It is unsurprising that the pandemic has battered the coworking industry. “Come work near other potentially contagious people in an unventilated space” is something not even WeWork’s Adam Neumann could’ve sold as a good idea. Beloved spaces have been forced to shutter, some have managed to eke it out with reduced capacity, and the venture-backed behemoths are waiting it out, ready to capitalize on the accelerated move away from the traditional office.
But the way people work has forever changed. And it’s time to rethink what coworking is. Because even before the pandemic, it lost its way. As Neumann helped push it from community to commodity, coworking fell out of step with the modern worker. Now that most people have figured out how to get things done at home, the game has changed. Post-pandemic, we need spaces that understand the emotional life of professionals and facilitate an environment that actually improves their work.
It’s time to reimagine what our shared spaces can be. In other words, it’s time for Coworking 3.0.
A decade ago, coworking spaces were experiencing a burst of popularity—among workers and big companies. Coworking spaces could command up to five times the revenue per square foot of a traditional lease. As a result, venture capital dollars flowed into the system.
Led by WeWork, Regus, and Industrious, Pinterest-worthy spaces sprouted up around the globe flowing with fancy wallpaper, eye-catching light fixtures, and lightning-fast Wi-Fi. Workers of all types were welcomed. Taco Tuesdays were planned. Tours were given ad nauseum promising “inspiration, productivity, and community.”
And then it failed to live up to the hype.
Taco Tuesday didn’t move the needle. Community became challenging to scale. Workers battled for phone booths and conference room inventory. ClassPass-like services Croissant and Deskpass sprouted up, filling vacant seats and increasing transience. Churn and CAC went up, WeWork went down. The second wave of coworking traded community for anonymity, and workers began choosing the most convenient location at the lowest price. Beautiful, soulless space had nothing more to offer than, well, space. When it came to actually doing work, you were on your own.
With hybrid teams and leaseless businesses poised to join coworking culture in 2021, spaces will become even more distracting and disjointed if they are not prioritizing what I term “intentional productivity.”
At Caveday, we run group focus sessions for a global community that includes Emmy and Oscar winners, best-selling authors, startups, freelancers, and remote workers. We also consult with companies to help them design their teams and offices for a healthier relationship to work. What we’ve learned is that creating productive spaces has very little to do with physical design and everything to do with what happens inside the hearts and minds of workers and managers.
When we know our work is seen by others, understand what expected behavior looks like, and feel like we belong, we have the psychological safety needed to do our best work. This is what defines a coworking space for our company.
Clear rules of engagement
Every space has shared expectations, whether they’re stated or not. These social scripts drive our behavior with each other. When they are stated explicitly, we know how to act. When they’re left unsaid, chaos thrives.
In Coworking 2.0, this became the implied script:
Here is your new, pretty space. There’s the tasty coffee. Here’s how you book a conference. Work wherever. Talk to people if they don’t seem like they’re working. Hustle, hustle, hustle! We’ll bill you until you cancel.
Coworking 3.0 spaces can and should take a more active stance:
This is a space for people who see the world like this. This is how we’re expected to engage with each other. And this is the kind of work culture we’re cultivating.
As Cal Newport describes in his book Deep Work, the ability to focus on demanding tasks without distraction is the superpower of the 21st century knowledge worker. But spaces that don’t have clear rules of engagement unknowingly create a culture of shallow work. Clearly stated expectations allow people to more readily regulate their nervous systems, leading to better focus and deeper connection.
A sense of belonging is a human need and one of the most powerful things people get from a traditional office. Remote workers and freelancers crave it too, and Zoom and Slack just don’t cut it.
“Most people can now work from home,” says Tony Bacigalupo, coworking consultant and author of No More Sink Full of Mugs. “The vast majority who will join spaces are looking for something else, something more. If you make the reason for gathering to help each other, it fosters relationships, traditions, and culture, generating greater happiness and prosperity for all.”
At Caveday, we foster a sense of belonging through clear rules of engagement, shared rituals, and micro-vulnerabilities. With short check-ins, we prompt workers to share what they’re working on and a piece of the internal experience. Connecting on the human level makes people feel invested in each other. In order to belong, we need to feel like people care about more than just what kind of work we do.
Coworking 3.0 spaces must put facilitated connection front and center. Otherwise, as Bacigalupo states, “You have a transactional relationship with a micro-landlord and building any kind of true community is an uphill battle.”
Doing the work that matters often feels existentially challenging. And our brains are hardwired to avoid existential challenges. We go into fight, flight, freeze, or—even worse—Facebook-scrolling. Infinity pools and pop-up notifications are waiting in-screen for the opportunity to give our brains satisfying hits of dopamine and oxytocin.
But with accountability, most find that resistance melts away. Spaces can take an active role in reminding us of who we want to be and how we want to work.
At Caveday, we ban phones while working. Reports show we unlock our smartphones an average of 80 times per day and tap them more than 2,600 times per day. They can even affect our cognitive performance when they’re turned off but still in our line of sight.
At Chief, the female-leader-focused workspace, each member is put into a small mastermind that meets monthly with a coach. While the pandemic forced them to shutter some of their physical spaces, their accountability-based offering has successfully pivoted online and is experiencing growth as a result.
Writers Blok, a coworking space in Los Angeles for writers that has also pivoted online, offers daily check-ins for writers to share how it’s going, hour by hour.
A survey by Buffer and Angelist found that 98% percent of workers want to keep working remotely at least some of the time. And now that the pandemic has prompted a mass exodus from cities, many companies will have to let them. We have a unique opportunity to reimagine the shared offices of the future. If the third wave of coworking speaks to the inner needs of remote workers, it can create tighter communities, more innovation, and increased happiness.
It’s time to move away from WeWork . . . and back to we work together.
Jeremy Redleaf is cofounder of Caveday, which hosts virtual coworking sessions to help people focus and be more productive.