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Can the concept of coworking operate inside traditional offices? Sure, says Massimo Carraro, initiator of the Coworking Project, which since 2009 has shown how small and large companies can welcome external freelancers into their offices. There are now 57 spaces across Italy and one in Barcelona. Massimo spoke also to Deskmag about why the public sector should open its doors to coworkers, and why another financial crisis doesn’t necessarily bring a flood of new registrants to coworking spaces.

The Coworking Project is a unique network for coworkers and was influenced by Italy’s special situation. The country has one of the highest ratios of freelancers in all of Europe, but despite this there are only a few genuine coworking spaces. Regulations don’t really support the development of such facilities.

In their place, the Coworking Project adapted the philosophy to existing systems within established offices. And it’s not just design, architecture and software studios that are involved, even an engineering company has signed up.

When Massimo began the first Coworking Project at its own advertising agency, Monkey Business, in 2008, he was quickly confronted with a big problem. Italian laws prohibit the sub-leasing of rented commercial properties.

He wouldn’t be a true Italian if he had just given up in the face of regulation. “We found a legal way with our lawyer,” Massimo said. His desks are technically not sub-leased, but function as meeting spaces, where companies host their customers and allow them to use their infrastructure.

In the following months, many enthusiastic people who had heard about coworking contacted him wanting to start something similar. “We started it from our experience before we proposed it to others,” he said. A year later, the concept was up and running.

One of the most important lessons Massimo learned from offering his seven desks to coworkers was that “coworking won’t pay your salary. This is why we proposed it to existing facilities. We also felt this was a more sustainable way of doing it.”

Rather than rental income, Massimo found the greatest benefit came from the contact and collaboration opportunities with different people in various professions. To ensure this experience was preserved across the Coworking Project Network, they included an important rule; it’s not allowed to gain a maximum profit from sub-leasing desks.

Do many participating coworkers feel tolerated as guests, but less important than the permanent employees of host companies? Massimo is not worried about this case and says that "host companies sign up because they want diversity in their offices: This is what they want." To take part in the Coworking Project, the spaces pay an annual fee of €250, or €500 for a premium version in order to refinance the network.

He doesn’t see real coworking spaces as a competitor to the network: “We share the same idea.” Coworking spaces are welcome in the network, and there’s even a business center in the system.

He encourages participating spaces not to view themselves as competitors, too. For them, the rental of desks is not the core business. “It makes sense to think exactly the opposite: the more coworking spaces, the larger the market for all spaces. Even though coworking is a major trend, still the majority of people ignore this workstyle, therefore it’s more convenient for all coworking spaces to encourage new openings.”

Massimo also supports the opening of public coworking spaces. It’s a project that won the support of the new mayor of Milan, who included it on his agenda:

“It’s much easier for a public administration to open a coworking space. We also think, this should be a public service, such as hospitals! It’s a big opportunity for the city’s economy. How many ideas could be generated in such a space! And if you have a space, it almost cost nothing for the administration.” And costs are important, not only in highly-indebted Italy.

Yet even as another financial crisis threatens to erupt, Massimo doesn’t believe this will result in more coworkers: “We don’t have coworking as an effect of the last crisis. There are some more people who would turn into a coworking space because of it, but I don’t think there’s a strong correlation. When it was born, it was born by people which already earned good money and didn’t want to work in a coffee shop anymore. They don’t go to coworking spaces because it’s cheap, they work in them because the idea of coworking itself and its advantages are smart.”

When losing a job forces someone into a freelance career, success does not automatically follow. “I’m afraid that most people who would lose their jobs are not able to reposition themselves as freelancers because they did a different job in companies before that." They just wouldn’t have a qualification with a high demand on it. And "freelancers already changed their career in this direction.”

Such a change does not happen overnight. Yet it’s more likely to happen in a coworking space than sitting at home alone in front of the computer.

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