If you’ve read one newspaper or magazine article about coworking, you’ve read them all. Right?
“Laptop-enabled workers sharing open workspaces, collaborating, etc etc etc. INNOVATION!”
Not today, my friend.
Last week I was on the front page of the oldest newspaper in Italy (!!!) answering some questions about coworking. The line of questioning was especially unique, with a focus on artisanal craftsmanship.
It’s always funny to me that people think of coworking as a new idea, or that it has anything to do with trends in technology.
My core thesis is that artisan, writers, and philosophers have been coworking for as long as they’ve been making, recording, and thinking. In fact, they’re often better suited for coworking than many of the startups that you’ll find most coworking spaces!
But, like most interviews, only a tiny bit of the conversation made it into the article. So today, I’m bringing you the “uncut” Q&A!
(See my previous uncut Q&A interview about coworking space failures)
Special thanks to Edoardo Lusena for including me in his piece, and especially for asking such rad questions. Read on to see his questions and my full answers below!
Edoardo: Do you think coworking could be successfully applied to craftsmanship the way we mean it in Italy? That is pure tradition and know how transmitted through the centuries with hands on expertise and word of mouth, in a “Geppetto-wise” way in small shops and factories that, whether it’s wooden frames or silver candelabras, have been working the same way from centuries)?
Alex: It’s been my experience that Coworking – when it’s done well – looks a lot less like sharing an office and a lot more like a “community of practice“. In fact, I think that coworking spaces could learn a lot more from traditional craftsmanship as you describe it…far more than the other way around.
Most people think of coworking as an environment for high-tech workers, or a place for startups. They focus on services and amenities, in hopes of delivering value to their members.
But if you look beyond today’s hype and buzz, you’ll see that the best coworking spaces put the focus on helping members share their experiences, expertise, and knowledge with each other. Great coworking spaces already operate a lot like the traditional artisans’ guilds that you described.
Edoardo: How? In which forms?
Alex: At Indy Hall, we focus on helping people get to know each other before they work together. Between low-pressure social events (because who really likes filling up their pockets with other peoples’ business cards), and an informal exchange of knowledge, people have a chance to build trust with each other. That trust is the necessary and often missing ingredient for allowing mentorship to take place.
Trust, and genuine relationships, are the most valuable thing that coworking spaces can help individuals form. Nearly 100% of the desired outcomes that business say they want can be tied back to trust and relationships: more customers, better customers, more revenue, better working processes, new innovative ideas, better skills, better deals, opportunities to collaborate, etc…
Edoardo: Which advantages could it bring in 2014 to consider the idea of coworking for an artisan?
Alex: Based on everything I’ve said before, I think that artisans tend to be better at coworking that many of the people you find in coworking spaces today!
One of the greatest advantages is to learn more about the business side of your craft. The vast majority of the artists who work at Indy Hall use it less as a place to do their art, and more as a place to do the business of being an artist…and as a result, they come up with better ways to make money with their craft. SImply being exposed to other creative people who are figuring out ways to make a living doing their craft – regardless of if it is a digital craft or a physical craft – opens you up to new ideas for how to run your own business.
I think there’s one thing that the “digital natives” have over craftsmen. They’re used to being – and staying – connected to each other online. I realize that it’s a challenge to ask an artisan who works with their hands all day to spend some of their day in front of a computer screen. But one of the greatest assets that quality coworking spaces have is the extended network and conversation that happens online, in between the times that they are working face-to-face in the shared physical space.
But both of these themes – being exposed to new ideas, and reinforcing offline relationships via online interactions – just reinforce my point that the ago-old traditions of craftsmanship are more alive and well in a great coworking space than you might think.
Edoardo: Do you think that in a promiscous environment such as a coworking lab the creative aspect of craftmanship would suffer an interference from other experiences or would it rather be enriched?
Alex: I think this really depends on the person, and the specific experience. There are some days that I want to work alone. There are other days where the stimulation of Indy Hall is what keeps me pumped and producing all day long.
The key is to know – and to choose – which environment is best for me.
Ultimately, I think that every environment has interruptions and distractions. The question is, are those “interruptions” helping your business? If you’re working from your own private studio, or from home, you can distract yourself with endless menial tasks, from cleaning to simply staring out the window. It’s easy to procrastinate.
Meanwhile, it’s VERY difficult to procrastinate in an environment where everyone else is getting things done. In a coworking space, there’s a much better chance that the distractions have an element of business value – either they’re introducing you to someone new, reinforcing an existing relationship, exposing you to a new idea, or maybe even helping you get out of a creative rut.
Edoardo: Which are the greatest mistakes that an artisan embarking on a coworking journey should avoid?
First, don’t assume that anyone is there to do business with you. Get to know people personally. Have lunch or a drink with them. Find out what you have in common besides work.
Second, don’t assume that because someone works in a different industry that you can’t learn from them. We learn more from people who are less like us, and if you go in with an open mind, you can learn SO much more than you ever imagined possible from people who work in completely different fields than you.
Whatever you do, don't build your coworking community alone.
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