Mention coworking and most people think of tech start-ups. But these days it’s a concept being embraced by much larger organisations.
Coworking might sound new-agey, but it was a term actually coined in 2005 by American Brad Neuberg, who conceived a decentralised way of working. It was to be centred around the shared values of community, openness, collaboration, accessibility and sustainability.
More than 10 years later, organisations are still grappling with the idea. But in a new era, where flexibility and agility are the king and queen, coworking sits very comfortably. Whether that means creating an internal hub for employees to work together, or taking out membership for external, specialised coworking spaces.
The most recent Global Coworking Map lists 1216 coworking spaces in 93 countries. Of these, Australia has the highest growth per capita of coworking spaces in the world.
Sharing ideas and embracing flexibility
Whatever the model adopted, at its heart is the idea that a shared working space encourages flexibility and interaction, which leads to spontaneous creativity and innovation.
Pete McConnell is CEO at Commtract, an online marketplace for communications professionals. Along with companies such as BuzzFeed and Livewire, his business leases at Australia’s largest tech start-up coworking space, Tank Stream Labs (TSL). A monthly membership package costs between $650 and $800 and allows 24/7 access, optic-fibre internet, use of meeting rooms, colour printing and lockable cabinets. But it’s the networking opportunities, the fortnightly professional events and growing community that attracts many tenants to the TSL space.
McConnell says the environment provided by TSL is ideal for him and his business.
“As an extrovert, I get to meet new people, socialise and exchange ideas. I meet people from all different walks of life who I would never get to meet otherwise. These people are generally very diverse and work in very diverse industries.”
Coworking spaces also make complete economic sense for many small- to medium-sized organisations. For example, TSL have recently started to offer ‘free’ human resources advice for their tenants. IT recruiter Talent provides an on-site adviser, and tenants get access to free resume screening, drafting of job descriptions, on-boarding processes and advice on staff retention.
Rebecca Tabakoff, executive director of Temple Executive Search, occupies the same building as DEXUS Place, another company specialising in creating coworking spaces. Tabakoff says the spaces give a business the ability to scale up or down quickly to meet their changing needs.
“We have the flexibility to use more rooms than we need to pay rent for. Sometimes we need a video-conference facility, but we don’t need to have those spaces on our premises every day. For example, today we are using a DEXUS Place room for a boardroom lunch with 21 people, and another room for a client presentation.”
DEXUS Place, which has recently opened another space in Sydney at Farrer Place, has an ‘immersion room’ at their Margaret Street venue. Instead of looking at someone on a small screen, the room is on a curve with vast screens that give the impression you are in the same room with people in Melbourne or Brisbane – where there are other DEXUS Place coworking spaces.
“It’s great for a panel interview,” says Tabakoff. “If we had to build that from scratch, that room alone would cost $1 million.”
As the workforce becomes increasingly flexible, Tabakoff thinks that venues like DEXUS Place will be increasingly popular, as they provide flexibility as well as state-of-the-art facilities.
Corporates get on board
The image of coworking is certainly changing. Previously the domain of under-30s who work for start-ups, these kinds of spaces are becoming appealing to larger organisations looking to expand. Bradley Delamare, CEO of TSL, which has been up and running for four years, says they have member companies with 40 to 50 people, but also larger corporations looking for additional options to complement existing hot-desking and flexible-workspace strategies.
“Both Suncorp and Dunn & Bradstreet have teams in our space. They have put their innovation teams in here to be around people who are disruptors so they can feed off that innovation vibe,” he explains.
There are other benefits for larger businesses. “It brings opportunities to them, makes their employees more interactive and improves their social skills,” Delamare says.
If you think about how HR teams could find coworking spaces useful, Tabakoff says consider the way you work.
“In-house HR has intense talent acquisition and performance management requirements at certain times, while at other times they have less face-to-face work, so this prompts you to think about how to use facilities more efficiently.”
Accidents will happen
An important benefit of sharing space is the spontaneous or accidental collaboration and innovation that occurs, McConnell says. “An unanticipated benefit of coworking is the people I meet. The focus at TSL is on collaboration, so they don’t allow in competitor businesses. You can speak to someone else who has faced the same challenge and learn from them.”
Having previously worked in a large consulting firm, Delamare agrees that sharing and collaboration is one of the key reasons behind why coworking succeeds.
“Coworking is a great experience for corporates. It feels like a community due to the communication, which is very powerful, as people share their ideas and experiences,” he explains. “Coworking gets employees thinking in new ways, and particularly if they are working around people seeking to be disruptive and it helps them understand what is going on in the wider world,” says Delamare.
Dr Martie-Louise Verreynne, associate professor of innovation at University of Queensland Business School, agrees. “Coworking normalises innovation and makes it part of the DNA of a business. It helps people to start thinking and to be accepting of innovation.”
Innovation and ideas incubation really go hand-in-hand with coworking, Delamare argues. “You are having conversations with people outside the company, sharing ideas and resources, and working to achieve goals. A lot of businesses collaborate and people find they can talk about ideas and share their experiences, which might lead them in a different direction to solve a problem.”
A match made in heaven or hell?
Although the communality will appeal to some employees, coworking facilities are not for everyone.
“For people transitioning from a glass office with a harbour view, they will struggle with an open-plan environment and the itinerant and flexible nature of a workplace where people come and go,” McConnell explains. “If you need a nest and need to see the same people every day, then you ought to think carefully about this type of environment.”
Delamare agrees there are disadvantages. “If your business has lots of sensitive information then it might be a problem.”
There can also be personality clashes. “You might not interact well with someone located nearby, but usually the people in this type of space are mature and focussed on their business, so they don’t let that get in the way,” he says.
Coworking is not a universal panacea for fostering innovation either, Dr Verreynne admits. “The working space is one of the more tangible things, but it is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to innovation.”