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Who hijacked the co-working space?

Bizdojo and CoLo co-founder Lachlan Sloan says the community of people that believe in the power of co-working is diverse, passionate and growing, but as the sector grows in size, the true benefits of it are getting lost as organisations that care less about community are getting on board. Here, he shares his frustrations with the current state of the co-working industry and offers some solutions. 

They say imitation is the best form of flattery – but when that imitation is destroying what a community has worked so hard to build up, does it really make anyone feel good?

Over the past 14 years, co-working has grown from a few digital freelancers, to whole communities of like minded people who have come together under shared ethea. It has become an organic global movement and one I hoped couldn’t be bought and sold.

But I was wrong. I underestimated the pull of the almighty dollar to corporations who saw there was money to be made out of this shiny new industry. And now, all of a sudden, we have “co-working” spaces that put the bottom line ahead of the community.

Landlords, real estate developers along with big money moved into the sector and their serviced offices are laying claim to the “co-working” moniker. They are not stating what they actually are, which is flexible offices. I am not saying these work spaces are bad, but they are not co-working spaces and should not be marketed as such.

We need to call a spade a spade. I would use this analogy to describe what is happening: if you were running a French restaurant and didn’t serve French food but rather Chinese – wouldn’t your customers be annoyed if they came in for a Coq Au Vin or Crème de la Crème Caramel but ended up with (I will admit equally delicious) pork dumplings or Peking duck?

Likewise if you aren’t in co-working don’t say you are when you are really more a flexible space provider. Just because you host networking events, have cool looking spaces (with the ubiquitous bean bags), give your staff trendy titles like “community manager” and “space facilitator” and serve coffee that doesn’t come from a tin does not make you a true blue co-working operator.

I say this because as coworker explains: “Co-working is not just about the sharing of infrastructure and cost, it is about belonging to a community, accessibility and sustainability. Coworking spaces are designed to provide a productive and collaborative environment for their dynamic inhabitants, and created without corporate [office] constraints.” Oh, and these spaces have an ethos that members believe and live by. And true believers are community first.

Co-working is not just about the sharing of infrastructure and cost, it is about belonging to a community, accessibility and sustainability. Coworking spaces are designed to provide a productive and collaborative environment for their dynamic inhabitants, and created without corporate [office] constraints.

Now not to come along as some sort of digital hippie, but these operators will not compromise on community experience, engagement or human to human interaction simply to make more money. It doesn’t mean that they can’t have a highly profitable and growing business. But fundamentally they measure their business by what Nick Shewring coined as ROC – Return on Community not just ROI – Return on Investment.

This is is the exact opposite of what flexible offices are and do.

So I ask when coworking becomes marketing code for flexible offices – who really benefits? Well, no one – especially not those wanting to work in an actual coworking space.

If we are not careful the sector will become highly fragmented and ultimately impact us all.

What we don’t want is people experiencing coworking for the first time to be turned off. What we do want is to safeguard our competitive advantage and have some recognition of how hard it is to truly build a community focused business.

I feel I’m qualified to speak to this matter because I cofounded a service office business Compass Offices and then went onto partner in the co-working business BizDojo. The latter was built from the ground up with the community at the very heart of every decision we made. Compass Offices is a great business and there is nothing wrong with being a flexible office provider or serviced office, but it is not co-working.

Part of the reason we created CoLo – my latest venture – is that we saw this as a way for the more boutique, true to the co-working spirit operators to be able to differentiate themselves from those who are more serviced office, flexible or shared offices.

What I am afraid of is people who really want this type of environment and go to a flexible office thinking it is a co-working space either becoming disenfranchised with the sector, or quickly realise they need to find a place that is true to community but then don’t know how to do it as there are many misrepresented spaces to visit.

For this reason, co-working operators who are truly focused on delivering a community need to reclaim the term “co-working” from the big corporates.

While I don’t have all the answers on how to do this, perhaps the co-working sector needs to look at other industries to see what they have done to make sure that a certain level of quality and expectation is met. Perhaps we as an industry need our own version of Michelin stars (so we don’t end up like that French restaurant who has no Michelin Stars for serving a different country’s cuisine).

While such a system may not solve the problem completely, it will help those of us who are committed to this sector to comply with our community’s key values.

  • This was originally published on Sloan's LinkedIn.

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