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What Corporate Offices Can Learn from Coworking Spaces

Rebecca Leung

Guest Contributor

Freelancers, entrepreneurs and gig-economy workers used to call everything from coffee shops to kitchens to airports an office. But today, they have a new option to add to the list: coworking spaces.

Coworking spaces operate in a variety of ways: People can claim seats for an hourly fee, rent out rooms at a monthly or annual cost, or pay for a monthly membership to sit anywhere in the common areas. With many young people contemplating the switch to the independent, entrepreneurial workforce—more than half of workers in their twenties aspire to have their own business—it comes as no surprise that in late 2015, coworking spaces reported having 50 percent more members than two years ago.

These innovative spaces, such as WeWork, Blankspaces and Impact Hub, host tens to hundreds of different companies across industries, but the benefits and appeal of the coworking trend can be applied to individual organizations, too. Coworking spaces give the old-school office plenty to envy in terms of cross-pollination between workers, flexible location and community. Here are few ways the Dilbert-esque office of yore can learn from the rise of coworking spaces.

Department Mix-and-Match

In a coworking space, electrical engineers sit next to marketers and sale professionals sit next to programmers. With large swaths of solopreneurs, there could be as many as 50 businesses in one room. To inspire similar levels of mingling, offices can start a game of musical chairs. "Instead of the legal department in the legal room, mix them up with accounting for one day a week," says Jerome Chang, owner and architect at the coworking network Blankspaces. "From that proximity they can strategically interact and collaborate."

The formula seems simple. "People are happier in bright open spaces where they're making social connections," says Jamie Russo, executive director of the Global Workspace Association. People in coworking spaces rate their level of "thriving"—defined as their vitality, learning and work performance—an average of nearly six on a seven-point scale, according to a study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. Few other official studies have been completed on coworking spaces, and everyone is experimenting to see what sticks. "We're placing our bets like everybody else is," says Russo.

Location Independence

One of the major selling points of the coworking environment is the flexibility and location independence that users can enjoy. To attract and retain a competitive workforce, why not build those same features into the traditional office? Design spaces tempting enough to make people travel.

In offices that effectively balance focused, quiet space with collaborative space, 32 percent more workers say they feel innovative, when compared with unbalanced offices. "Amenities can also draw people in, if you have special technology or just a really good private space that's reservable," says Russo. "For example, Genentech in South San Francisco has a gorgeous lobby with a really beautiful long coffee bar, and they serve Sightglass coffee. You feel like you're in this hip cafe."

Community Management

It might seem like you need to deck out your office with bells and whistles, but the most crucial part of a coworking space isn't as visible. "If you're part of a corporate culture, you see the design as being a big component [of coworking], but you don't get what happens on a day to day basis to make that come alive," Chang says. "And that's the community management."

Human resources managers have a lot to learn from the books of coworking community managers. These dedicated staff are on the ground level in coworking spaces, overhearing fortuitous conversations and connecting people who could be useful to one another. They launch social events not based on some compulsion towards mandatory fun, but inspired by requests they've heard from their community firsthand.

So, instead of only advocating for collaborative spaces, HR might want to go one step further and actually facilitate connections. "[HR reps] have to step out of the back office and become part of the front office," Chang says. In addition, to compete with coworking spaces and the freelance lifestyle, he says, "HR people [in corporate offices] have to really figure out what their futures are going to look like."

Photo: Creative Commons

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