The Early Years of Coworking

Understanding the Early Years of Coworking: Part 1

Sam Bender
Jul 09, 2019
Understanding the Early Years of Coworking: Part 1

In May, we published an interview from our “5 Questions With” series with Lena Maria Kotschedoff, Community & Startup Manager at Stadtwerk Düsseldorf. In the interview, there was a paragraph that spurred a longer discussion among segments of the international coworking community. We thought this would be a great opportunity to discuss the origins of coworking, the lingering myths of what it means to be a coworker, and more specifically: What perception problems does coworking continue to have? We asked some of our colleagues around the world their opinions on these terms and their thoughts about the origins of coworking.

This is part one of a three part series. You can read the second part here and the third part here.

What we asked:

Do you think that the terms we use to describe early coworking space operators and members (such as hippie, hipster, etc.) accurately sum up the atmosphere of coworking’s early years and how useful are these terms in understanding the ‘origin story’ of the coworking industry? What lingering perception problems do you think coworking has (if any), and if so, how would you combat those misperceptions?

Lina Maria Kotschedoff | Community and Startup Manager at Stadwerke Düsseldorf

I do think that it could be used to sum up the atmosphere because hipster just means, in my interpretation, people who are looking into new stuff and doing things differently. And hippies are people that live in communities. So looking into, say, the significance of these two titles, they could be used. However, nowadays they could be considered negative words, so I’d probably call them innovators. They were trying out a new way of collaboratively working together in a shared community with the purpose of improving their work situation.

I do think [there are fewer misconceptions] than there were two years ago when I started to get to know the coworking market. From my experience people these days either know coworking — and have a very positive opinion— or they don’t know about it. When I talk with people about coworking and I tell them that I work in a coworking space and that I’m a community manager, they’re likely to say “oh that’s cool, where is it?”, and normally they share stories of their own experience in coworking. Or, they talk about how their day-to-day working environment has open spaces and other elements borrowed from coworking spaces. Then there are those who don’t know anything about it, but it’s easy to explain the concept through other shared products that they’re used to, like car sharing or any mobility sharing or Airbnb. People are much more serious than hesitant.

Jeannine (Marlar) van der Linden | Manager, De Kamer, Inc., Managing Partner at Open Coworking

I think that what this kind of perception does make clear is that the independent spaces are not getting our origin story out there. This comes from a narrative dominated by corporate players where startups are the focus; but this is a very recent development in coworking. I wrote an article on this development with Dave Bunnell in 2011 which is when the phenomenon began to appear.

I think there are quite a lot of people who have these kinds of views about coworking and its development based on when they became aware of the phenomenon and how much they care about how it developed. Mostly of course it does not matter to folks how it developed, as long as they can feel they can put their own personal stamp on a thing and call it coworking.

I do not disagree that the casual, social approach to coworking is offputting to many professionals, and that there are people do not find it attractive. My own background is in law and so my vision of The Office, as well as what I require in an office, is on the formal side. The offerings and services of de Kamer tend to be business services of a type that freelancers and small businesses find difficult to arrange, and while we have social gatherings and so on, they are a result of all the other things we do together and not the other way around. Some of this is also cultural, here in northern Europe it is a little bit taboo and frivolous to go to the office to “play.”

I think people who are now coming into the coworking world have more options and more choices than ever before, and I am not sorry about that because it means more people who are happy with what they do and where and with whom they do it.

Jenny Poon | Founder at CO+HOOTS and eeko studio

I think that’s a pretty broad assumption. From my experience our community wasn’t driven by that. We had crappy coffee and horrible decor. No hipster would be caught dead in our early day’s space. A friend once told me “there’s nothing better than a common enemy to bring people together.” We were built out of a need to support serious businesses with resources for them to withstand the recession in a city that deeply needed a win. I do think as coworking spaces are becoming mainstream there has become a divide between “kinds” of spaces. The community-based space and the commodity-based space. One is rooted in connections and one in physical real estate.

You choose which model you want to run, and my hope is to see more who can create a hybrid and succeed.

Marc Navarro | Coworking Consultant

I think tagging is human, not always good, but human. The communities of early coworking adopters were people who felt attracted by the concept of working together and didn’t care about being in humble facilities — even crumbling ones. If you have spent enough time in this sector you know what I’m talking about…

I would say these terms are not “useful,” they are a cliché that speeds up the description and makes maybe not the best summary ever, but a useful one. A better approach for this description might be: The communities of coworking early adopters were people attracted by the concept of working together, collaborating, and finding synergies, and didn’t care about being in humble facilities or even even crumbling ones. The sector matured, some coworking spaces evolved into better versions of themselves and offered improved facilities which were acceptable to a wider audience.” Meanwhile, society’s tastes changed and what was seen as cool in the late 2000’s was not cool anymore. People were more willing to work in a social environment. Some people saw an opportunity and created business-center-type spaces, increasing the size and improving the look and the location of social spaces, which were traditionally located in the worst spots in town. From this, flex work was born, although they used coworking as a shorthand when explaining their model. After this, older business centers saw the impact of these spaces in the market and their growth; they modified their spaces, and in some cases their external procedures, to be able to appeal to this changing environment.

But of course this is a long way of reaching the headline I often use when describing the development of coworking: From Hippies to Corporates.

I’d combat these misperceptions by giving context to the story of coworking.

Sam Bender

Senior Communications Specialist at Cobot and all-around connoisseur of useless trivia, reading on airplanes, sleeping in late - and working from interesting places!