In the course of one week I spoke at length with Kelani about new media performance art happening in North Philly, had a discussion in Swahili about coworking spaces in East Africa, and met the girlfriend of my friend Elijah Dornstreich. It’s ridiculously clear that there is tremendous power in simply being in one space, coworking together–so thank you for being the flagship for this movement here in Philly.We hosted Marcel, the operations manager of a new coworking jam in Philly focused on the arts and heratige community & organizations last week, and it was really great to hear this experience summed up in a sentence or two of his own words.
Deskmag just published a piece about a Dutch incubator’s research project about physical proximity and collaboration. Among the things that stood out to me, these two sentences had the most tips for what was happening in space design as related to collaboration:
This particular space put groups with a similar focus together in separate corridors of the building. Artists, graphic designers, and musicians were clustered together, and each company had its own separate office within the corridor.
Designing Coworking for Teams
First, I notice that they refer to “companies” in more than one place, and then the fact that companies have separate offices. At Indy Hall, when we’ve had teams of more than two, we’ve had a consistant experience of those teams interacting far less. Unless the team members are particularly gregarious, the interactions with one another are enough to satiate the core needs that are otherwise unmet by people who are getting the most from coworking. We’ve theorized about ways to combat this, and among those theories has been one executed by PariSoma in San Francisco, by adding an open loft around the coworking space that’s designed for the teams they are home to. In essence, the teams have to walk through the open coworking area to arrive at their then semi-private (still open area) workspace. I’ll be visiting PariSoma for the first time next month, and I’m curious to see how the teams interact, if the goal of designing serendipity into the workflow of the space has been successful. To date, though I have yet to experience a coworking space that has achieved an ideal scenario for mixing the interactions between pre-existing teams and individuals.
Proximity Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means
Second, I noticed that they’ve clustered people by focus. I’ll presume this means industry or discipline based on the article. While grouping people by their affection (or affliction) this is common in large company offices (and hospitals) for efficiency, we’ve found at Indy Hall that it’s counterproductive. We instead design for serendipity in terms of working in proximity.
The article talks about proximity in terms of closeness having an effect on collaboration. What I think they missed was designing for the effect of zones of proximal development. Instead of putting people who are similar together, put people who are different together.
The Spark Plug Analogy
My favorite new analogy for this is a spark plug: the two conductive tips can’t be touching each other, or else the spark can’t take place. A spark plug actually require some distance between the conductors in order for it to work. Coworking, I believe, is the same – the “distance” we’re talking about just isn’t physical, but instead, in variations of interests, experiences, and worldviews. We achieve this by NOT controlling where people sit, but instead, having smaller desk pods (3-4, though we’ve had them up to 6), and having a pretty steadfast “rule” of not allowing all pods to be full time or flex. By creating a cluster of workspaces where there’s a mix of semi-permanent culture of full time members mixing daily with the churn of whoever showed up that day, or at that time of day, the types of “distance” created between members that are in closer proximity to each other allow for the desired sparks to take place.
Designing to Let Things Happen
I’ve noticed this as a pattern, often times a project not achieving its desired results is because it’s too busy making things happen rather than letting things happen. Reading through this particular article, it seems like the design was focused on designing places within the workspace to make things happen rather than designing the workspace itself let things happen.
An interesting and fairly often recurring thread in the coworking google group is security. A recent version of this thread prompted a response from a Toronto-based coworking space, CG6. A couple of important quotes:
We never totally took security as serious as how our members might feel within the space.
This is so important. Everybody, read it 5 times. Please!
He continued to share their thought process on security cameras. We share this feeling strongly at Indy Hall, and Tm did a great job of expressing it:
We have avoided the use of Camera’s. We actually rely on our coworker and members to be our eyes and ears. One way of doing this is the type of members we have accepted in our managed spaces. Members are friends, these are trusted professionals within a circle of association who can work together, build together and save together. When there is an issue, it effects everybody. This system creates an internal law, safeguarding a community. When there is an issue, everybody takes the blame. It only takes one warning to tame everybody down and be able to respect the space they are in.
I love seeing this sort of stuff, it addresses real issues head on and doesn’t pretend that we can’t be responsible for ourselves.
This how we rebuild business and society for our futures to be better.
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.
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.
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 🙂
“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.
“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.
Single-demographic coworking misses the point – the thickest value of coworking I’ve seen is in creating a work construct where people who wouldn’t likely sit next to each other to work, find that possibility for themselves, and the possibilities derived from that opportunity are endless. But a room full of designers thinking like other designers, or a room full of realtors thinking like other realtors, miss out on that experience.
Developing these monocultural workspaces is a step in the wrong direction, and undermines the “possibility engine” and serendipity factor that coworking is so good at.
The rub is that a monocultural workspace do provide value. But I’m not convinced that it’s enough value to sustain past the idea of coworking being trendy.
The distraction of creating coworking that provides some value is inhibiting the ability to achieve FULL coworking value. It’s akin to the news and publishing industry being so reliant on advertising. YES, advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry – but it doesn’t generate enough thick value to keep the industries it supports afloat. The worst thing about advertising – and monocultural coworking – is that it works at all.
It just doesn’t work enough.
Quick repost from the coworking google group. This was too good not to share here.
A member of the Global Coworking Google Group named Garth posted the following:
I spent Earth Hour chatting with an old buddy about his passion, psychology. When I told him what we’re trying to achieve with coworking, he suggested I look up “zone of proximal development.” Any of you have enough psych background to assess whether there is some value in reviewing the literature on that? Could it be applied to coworking?
So I don’t have much of a psych “background” other than my armchair interest in it as Coworking (like most things) has become less about business and more about people for me. Here’s my response, with some minor edits for clarity from the original post to the Google Group:
I’ve spent a good amount of the last year reading more articles and books on psychology, sociology, and cognitive science for ideas and lessons to apply to coworking…chiefly for the purpose of finding terms like this that could lead to more study of the context. It’s so often that I observe a pattern and the main thing keeping me from understanding it more is not knowing what the pattern is called or means, so I can’t look up a study or research paper on it. Best I can do is write about it and hope somebody posts about it.
Interestingly enough, I think this concept is a meta explanation of exactly that experience. Here’s what I mean:
A quick skim of the concept makes me think there’s a lot of application here. It also reinforces some of my theories that coworking is most valuable when it’s not a room full of “likeminded people” doing the same thing (startups, law, technology, creative, communication, writing, art, business, science, education, etc) but instead a room full of “likeminded people” doing DIFFERENT things (startups, law, technology, creative, communication, writing, art, business, science, education, etc.).
That is to say, especially as adults, we’re less likely to learn from peers that are too similar. We spend too much time reinforcing each other’s existing habits and knowledge instead of creating space for new knowledge to be exchanged. That “space” isn’t physical space like a coworking space, but conceptual space, like the “zone of proximal development”.
Essentially, we share what we know. We don’t share what we don’t know. And we don’t know what we don’t know. Coworking can help break down those barriers.
Coworking, in its best forms, creates a zone where we’re surrounded by people aren’t limited by knowing what we don’t know (or know what we do know) and it can be shared in loose contexts and formats that we’re all increasingly comfortable with.
Cool shit. Thanks for sharing, Garth.
When we scored the coworking.com domain early last year, my personal goal was to have a digital placeholder for the word “coworking” and tie it to the shared core values of the community: collaboration, openness, community, accessibility, and sustainability.
As I watch announcements of new coworking spaces pour in, and the beginnings of another of my predictions being fulfilled at an equally alarming rate, I’m seeing yet another pattern emerge.
Among the top “reasons” cited, at least in a completely non-scientific study of my own perception, is “cost savings”. It’s a bum economy, so I get why, but that bum economy isn’t going to be lifted out of it’s own sorrows by the graces of coworking.
The shame is, every coworking space that’s selling itself on cost-effectiveness is founding themselves on a short term value for their members. At some point, there’s a good chance that they’re not going to be able to sustain being “cost effective” and will return their rates to something that makes commercial sense. Alternatively, as the economy bounces back and priorities shift, cost effectiveness will sink in the hierarchy of needs, rendering the primary offering less attractive.
I’ve often harped on the importance of remembering the history of coworking. Not just the historical facts, like names and dates, but the historical purpose and intent.
In 2005, Brad Neuberg’s “Spiral Muse” based coworking arrangement was anything but practical, but it had a purpose for Brad and the other participants: improving quality of life and wellness. Part of the communal workday at the Spiral Muse included some forms of meditation and yoga.
Nearly 5 years later, I propose that we should push ourselves ahead of the curve and remember the long term value of coworking: wellness, in a richer, more sustainable working lifestyle. Indy Hall was, very personally, founded in a need for separation of work and life. Today, when I work at Indy Hall, I’m happier. If that’s not the most critical form of wellness we could stand to improve in our workforce, I don’t know what is.
I’m not necessarily proposing that every coworking space institute a yoga or meditation practice into their regiment, unless of course members are the ones driving that forward. Instead, I’m proposing a shift in focus. Don’t drop your rates because members want cheap membership, create sustainable rates for them and you, so that they can receive a benefit to their overall wellness.
There’s 10 month left in 2011. That’s a lot of time left to bring wellness back into the message of coworking. We’re doing our part by inviting a yoga instructor who is developing a program specifically for office exercising to Indy Hall next month. More ideas will be discussed at tomorrow night’s Town Hall, as well.
I propose we introduce “wellness” back into the core values of coworking.com as well.
Coworking comrades, how will you help?
Indy Hall is growing, every day and in more interesting ways. We think a lot about how to grow something like Indy Hall. “More members” seems like the obvious answer, but we think it’s not quite that straightforward. We’re focused on growing deep, not growing tall.
The difference is that right now, we’re confident in who we are and what we stand for today, and our maturity as an organization and a business comes from adding not just more people like who we already are, but by adding more people like who we aren’t.
And that’s where lines come in.
I’ve come to understand how important lines are in business – no matter what size your organization, or your profit motives are.
Here are two kinds of situations where lines are important:
Discovery of Others
Over the last 2 years, Indy Hall’s growth has gotten very interesting to watch and participate in. The places from which people show up, and the industries and expectations they represent, are broader than ever before.
Gone are the days where everyone builds webapps. We’ve got people from science, journalism, finance, insurance, sports, law, pharma/medicine, advertising, research, entertainment, music, art, film, business, and more.
Now, we don’t have EVERYONE from all of those industries (I think we’d need a bigger space, heh), but there’s at least one or two people representative of each segment. We don’t expect to be able to capture every person from every industry as a desk-using member, either. But for a variety of reasons, this diverse cross section of smart, interesting, and otherwise creative professionals have chosen to involve themselves with Indy Hall because they find it an attractive alternative to the way they normally spend their days working, be it because of space, place, people, or any other reason.
What’s important about this in terms of growth is that the diverse cross section of membership gives us a remarkable and unified vantage point on many, many different business and social communities in Philadelphia (and in some cases, elsewhere).
When we consider growth, we’re interested in depth and diversity. I’m interested in exploring the edges of our existing community, because we find that the most interesting and valuable things are found at these unusual intersections of industries and interests.
The fascinating part is that the “invisible lines” that bound Indy Hall are perceived differently by everyone. Every member takes a combination of their own view of who is in Indy Hall’s field of vision, interest, and reach. Imagine drawing that perception as a shape.
Once that shape is drawn, combine it with their own field of vision, you interests, and your reach. A new shape is drawn.
As each member does this exercise for themselves, Indy Hall becomes an aggregate of all of those shapes and their overlaps.
The neat part is that with just a little bit of keen observation and inquiry, I can aggregate those shapes and overlaps into a master-shape, and at any given time, that shape is the total perceived field of vision, interest, and reach of Indy Hall.
The outline of that master-shape is a line, even if it’s not entirely accurate or if it’s changing often, and I can do interesting things with that line.
For the last several months, I’ve been spending my time exploring these invisible boundaries, quite literally walking up to them. Once there’s a line established, I can look for life on the other side. And I can ask the important question:
Are you on the other side of my line, or am I on the other side of yours?
It’s an amazing exercise to go through, and one that you can’t really do until you acknowledge that there’s a line to be walked up to in the first place. In some cases, there’s an opportunity or an invitation that’s been there all along, but hadn’t been communicated across that line. In other cases, an explicit invitation or opportunity is needed, and so I go out of my way to create that if I can.
Over the next year, I’m spending a good amount of my time looking for new lines to toe up against and learn who is on the other side of who’s line. Ultimately, the goal is to move those lines, or remove them entirely. But without knowing where the line is in the first place, we can’t take steps to achieve that.
People want to be liked. I want to be liked, too. But the notion that you have to like everyone, or play nicely with everyone, or collaborate with everyone, is a crock of shit. The problem isn’t the element of liking, or the playing, or the collaboration.
The problem is everyone.
By identifying with everyone, you identify with no-one. You lack stance, you lack purpose. You lack definition.
Believe it or not, people like to be divided. They’re more productive. They have a stronger sense of context. They’re happier. They like to know which side they’re on, or that they’re even on a side. It’s an important part of someone’s identity, even if they’re not cognizant that they are pursuing it.
Another purpose of drawing lines is to NOT remove them, but in fact, to acknowledge that a line exist at all and that attempting to move or remove it isn’t yet the most valuable endeavor.
With the growth of coworking, for example, I used to find myself distressed when I met someone who was doing something that didn’t look like what I wanted coworking to look like. I spent time, energy, and emotion trying to convince them that what they were doing was fundamentally wrong, and that if they did that, they’d fail miserably. Crash and burn!
You can’t change someone, but you can give them the opportunity to change themselves. Telling them what to do differently wasn’t the most effective course of action – but showing them what we did differently and letting them choose for themselves.
Rather than defining people (including ourselves) by what we aren’t, I started to work harder at defining ourselves by what we are.
It became important to draw lines, and work to make it crystal clear that there was a difference. This is how we do things.
We choose a stance, we stand by it. We work with it. It’s not etched in stone, but it also doesn’t change without some degree of introspection and investigation. This is the basis of how Geoff and I make decisions about Indy Hall – we base the answers to decisions that aren’t obvious on what has the greatest impact and alignment with our core values. If, at any time, something doesn’t fit the core values we have three choices: we can change it to fit the core values, we can change the core values, or we can drop it entirely. That makes decision making (especially around partnering with other organizations and people) very easy and not about ego – but about doing right by the core values we’ve established and the stance they represent.
The downside, of course, is that this can become somewhat of a confrontation, and that makes people uncomfortable. But it also makes them think about the choice, and even aware that a choice exists.
And thats where drawing the line with the intention of leaving it there is valuable. To disrupt an otherwise status quo. To create depth and interest. And to better know your own stance.
Tip ‘o the hat to Amy Hoy, Thomas Fuchs, Tony Bacigalupo, and Sarah Chipps for the conversations that crystallized enough of these ideas to get them into one post.
Nerd Fort isn’t your typical coworking facility. We don’t rent out desks daily or hourly to whoever wanders in. We lease space on amonthly basis to good people, and focus on building a vibrant, active, helpful community. Of nerds.
The fact that this group in self-identifies with a description of what was once the foundation of every new coworking space as atypical is simultaneously gratifying and disappointing. Gratifying because someone knows the difference and is communicating it, disappointing because there’s even a difference to communicate.
We work really hard to continually identify the uniquely valuable elements of coworking through our work with Indy Hall, and keep coming back to the elements of identity that Nerd Fort wears on their sleeve. They’re the values that our members embody and identify with, and in large part keep us laser focused on how we contribute and grow.
That’s not to say that “typical coworking facilities” don’t provide value, but they aren’t providing unique value. Or thick value.
They’re missing out on the fundamental elements that make authentic coworking uniquely valuable, disruptive, and deserving of the hype they’re riding on.
It’s the difference between a filet mignon and a McDonalds hamburger. There’s a Mickey D’s in every strip mall, but far fewer places to get an amazing steak dinner.
Kudos go to Nerd Fort for being self-aware enough to know the difference.
We need to work harder to reclaim “typical coworking” from the fast food versions of ourselves.
My friend Thomas Fuchs, who also happens to be the author of Scriptaculous, also just authored a list of his “power tools” that he uses while creating badass webapps with his wife & co-conspirator Amy Hoy. He surprised me at the end – not because he’s wrong, but because I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like this at the end of a “power tools” list:
Software development is so much more than just computers and software and hardware.
You want to be in a place that sparks your creativity, that gets you off your lazy ass, that inspires you and where you can relax, too.
More important than any computer you can ever buy is surrounding yourself with the right people.
If you’re working from an office cubicle, with all your co-workers just waiting for 5pm so they can go home, you just can’t create great software.
Same goes if you’re stting at home, all by yourself, brooding over the keyboard. Not possible. We found our development nirvana in Philadelphia, at Indy Hall.
It should go without saying that I’m beyond thrilled that internationally renowned software developers and business builders like Amy and Thomas have chosen Philadelphia and Indy Hall as their new home. I take it as a sign of many more great things to come.
These are my most popular and most valuable pieces, to help you get started.
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