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How often do you talk about coworking spaces? Rather often, I’d guess, since you are reading this article. Sometimes you talk to people who are new to the concept, and you’ll try to explain what a coworking space is. Sometimes you talk to fellow coworkers, and then you won't have to explain what a coworking space is, because we all know it - right? Not quite, I'd say. While we each have a certain concept of a coworking space, our ideas are not entirely identical. What's more, these concepts are rather vague, revolving around an idea, but not pinning it down.

This is the first of a series of academically-influenced articles by Nina Pohler, who recently completed a thesis on the topic of coworking at the Vienna University for Business Administration and Economics:

While I was writing my diploma thesis on coworking spaces, the task of giving a distinct, clearly outlined definition of a coworking space turned out to be almost beyond my abilities. However, as it is one of the basic rules of scientific writing to properly define the concepts you are working with, I was forced to do it.

Why was it so hard for me to find a good working definition for a coworking space? I'd say this is because it is impossible to define a coworking space using certain organisational or spatial characteristics. Wanna try? Here you have an incomplete list of 'not-qualifying coworking space characteristics':

- Coworking spaces are founded by groups of like-minded people who wanted to build a space that combines the best elements of a coffee shop and a workspace (not all of them).

- Coworking spaces are for independent freelancers (not exclusively).

- Members of coworking spaces work in different industries (not always).

- Coworking spaces consist of big shared spaces, in contrast to several small office-units (not all of them).

- Coworking spaces have hot-desking (not all of them).

- Coworking spaces have variable memberships (not all of them).

- Coworking spaces are open to drop-ins and visitors (not all of them).

- Coworking spaces are about community, your coworker is also your friend (not always).

- Coworking spaces host events for their members and other people (not all of them).

- Coworking spaces are exciting and usually frequented by nice people (might be true for all of them, still, this is not exclusive to coworking spaces)

Coworking spaces come in different sizes and varieties. But although no coworking space is like another coworking space, we all know what they are. We can talk about them, and most people (from the coworking community at least) will have approximately the same idea in their head. This is because, although not all of the properties I've listed above are true for every coworking space, most of them are. All coworking spaces, as unique as they are, have many characteristics in common with other coworking spaces.

So. If you really insist on a definition that is based on organisational or spatial characteristics, on a set of clearly defined properties, you could come up with a solution that medics use to diagnose illnesses: You could say, that if a certain working space has X out of Y defined properties, than it is a coworking space. But what would be the point?

Finding a more fitting and elegant solution for the definition problem actually wasn't as hard as I've first thought. During my research I've focused on the wants and needs of the coworkers I've talked to. I wanted to know, if coworking spaces can actually help people in their daily work-life. And if so, how.

Therefore I've finally decided to define a coworking space by it's main purpose: Coworking spaces are the result of a quest for strategies to deal with the risks and problems of new, flexible types of work. The defining feature therefore is whose and which needs coworking spaces are serving. So, in my opinion this is a coworking space:

Every workspace with flexible structures that is designed for and by people with atypical, new types of work - that is not exclusively for people from one certain company.

I think this is an adequate working definition. Try it. It will fit for every coworking space you know, while at the same time, it should exclude other types of working spaces, like 'normal offices', coffee-houses and even really-cool-but-still-owned-by-one-company offices. It's just one sentence, but if you look closer, this definition is much more than 29 words, it could even help you to get a better understanding of new types of work as such. This is what makes defining coworking spaces so interesting.

Solution to post-fordist work problems

There is a lot of interesting literature on new types of work. But although some smart people have already thought hard and long about this new work, although they've done some amazing research and clever studies on it, no one can really give you the whole picture of the new work order, or post-Fordist work.

In general, new types of work are 'defined' by saying what they are not: atypical types of work are not like established types of work, or scientifically spoken: post-fordist types of work are not like Fordist types of work.

We know a great deal about working conditions, patterns and relations of the established work order, about how Fordist-work influences the economy, the society and politics.

About post-Fordist, or post-modern work, we don't know that much. We know that post-fordist work is often project-based, that it is individualised, that it is globalised, less structured, much more flexible and requires more of the self: self-discipline, self-motivation and independent thinking. Basically, we know that its different, but we don't really know if and how it will develop and what this means for the future.

Maybe we'll never be able to know the new type of work in the way we are able to know the old one. Because post-fordist work means individualised, heterogeneous forms of work, it means that the variety between people's work, working conditions, motivations and goals is increasing. Consequentially post-fordist work is characterised by variability itself -  and indetermination and unpredictability are the crucial characteristics of the new work order.

In this case coworking spaces are not only of high importance to the coworkers, coworking spaces become also highly important for everyone who wants to understand post-fordist work: Coworking spaces are a solution to problems of post-fordist work.

Coworking spaces are therefore highlighting the conditions and risks of post-fordist work.  As variable and complex as coworking spaces are, as hard it may seem to get a clear and comprehensive picture of them and their meaning, still they are real, material spaces where it all comes together in a quite concrete form. The protagonists of the new work order, their problems and solutions, their discourse on post-fordist work are all materialised in a coworking space.

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