaboration I experienced between people and Spaces is rooted in the fact that there is a sense of togetherness and community.

The community feeling amongst the proprietors, organisers and operators of the Spaces is partly a result from their common believe in the Coworking Movement, partly due to the fact many of them know each other. If it is little events like talks and joint lunches that bring coworkers within a Space together, it is conferences like the Coworking Europe Conference or the German Cowork 2015 Conference in Stuttgart that bring together operators and therefore massively contribute to the creation and maintenance of a community feeling in the whole scene.

ENHANCEMENT: Building a community and establishing a common bond between the members of a Coworking Space can take a lot of effort from operators. I think it is fair to say, that operators of Spaces that offer Coliving in addition to Coworking have an easier job when it comes to community building than operators of “normal” Coworking Spaces. Of course they have to provide inspiring common areas where people feel relaxed and animated to connect and they have to make sure there is an atmosphere of trust. However, a lot of bonding just happens naturally. Many people using these places and services are travelling and more often than not they are solo travellers. Therefore, they are usually already in “connection-mode” — they want to meet new people, they are looking for company.

Additionally, Coworkers in a Coworkation Space aren’t just sharing their workspace: In Coconat we had breakfast, dinner and lunch together, most of us shared a bathroom and slept in the same room, we joined each other for a glass of wine at the nightly campfire and went for walks together. At bedndesk we shared our tapas and cooked together, had movie nights and went for spontaneous sun-set-beers at the beach.

In such circumstances it would seem hard not to get to know each other, connect and get a feeling of community. Being away from “home”, away from the people you are typically surrounded by and out of your usual routines, connecting with new people comes a lot more natural. Not to forget about the holiday feeling and the sunshine and nature most Coworkation Spaces provide — this certainly helps to put people in a more open and relaxed state of mind.

Openness

Like trust, openness is a precondition for community and collaboration. Openness means open-mindedness and stands for

  • a fundamental interest in others
  • a respectful dealing with fellow coworkers and
  • a willingness to share.

Furthermore, openness means being willing to try out things without being 100% sure. It therefore contains an element of risk-taking. In the Coworking Manifesto this is represented in the principles »Boldness over Assurance« and »Doing over Saying«.

EXPERIENCE: Collaboration or a community cannot emerge without a discussion being established, without someone talking about their ideas, without taking others seriously, i. e. without openness”. This and everything in the last few paragraphs said, it feels redundant to say that the people I met during the past two months were very open.

However, I didn’t take this for granted. To tell the truth, coming from an academic background and being a business student, I was slightly worried that these hands-on entrepreneurs, freelancers and creative minds might not be very interested in what I had to offer. Like all my other doubts this one too was soon washed away.

ENHANCEMENT: The Frauenhofer IAO report defines »Boldness over Assurance« and »Doing over Saying« as the willingness to try new things, the courage to run a risk and make oneself vulnerable in the hope of something good and new emerging. I dare say that the mind-set of most people using the services of a Coworking and Coliving Space fits this definition. After all, it takes some boldness and a certain sense of adventure to combine your holiday with work or even travelling long term whilst working form Coworking Spaces all over the world. Coworkationists can therefore be assumed to bring a certain level of open-mindedness — by definition.

Accessibility

There are two main components to accessibility in this context:

  1. Financial accessibility means that working in a Coworking Space should be affordable in order not to exclude anyone a priori for financial reasons.
  2. Geographical accessibility means that Coworking Spaces should be well connected and easily accessible via public transport.

This value is important in order to reach the desired mix of backgrounds, knowledge and skills that make for interesting collaborations and an exciting community. In this sense, accessibility along with collaboration, community and openness can be seen as yet another precondition for the feeling and spirit created in the ideal Coworking Space.

EXPERIENCE: Being a student means being on a very low budget. Even though most Spaces that offer a Coworking and Coliving package are very reasonably priced and are totally keeping with the principle of financial accessibility, they are still stretching the student budget. So in this respect too, I was relying on some Coworking Spirit.

Given the fact that all the places I visited are only just in their start-up phase and aren’t making much, if any, profit themselves, it would have never crossed my mind to expect any charity! If anything, I was eager to contribute in any way I could. At Coconat, that meant washing up. Doing the dishes didn’t just earn me a lower rate it also gave me chance to see “behind the scenes” and made me feel like I was part of the community much quicker.

I am very happy and grateful to be able to say that all three places seemed to highly appreciate the research I am doing and supported it by finding ways to make my stay at their Spaces affordable.

Findings: Movement, Reality, Sharing

In order to explain the fascination of Coworking, the authors of the Frauenhofer study exemplarily take a list of promises made on the website of a New York Coworking Space. It states:

  • »Meet amazing people«
  • »Get feedback«
  • »Share everything«
  • »Participate«
  • »Cowork around the world«

Thanks to Coworkation Spaces like the ones I have been to and will travel to in the near future, thanks to their cooperation between themselves and thanks to initiatives like Copass, even the last item on this list — considered slightly exaggerated by the Frauenhofer study — is becoming more and more realistic every day.

I can happily say that I experienced all these key aspects of the Coworking Movement. My worries were unfounded. Everyone I met on the way has contributed to my thesis in some way. So far, my experience of Coworkation has been shaped by the kindness and helpfulness of everyone involved and I consider my Coworkation survey proof for the Coworking Spirits’ existences.

When I set off, I was hoping that people would walk the talk, because I depend on it. In the meantime, I got a lot more than I ever expected — Whit a little help from my friends, I got high — high on a “Coflow”.

Repeat: Community, Community, Community

“What is all the point of such a summary of values”, the Frauenhofer report asks. And immediately gives the answer:

“Ultimately, a set of values is fundamentally aimed at providing a link for communities. It can create a community from an idea, even a movement that justifies such a description. Insofar it is of value to the coworking movement that such a set of values was defined, published and accepted by so many Coworking spaces and coworkers at an early stage.”

The foundations were set nicely and what resulted was that all important sense of community — the ultimate determining core of Coworking; it is now our job to make sure the core values are not forgotten as the movement and the community grow.

The fascination of Coworking lies in the idea of people being able to work wherever they want, as long as they want and how they want without committing themselves whilst simultaneously being part of a community. Spaces offering Coliving in addition to Workspace have the potential to amplify this fascination and enhance the principles Coworking is built on. In order to do so operators and proprietors have to be aware of the core values, they have to do what they are doing for the right reasons and they have to make their decisions in keeping with the ideals of Coworking wherever possible.

Values only stay if they are nourished, enacted and repeated in every action and every decision.

So what about the community mantra? Keep repeating it! 🙂

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