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Do walls block collaboration?

Parisoma with open coworking area, semi private areas on the second level and access to private offices. (Image: parisoma.com)

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The most reviled element of the traditional office was the cubicle. Those tiny walls - just high enough to block eyesight, yet low enough to rob privacy - became the symbol of corporate imprisonment. No wonder then, that the first coworking spaces sought to do away with dividing walls and bring everyone together in a single space. Today, however, many coworking spaces are finding financial advantage in offering more private workrooms. But how does they look like and what impact does this have on the core concept of coworker interaction?

The names of two recently-opened coworking spaces in Denver say it all. One is called ‘Creative Density’, the other has chosen to call its concept ‘Uncubed’. The spaces' grounding identities is the rejection of separation between its members. It is the core concept of most coworking spaces worldwide.

“You won’t find private offices, small rooms to separate people,” Uncubed writes in its listing. “We’ve got conference rooms for groups and phone calls, but otherwise we all sit in the same place.” Creative Density promotes its space without “boring cubicles”. “We broke down the walls“, rhetorically adding "your fellow coworkers are smart and don’t smell that bad, right?"

Both coworking spaces are about forcing collaboration by reducing blocking elements and bringing people close to each other.

This approach works for many coworking spaces, but some others are finding that offering rooms with a higher degree of separation is necessary to keep their locations profitable. Increasingly our sister page Deskwanted has seen a demand from coworkers requesting private workspaces. Is this a market that coworking spaces can afford to ignore or do they need to question their whole concept by offering additional private spaces?

The progression of coworkers, along with the movement, has also prompted some spaces to offer a wider array of working options. Although coworking spaces were set up for freelancers, the all-in-one-room approach doesn’t allow for members who become successful and start to expand. At the same time, small start-up companies, particularly those in the web industries, are now a formidable part of many cities economies. They often require privacy to protect their intellectual property, but also want interaction with others.

Reduced collaboration?

The argument against isolating workspaces is that it might reduce collaboration. In fact, academic studies found just that. A Dutch study analysed interaction between users of an incubator with 300 small companies in separated offices. In addition, these companies were also clustered by professions. Collaboration was intended to take place in a shared rooftop café.

But after questioning users, the study found that interaction was minimal, and that those who did collaborate did so with the people right next door to them.

This is just one study, focusing on just one location. There are others examples of mixed-mode coworking spaces around the world that provide more hope.

Playing with architecture

One of the best known coworking spaces in Europe, Berlin’s Betahaus, started with a shared workroom and expanded to offer “team rooms” for small companies. These are designed to not block visual contact completely, with wooden slats instead of solid walls.

“Actually we do not like closed walls if they stay closed 24/7,” said Madeleine von Mohl, one of Betahaus’s six co-founders. “So we try to play around with the architecture – our team rooms are separate but the walls are not fully closed.”

Madeleine said it is very important to have a mixture of both open and private working areas. “I think it just helps different people to work effectively”.

In New York, WeWork NYC is built on the mixed-mode model. On the street level is the “Lounge”, a large shared workspace. Upstairs there are 165 small separate offices, which are the core of WeWork’s business.

“We don't find that enclosed offices reduce collaboration at all,” said Josh Simmons of WeWork NYC. “Our offices are all glass with sliding doors, which really provides a sense of openness and community to our floors even though people are sitting in their individual offices. With networking events and communal areas on the floors we find that a lot of our members naturally connect through these means.”

An attentive location manager is also essential to keeping collaboration alive: “One aspect our management focuses on is to know about the companies that are in our buildings. We are always keeping an ear out for member's who say they need a particular type of service. When we hear a member say something along these lines we immediately will have someone else in the building or another building who could offer them these services.”

Parisoma in San Francisco found another alternative with a semi-private loft and private offices for teams and companies. Unlike in WeWork, these areas are placed around the coworking space. So all members for these areas need to pass by the open coworking space before they can start working at their desks. This can support collaboration among the members even if they don't always sit to each other.

Economic advantage

A further example with a mixture of workspaces is Hive Studios in Melbourne. There are desks in Hive Studio’s open-plan area as well as glass-walled suites containing between two and five desks. The demand for suites tells a story of user preference: “I always have at least one empty desk, but I never have an empty suite,” space founder Tony Matulic said.

So popular are the private offices, that Tony has opened a second location around the corner from his first, this one consisting only of suites. But how can collaboration happen? Tony says this occurs in the common spaces, such as the large shared kitchen, with a big lunch table for shared use. While the degree of collaboration at Hive Studios might not be as high as at other coworking spaces, it was hard for him not to ignore the financial benefits by offering a mixture of office styles.

Members develop the space

Another approach is to create modular coworking spaces that allow the members to adjust the layout to match their needs, with flexibility between open and closed areas.

Here there is the danger of natural segregation between groups. The operators of the space should keep an overall view of how this develops, and work with the members to come up with the best solution for all.

More mixed-mode spaces expected

Although purists prefer the destruction of boundaries, some coworking space operators must face the financial realities, or they just develop their spaces along the needs of the members and diversify their “product”. It’s likely more spaces will turn to mixed-mode business models to boost their bottom line.

There will always be many locations that offer no-walls coworking, and they will find this to be a unique selling point that attracts a certain type of coworker. In all, greater diversity between spaces should be welcomed, as it broadens the appeal of coworking to a wider variety of potential members. In the end, a space lives on the demand of its members.

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