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Why Coworking is Growing in Australia, Part I: The Culture & Pace of Business

6 minute read
by Alex Hillman

I’ve been to Australia twice in the last 12 months. Three different cities. All for coworking related activities.

Last July I jumped a plane to Sydney to work with Lachlan Hardy along with his friends Simon Wright & Scott Crawford on the launch and strategy for their newest addition to the Sydney coworking scene, The Workbench.

This past February I returned, this time with Tony in tow. We spent a week in Gold Coast working with Libby Sander, one of our Masterclass alumni, as she launched a pop-up coworking space on the beach to activate the creative community in the region in anticipation of the new coworking community and space that she’s leading in Surfer’s Paradise. The following week, we flew to Melbourne to speak at and attend  the first national conference for coworking.

In less than 12 months I’ve spent a cumulative 30 days in the country of Australia, all for coworking related activities. And I’m not surprised, since Australia is currently showing the highest growth of new coworking per capita anywhere in the world.

So what the hell is going on down under?

I noticed two patterns in the regional culture during my visits that I think are contributing to the outpaced growth of coworking in Oz, and have some related hopes and predictions.

Part 1: The Culture & Pace of Business

I’m generally cautious about making broad-strokes statements about cultures, but Australia is without a doubt one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been. Everyone is just so damn nice. I know that I’m lucky to have some of the built in “network” that I bring with me, and I’m a guest in the country, but even complete strangers seemed categorically welcoming. It’s almost as if the entire country is happy to see you. This experience goes above run of the mill politeness (which can be refreshing in itself) – there’s seemed to be a genuine spirit of generosity that I felt from every person that I met.

I started to notice this have an impact on business interactions, too. In particular, I noticed the european business etiquette of “first we get to know each other, and then we do business together.” I confirmed this with multiple Aussies, both natives and and expats. Further, I confirmed that pace varies a bit from city to city. In Sydney, for instance, business happens faster than in Melbourne. I think that this has something to do with the fact that Sydney is a bit bigger faster paced in general (though that trend appears to be reversing).

I even heard more than one entrepreneur say that they much preferred living in Melbourne but went to Sydney to do business because they could close deals a lot faster. From my own personal experience, Sydney is to New York as Melbourne is to Philadelphia.

But zooming out to a global view, Australia seems to have a more relationship-oriented business culture than transaction-oriented business culture, especially when you compare it to that of other major countries and continents like the US and the aggregate of the countries in Europe who have led the growth of coworking in the world until now.

But why?

My first theory is how cultures of business can be warped by industrial capitalism. More specifically, the deeper the impact of industrial businesses a region experiences, the more transactional that region’s culture becomes.

For this reason, if I again compare and contrast the cultures of the 1) US, 2) Europe, and 3) Australia, I’d rank them in that order: from most transactional to least transactional.

As a result, I  believe that this means that the US has the most cultural “recovery” to do from the industrial revolution, and needs to work the hardest to getting back to working relationships and “community” into business cultures again. This ranking also puts Australia at an advantage, needing to adapt less for coworking to naturally fit the business culture.

I saw this most vividly expressed in the presence of institutions at the coworking events that I attended, in particular government and corporations. In the US and in Europe, institutions are discovering coworking and trying to fit it into their existing buckets of innovation, economic development, real estate, etc. I’ve spent a frustrating amount of time in both areas trying to help institutions understand how coworking works, and how they can benefit most from participating and learning rather than just putting a new coat of pain on their old, broken approaches.

In Australia, many institutions already get that. They’re trying to figure out where they fit into the coworking ecosystem, rather than where the coworking ecosystem fits into their buckets.

More than a new coat of paint

I believe that Australia’s business culture, specifically a pace of business that more naturally allows for building relationships before pursuing transactions, makes it one of the ripest places in the world for growth of coworking, but also innovation in coworking. From what I’ve seen at Coworking Europe and GCUC, the two largest international coworking conferences, many global regions’ growth of coworking has begun to push beyond the early adopters, but in many of those cases “coworking” is just a new real estate model and less of a community development model.  In much of the US and Europe, coworking is quickly becoming a “coat of new paint on old, broken business”. 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some of this effect in Australia, too. But from what I’ve seen, Australia’s business culture is better suited to not screw it up. Coworking in Australia may be “behind” much of the rest of the world, but only because they started later. The way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Aussie coworking outpace other major coworking populations over the long run.

Growth needs resilience

It’s still far too early to tell, but my hope is that Australia steps back from “growth” mode soon and focuses on resilience. Right now they’re further along than I think they realize, but if they don’t buckle down soon and make that ecosystem sustainable, many opportunities to make coworking better in Australia and _around the world _will be wasted.

There are still a lot of problems to solve in the world of coworking, and I genuinely believe that we’re going to start seeing lessons and solutions come out of Australian initiatives very soon.

Up Next…

In my next post, I’ll talk about the other cultural factor that I think is adding to the major growth of coworking in Australia. Stay tuned!

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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.