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What to do when people in your area don’t understand coworking

14 Oct 2014
by Alex Hillman

_“We’re having a really hard time getting traction with our coworking space.</h3>

Coworking is just so new here, and people don’t really understand it.”</i>

If I had a nickel for every time I got something like this in my inbox, well damn, I’d have a LOT of nickels. Everywhere in the world, even in places where coworking appears to be “taking off”, I watch as people run themselves ragged trying to explain why coworking is different, valuable, and here to stay.

Because nothing inspires community participation like an exasperated community manager begging for acceptance, right? Ha.

Yesterday, a self-described tummler (YEAH!) named Raghuveer from Hyderabad, India wrote the following:

“In Hyderabad, every space likes to call itself a coworking space and all they do is provide desks and people work in relative isolation! Our space wants to break that barrier! However, people here mistake coworking to any other shared office or executive space and ask for fancy interiors, private cabins and air conditioning.”

This probably sounds familiar.

Wrapped up in just a few sentences, there are two common traps that people like Raghuveer – who has the BEST of intentions – get caught in.

Trap #1 – Describing coworking by what it’s not. 

At the risk of sounding all “back in my day…”, I do like to remind people that for communities who’ve been around for more than a couple of years like Indy Hall, New Work City, Office Nomads (all of which are 6-8 years old), and any others that started in 2006-2008 we didn’t have anywhere to point for examples.

NOBODY knew what coworking was, anywhere in the world. It had never been in a newspaper or magazine. It definitely had never been in the New York Times. In fact, by my best research, this front page of the biz secton article (originally in the Philadelphia Inquirer but I can’t find that link) was one of the first mainstream media mention of coworking outside of San Francisco where the whole thing began.

I had no experience talking to the press (as you can probably tell from my candid admission to talking to an invisible cat and my choice to wear pants), but one thing I knew was not to anchor someone’s understanding of coworking in what it wasn’t. 

Even when somebody else brings up executive suites, I’m careful not to make the comparison.


Instead, I focus on the core problem that coworking solves, which is loneliness and isolation.

“Three months working at my house, I was talking to the cat, and I don’t even have a cat. I was going crazy without the socializing.”

Having no cat with which to chat, he moved to a nearby java joint, laptop in tow.  It was vaguely satisfying in that he encountered humanoids, but: “It’s like they were silhouettes. I had people around me, but I didn’t communicate with them, so it was filling half of the need. But it was the bottom half.”  Not only that, but …  “I always felt an obligation to the coffee shop. I was taking up precious space,” Mr. Hillman said. “I was definitely drinking more coffee than I should have, so I wasn’t sleeping.”

I didn’t describe the solution. I described the feelings that I had when I was all alone and working from coffee shops.

And when you describe those feelings, anybody who has had those same feelings instantly “gets it.”

Which brings me to the second trap that people get caught in.

Trap #2 – Setting out to “convert” people.

I’m going to tell you the secret to my success: I hate convincing people. I hate the FEELING that comes with trying to convince somebody that I’m right. And I hate the FEELING that I get when somebody sets out to convince me of something.

Which is good, because the people who you’re trying to “convince” aren’t your members. Most likely, they will never become members. So you can stop worrying about them, right now. Full stop.

When you try to convince the people who “don’t get it”, even if you DO figure out the magical words that make them say “you’re right”, you’ve initiated an extremely fragile relationship. Do they actually “get it,” or did they just concede to your relentlessness? How can you tell the difference?

That’s right, you can’t.


Instead, focus on finding even just a handful of people who DO “get it” by using the escape plan for trap #1 instead of relentlessly preaching to people who don’t want to be converted.

Encourage those people. Support them. And promote THEIR successes that come from choosing coworking over isolation.

It takes time, but as people see the kinds of successes that come from working together, more people will come around on their own. You’ll have NEW feelings to describe to them, the whole range of feelings that come from having people around you that actually make your work day better.

When you focus on everybody and anybody, you’ll run out of steam before you ever get the traction you’re looking for. But if you focus on finding a a few who feel some of the same things you have, you’ll find that you never have to “convince” somebody ever again.

Don’t believe me? Believe Will Smith, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air:

You know people are the same no matter time nor place/

They don’t understand that coworking ain’t about space/

So to you, all the coworkers all across the land/

There’s no need to argue, some people just don’t understand

Okay, I might’ve taken some liberties with those lyrics. Here’s the original if you’re not familiar with the fine lyrical stylings of 1988 Will Smith. Philadelphia represent’!

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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.