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Should a coworking space run itself?

6 minute read
by Alex Hillman

This is a liberal lift from the Coworking Google Group, in a discussion about if a coworking space should run itself.

Because Jeannine, Angel, and Beth have done such a great job of answering the tactical elements of this quesiton in the thread, I’ve decided to try to take a different approach.

Rather than ask if a coworking space should run itself, as “should”s tend to be tricky and prescriptive anyway, I’ll suggest that a coworking space can run itself – with a couple of caveats to explain what I mean by that – and then why it’s valuable to work towards that goal.

Caveat of caveats: In retrospect, I don’t think these 4 caveats are complete – so if you find youself asking “but what about…?”, ask in the comments.

Caveat #1

I wish I’d given up “control” sooner

When we opened Indy Hall, I was there every day to open and close. I was there to meet every new member. I was there for EVERYTHING, with my fingers in EVERYTHING.

About 18 months in, I was fast approaching burnout. I found someone who I trusted, who was organized and friendly, and set her loose on my inbox and sat her next to me and said “look for things that I’m doing that don’t need to be me, and take them from me”. She did this, and not only got a large volume of the administrative work out of my field of vision, but found ways to improve and streamline everything since it was now being executed by a fresh set of eyes. Everything I was doing before was not only still being done, but much of it was being done better. Since then, the role has changed hands about once a year, as the person in this role tends to find opportunities in the community to create things for themselves (running Indy Hall is an educational experience in itself, everything from communication skills, organizational skills, business skills, interpersonal skills, etc), and we can’t stop somebody from following their path. The role has become one of transformative learning for all four people who’ve held it (myself included).

If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have waited until I was almost burned out to get at least one more person involved that wasn’t a “partner”. It freed me up to work on the things I actually cared about, the things that actually needed me (until they didn’t need me either), and gave us room to grow.

One of my favorite quotes from Geoff has always been, “the only reason to gather power is to give it away”. That’s the mindset that’s let us seen impact and change happen on a bigger scale than any one of us could accomplish on our own.

Caveat #2

Shit always get dirty

No matter who’s in charge of the cleanliness, things always get dirty. For the first year, I cleaned the bathrooms. You can also read this as – for the first year, the bathrooms didn’t get cleaned very often. Rather than delegate this relatively difficult to delegate task (how many people have trouble getting roommates/housemates/family members to clean up after themselves in the bathroom/kitchen? yeah, it’s even harder at coworking-space volumes of activity), we hired a cleaning service. This seems straightforward, but it wasn’t to me at the time, and I wish I hadn’t waited so long. The hardest part was hiring someone I could trust, since members’ equipment was always around and I needed members and myself to feel comfortable leaving things behind.

If you’re planning for humans to be in your space, plan for it to get dirty, and have a plan for regularly removing that dirtiness. Period.

P.S. There’s a metaphor in this caveat. Can you find it? Bonus points for anyone who does 🙂

Caveat #3

“Member” is a synonym for potential leader. Key word: Potential

If you expect every person who works from your space to step up and pitch in, you’re fooling yourself. But you’ll find that if you don’t give them a chance to step up and pitch in – they probably won’t ever bother to try.

In communities of practice, there’s very little hierarchy imposed but instead, there’s more of a framework surrounding the individuals of the community that give them the opportunities to step up and take ownership of something. I’ve found that simple changes to how we respond to inquiries has a dramatic effect on unlocking potential leaders from the community.

When somebody asks for something, try responding with a simple, “yes”. Nothing else, just a confirmation that you’d like to see that done, too. If they don’t jump on it – they’ve probably never had anyone say yes to their idea before, so you might need to nudge a bit further. Something like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea – what do you think we need to do in order to accomplish that?”. See how they take ownership from there. In the end, they might be like a boy who’s bad at reading flirty signals from a girl he likes and they might need a more explicit push, “Hey…would you like to take this on? What can I do to help YOU?”.

Not everyone is comfortable taking ownership of things that they haven’t been told explicitly to own – but once people realize they’re working in an environment that rewards people taking ownership of their work, it’s infectious.

Caveat #4

“Damage control” shouldn’t require you to be a superhero

It’s nobody’s fault, sometimes balls get dropped. Rather than jump in and pick up that ball yourself, try to get other community members to rally around the need. It’s tempting to be superman (or wonder woman), but the more times we’ve encouraged/let our members pick up things that have been dropped, the less things have been dropped.

I think there’s something that changes when people do things that they know one person will pick up if they drop it – versus knowing the collective has their back. I can’t put my finger on it, but it seems to remove the tension and fear of making a mistake from community members and increases their likelihood of ever trying again.

So the million dollar question is…

Why do you wan’t the coworking space to run itself in the first place?

For me, getting a coworking space to “run itself” has been more about removing myself as a dependency for the space to do what it does best. That means the space can continue to do what it does best for many years to come.

That means that the community members can contribute (not dictate) to the direction of the community. And given the chance, they will. They have.

I’ve seen and felt what Indy Hall can do for people first hand, and as long as it relies on me in order to do that, it’s expression won’t match the magnitude of its potential.

Whatever your goal is in opening a coworking space, consider the magnitude of it’s potential if it didn’t rely on you. If you focus on THAT goal, day in and day out, rather than “getting it to run itself” – you might actually be able to achieve it.

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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.