Skip to Content

Alex Hillman

better coworking, better business, and better communities

Twitter Instagram

Search this Site

Type in terms like retention, culture, or tummling and press enter to search.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for by searching, don’t give up! Shoot me a message on Twitter, I might be able to point you to a post about the thing you’re looking for.

The Neighborhood Watch Method for Coworking Space Security

7 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Have you ever thought about how sending a message of “I don’t trust you” can actually make some kinds of problems MORE likely, not less?

Today I want to tell you a story about trust and dealing with problems that I’ve told quite a lot of people in person, but until now, I have never typed out in its entirety.

At Indy Hall, we get asked all sorts of questions about security, but the most common one is definitely “Is it safe to leave my stuff here?”

It’s an interesting question because when consider the context, what the person is really asking is, “It looks you believe that your stuff is safe. But is mine going to be safe?”

What I love about seeing the question this way is how it highlights that trust is such a complex thing. It’s nuanced, it’s personal, and it’s not exactly fungible. Transferring a bit of existing trust to a new person is a tricky beast.

But today’s story is about a way we’ve been able to do it in our community…and in a way that scales!

So, back to the question.

Are there things you do (or say) that send the message of “I don’t trust you”?

When coworking spaces ask questions about how to secure their space (and the belongings inside of it), common knee-jerk answers include:

  • Lock down each desktop w/ one of those cable and lock things.
  • Add cameras to monitor off-hours.
  • Have some legal wording to waive liability.

Bolting things down is definitely an option, but man, does it send a message of “I don’t trust you”.

This is one of the most toxic messages for community members to experience, because it opens the door to all kinds of other issues (far beyond security) that are COMPLETELY AVOIDABLE by being intentional about trust.

Okay, okay. I promised a story. Here it is.

It was a busy couple of months at Indy Hall. Lots of new members. LOTS of new members. That’s great, right?

Well, not exactly. Fast growth is the leading cause of problems in communities and organizations. We turn our attention to a whole host of new challenges during months where we see accelerated growth.

But in this story, we missed something.

Over the course of a few days, a few members had mentioned that small electronics had gone missing from their desks. It’s not uncommon for people to misplace things, but this was enough people to start getting suspicious.

Without going into gory details of how we figured it out, we discovered without a shadow of a doubt that the missing belongings were in fact stolen…and worst of all, the theft had come from within.

It was a new-ish full time member, and we caught him red handed. During the process, multiple people had stepped forward to say that they’d had issues with him, and they regretted not bringing it up. Through this very painful process, a lot of trust that had been established among members was rocked to the core.

We had a very open and candid conversation with our members about the theft, and learned a lot along the way. The fact that belongings that went missing definitely sucked, but equipment is replaceable.

When everyone looks at every new member suspiciously, that’s not a place that people want to be.

The elephant in the room that we had to deal with was a major breach of trust, and how we would handle it moving forward. Not just to prevent another breach of trust, but to actively restore the trust and reinforce it over the long term.

So we invented the Neighborhood Watch Method of securing the space we share.

We still needed a way to rebuild broken trust within Indy Hall, and to mitigate future incidents as best we could. But we didn’t want things to feel like a neighborhood with heightened police presence. It’s just not possible or practical to have presence everywhere, and even when you can, it’s rarely a way to manage risk that people WANT to have.

So we told our community and told them explicitly WHY we were not going to install cameras, require badges or scanning in…all measures that might’ve seemed completely reasonable before reading this email.

And we told them about an idea we had for a new method, which was inspired by Neighborhood Watch.

In the Neighborhood Watch model, new members would have a 30 day waiting period before they could get 24/7 access. Why 30 days? Because that’s long enough for a new member to get to know some existing members…which is important for the second step.

Once that 30 day period is over, the new member needs to get signatures from 3 existing key holding members. We started by literally give them a handwritten sheet that says “I’ve gotten to know and trust this person enough that I’m okay with them having keys around my and other peoples’ stuff.”

This sends a very different message to both new and existing members: first, new members get the feeling of “woah, it’s not just the staff or owners of this place that look out for things…it’s everyone, including my peers.” But it also serves as a reminder to existing keyholders, that they’re responsible for more than just themselves.

And it helpes to solve problems beyond security…problems you can’t plan for

Since putting this process into place years ago, and have nothing but positive feedback about it from all sides (and have remained incident free). IN fact, things are generally FAR better taken care of because of it.

If you’re skeptical that our Neighborhood Watch Model can engender a sense of responsibility…

Last week, we had a MAJOR storm come through Philly. So bad that the building next to ours caused water to leak into our space. In this case, our “intruder” was mother nature. No security cameras or lockdowns would’ve helped (in fact, anything locked down would’ve been damaged).

However, one of our members was there, called a couple of other members he knew could get ahold of staff. He carefully moved a couple of members’ belongings out of harms way of the water. There’s a bit of a mess, but nobody’s stuff got hurt.

Here’s the kicker: the whole thing happened while I was on an airplane between LA and SFO and couldn’t even call anybody.

But by the time I landed, just about everything we could’ve done for the night was resolved, including sending a note to the community about what had happened (including a heads up to the people whose stuff had to be moved).

The best part, though, is that when thanking the members for helping mitigate the damage, the very first thing George – who had spotted the water first and started calling people – said was,

“Hey man, I’m a keyholder”.

Thanks, George.

(1) Alex Hillman - Learn about how @indyhall dealt with its biggest... 2015-11-30 16-12-26

This will help make sure you can find the most useful resources. I respect your privacy & email. Absolutely no spam, and I won't ever share your data. Pinky promise! 🤞

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.