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Helping coworking members interact

How to involve your members more? Collective Agency is run like a council, with a constitution and one-year terms for leaders. Image by Reid Beels (reidab on Flickr).

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For the average coworker, the advantages of working in a coworking space typically include being part of a community, reducing isolation, increasing productivity, networking, and growing a client base and work flow. Encouraging interaction and collaboration in coworking spaces is therefore something all space operators try to achieve, but there are some spaces which serve as exceptional examples to the coworking community in accomplishing these goals.

@ La Cantine Paris

While most coworking spaces are fertile ground for interaction and collaboration to happen organically, there are some which have incorporated the achievement of these principles into their reason for existence, and expressly made it their overarching goal. La Cantine in Paris has tapped into the principle of what it means to be an independent worker in the new tech industry and included it in part of their coworking space identity.

La Cantine is a coworking space for new techies. It opened its doors four years ago, and houses 15 daily desks, 10 monthly desks, and a coffee-shop-come-drop-in-centre, with enough space for 15 independents and their laptops. Fairly standard so far. What sets La Cantine apart, though, is its commitment to strengthening their community by creating a space synonymous with ‘technetwork’.

1,500 Free Events in Three Years

Aside from the coworking space element of the outfit, La Cantine operates an events space, where they have organised and hosted over 1,500 events in three years. The bar camps, workshops, lectures, and training courses are free, open to all, and are streamed and uploaded to a dedicated online T.V. portal, hosting more than 300 hours of video footage covering a vast range of new technology subjects. The events are an integral part of their overarching goal, something they call ‘peer-to-peer training’. Essentially, it is an effort to help their members improve their knowledge and develop skills across a wide range of new technology themes, while putting them in touch with the wider new technology community.

Nathanaël Sorin-Richez is one of three permanent staffers who are dedicated to the skill development and interactivity of their members. Strengthening their community, and the individuals in it, is a part of their job description.

“You have to view La Catnine as a ‘hub’: the embodiment of the ecosystem of new Parisian technology. We have a space that is dedicated to creating networks, creating interaction, creating synergy,” Nathan said.

“It’s a heightened coworking space. We’re not only about building communities between our coworkers – independents and startups – but also between them and the bigger players in new technology.”

Constantly hosting events also means that members are presented with a new wave of work opportunities within their field. The events create visibility for freelancers, and allow them to be consistently present in a space dedicated to new technology. They are in constant and direct contact with the big fish of their business, and are encouraged to interact with people with similar interests, but not necessarily skills bases. Nathanaël gave the example of one freelance designer who recently became a member of La Cantine. His experience as an independent worker – his contacts, networks, and, most significantly, his workload - improved considerably following his constant presence in a new technology space, dedicated to the personal and professional development of each member.

The second point which makes La Cantine an exceptional coworking space is that, in the spirit of coworking, it is not alone. The Parisian outfit is one of five operating under the same name (the others are in Toulon, Toulouse, Rennes and Nantes), structured around the network ‘Réseau des Cantines’. The resource is relatively new, only coming into existence in February last year. However, they together are working on the online connection and digital community which will ultimately link all their members, creating what La Cantine have dubbed ‘the Network Effect.’ It will serve as an online database where all members can present themselves, detail their skills and professional backgrounds, and discuss their projects, opening the door to entrepreneurship and collaboration.

Learn by Example

Other niche spaces can learn from La Cantine by transforming their space into the ‘go to and be seen at’ place for independents working in that field. Creating events geared towards your coworkers’ profession can help your members develop and make invaluable contacts which will propel their careers, as well as entrenching a reputable name for your coworking space. Spaces which share a name - like the five Cantines around France - may also wish to consider initiating an online resource connecting remote communities; the more possibility for a coworker to network with like-minded individuals, the better chance for innovation and entrepreneurship.

@ Collective Agency

Collective Agency is an exceptional coworking space on several levels. A significant number of the people walking through their doors are small groups of non-members, working for free in a Jellyesque arrangement, like the citizens of a town can meet up for free in a local park to play football or a public library to do research. In fact, Collective Agency is run like a small city, governed by a constitution and working within the statute of limitations stipulated by its founding members.

The constitution calls for democratic decision making processes, and is the avatar of the Collective Agency community. Members vote on issues that affect coworkers, and a small group of elected coordinating council members are responsible for implementing ‘laws’ (these are less like civic laws and more about advising, providing leadership, and hosting). Those who are in charge only hold the position for a one year term. This encourages - indeed requires - those elected to pass on the proverbial baton and teach other members in the community to fulfill the leadership roles once the term expires.

The main community organiser (and co-founder of Collective Agency) Alex Linsker relishes the chance to pass on responsibility, and finds that his role motivates him to include one and all.

“The one year limit is kind of amazing,” said Alex. “It gives me a timeline. It motivates me to train and mentor others because I want this to continue and grow when I become a paying member here. It benefits me to be as open as possible, so that as many people as possible can overhear my conversations and carry on my way of doing things.”

Besides the small governmental entity which has been created in order to put community at the forefront of Collective Agency's mission statement, the constitution has the philosophies of collective knowledge and education embedded in its clauses.

“Educational community events are a reason why we exist. Evenings and weekends, we have many educational events that are free of charge and open to the public.”

Outlined in its constitution, Collective Agency strives to host and foster community workgroups which contribute to the social and creative fabric of their own members and the greater community. The workgroups which call Collective Agency home, and their respective workgroup organizers, are selected by members of the board only if they are committed to organizing events that are “open to the public, for educational purposes (mentoring, skill-sharing, workshop, or other education), [and strive to] build community.”

It gives a chance for both members of Collective Agency and members of the extended community to expand their knowledge and skills on a range of topics, such as acting and script writing, new technology and event planning. Recently, as voted by members, the coworking space also initiated 'lightning talks', covering a multitude of topics, allowing everyone to act as a teacher and student.

Learn by Example

The success of Collective Agency lies in its founders' commitment to uplifting the whole through democratic processes and educational enlightenment. Making the workshops obligatory, free, and open to all by a self-imposed law drives inter-coworker dialogue and advances personal knowledge. Indeed, the fact that members are citizens, able to vote on decisions affecting their workspace, delivers a sense of ownership and pride. Personal decisions become the interest of the entire community, and thus strengthen the fiber that binds it.

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More articles about exceptional coworking space models:

Part 1: Temporary spaces - paying w/benefits - career centers

Part 2: Niches - company spaces - donations & sponsorships

Part 3: Helping members interact

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