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Thoughts on “Scaling” Coworking

5 minute read
by Alex Hillman

The power of coworking is not in the facilities, because those elements are commodities and have forever decreasing value. Scaling facility up is relatively easy…you can just throw more money at it. And despite how you might feel about funding your efforts, money is and will always be the easy part.

Culture, on the other hand – which is the glue of what holds a strong coworking community together – is difficult. Especially through fast growth, which is often desired to help achieve an end like scaling the space and the facility.

Culture is composed of norms, which can be established by anyone within that culture. They can be dictated – which tends to be the way offices are run. In coworking, something different can happen.

One of the things that fascinates me about coworking spaces is that we have the ability to provide a workspace, a context that most people are relatively familiar with, and actually REMOVE the rules for how it is “supposed” to work.

Ask yourself, “What happens in an office where nobody tells the workers how to act? How to interact? What to do? Where to go? Who to talk to?”.

There’s some chaos, but chaos is good.

I learned to Embrace the Chaos from early coworking founders like Chris Messina and Tara Hunt. Our human tendencies are to control chaos, and put things in order. By avoiding that, and allowing order to emerge a bit more organically, new behavioral patterns emerge. These patterns, in the context of coworking, are the things that our members love and subsequently, the things that the press likes to write about: collaboration & work exchange. Increased charity and giving. Better support for local industries. Happier people. Increased business foundation. Camaraderie and friendship. We’re building blank canvases for work patterns to emerge from, and I think that the work patterns that exist when nobody told them to are the most interesting and the most sustainable to practice.

Those elements don’t truly emerge until someone gets out of their way and simply lets them. Telling people to collaborate is a lousy way to have it happen, because it’s always dependent on you telling them. Creating opportunities for people to discover collaboration on their own terms creates a rolling effect that’s difficult if not impossible to stop once it starts.

I like to look at coworking and ask:

Are you contributing to the development of an ecosystem – one dependent on the health of its host – or a community – a self sustaining organism that while it may have a figurehead, could live on in other capacities without you? All of that said…the question at hand is: what are the challenges to growing/scaling, and how do you overcome them?

The interesting thing is that these same elements that provide a very strong cultural base for a coworking community can also pose challenges as you grow. But the results of overcoming those challenges are richer than if the barriers weren’t there to overcome in the first place.

Consider this essay by Michale Lopp (of Rands in Repose). In it, he talks about a pickup hockey game played by Netscape employees every weekend for 14 years. A game with only 3 simple rules. Unwritten rules, but understood rules.

Rather than referee every game and start by reminding everyone of the rules, they just played. If someone new joined the game, and disobeyed one of the rules, it was up to one of the other players to let them know the rules, and then they could play on.

That is, until, a larger group with its own critical mass came in all at once. In one game, more arguments and fights, occurred than ever had in the history of the game.

Its not because that group was unnecessarily feisty, but because it’s much harder to grow a group that’s built on cultural norms – like the rules of the pickup game or the interactions of a coworking space – when lots of new people show up at once.

So what do we have at our disposal within our various coworking communities?

First, we have our membership. Existing membership is the foundation of your culture, not you. If they want something to change, its best to embrace the chaos and let it change, for the better. Making sure that existing members are having opportunities to build strong relationships is key, because they’ll be there to defend the cultural norms important to them.

On the Coworking Google Group, some people have made recent mention of “Town Hall” meetings and members lunches. These are excellent for building relationships because they allow coworkers to interact with each other with the context of membership but without the context of work. That means they are not worried about interrupting or otherwise inconveniencing each other.

Every time Indy Hall has deviated from a focus on helping create these contexts, and at the same time experienced a growth spurt in membership, we have had issues. Some can be small, like a noticeable increase in people who come in, put on their headphones, work all day without talking to anyone, and then going home. Others can be large, like the introduction of a disruptive member. Truly toxic things, like poorly ending collaborations and even theft, are more likely to occur when people aren’t on the same page with what to expect from one another.

If you don’t know what “normal” looks like in a given culture, how are you supposed to know if something is wrong?

When the community grows quickly but nobody is there to introduce the newbs to the cultural norms, the “hum” of a coworking space – the thing that gets most people excited but they can’t quite put their finger on – tends to decrease in volume. I’ve seen it repeatedly times, and not just at Indy Hall. I’ve seen it happen on the coworking e-mail list as it has grown from less than 100 people to over 2500.

Consider your coworking efforts like mini-societies, and consider the challenges of scaling ANY society when looking for solutions.

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.