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What Is Coworking And Its Cultural Background?

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If taken literally, coworking simply means people working together – an activity that is as old as humanity ourselves. Our ancestors used to hunt together, they built pyramids in teams of slaves. The word “coworking” was even used to praise the power of God in old religious books. Working together is at the heart of every community and society, in democracies as well as in dictatorships. And the internet now provides possibilities to facilitate it. So what is really new behind the cultural concept of coworking and the changing labor market?

What makes coworking special? An important precondition of coworking is the exceptional situation of coworkers. They work mostly in self-determined situations: the majority are self-employed freelancers, or entrepreneurs with their employees, as well as an increasing number of employees of large companies.

The growth of self-generated work

Never in the history, in absolute or relative numbers, have as many people gone about their work unrestricted and independently. More and more companies outsourced parts of their work to contract or project workers. Even more permanent employees work mobile from different locations.

Unsurprisingly, it was the technological advances of recent years that have enabled this flexibilization of the workforce. With a laptop, smart phone and internet access you can work from virtually anywhere, and this has reduced the necessary costs of starting your own small business. Especially when the most important asset is inside your head – ideas and knowledge.

These factors are combined with a move toward highly innovative company structures. Large companies with old structures are unable to respond quickly enough to new trends and technologies. They face pressures to utilize specialized contract workers to reduce costs and remain flexible and innovative.

Working independently is not always the first choice of people. Many freelance workers find themselves deposited in this flexible labour market involuntarily. The transition to self-employment is sometimes the only option as an alternative to unemployment, low-paid jobs, and jobs which destroy one’s physical and mental health.

Because knowledge is playing an ever-more important role, and people with specialized skills and a computer can quickly become independent, the new era of flexible work is particularly suited to creative workers. Working hours and workspace can often be self-selected, and the location can impact on the productivity and content of the work. At the same time, there are increasing demands on workers’ flexibility and self-organization skills.

Problem: self-organization and competition

One of the biggest problems for independent workers is the establishment of a supportive network. Networks are not only important for building economic links, but also for social and psychological needs, for finding motivation and overcoming creativity blocks – without which, they often fall behind their competition.

In traditional companies, workers are placed into pre-organized networks. Hierarchies and routine assigned work processes are part of daily life. Desks and computers are provided, as are colleagues and customers. The company takes care of equipment maintenance and upgrading. Self-employed workers need to build their own networks and take care of their own equipment. The same is true for ongoing updates of knowledge – something particularly important for knowledge workers. Without gaining new skills, they fall behind their competition. Here, coworking offers an advantage over traditional paid employment.

Solution: creation of social and cultural capital within coworking communities

Coworking is often mentioned in the same breath as the term community. But why are people interested in individualized, self-determined employment looking for community? The answer is simple: because they often have the same problems and can best solve them together. This includes not only the benefits that result from the sharing of infrastructure, but also the psychological support and affirmation of one’s own work that one experiences in a group. And unlike traditional employees, coworkers can choose with whom and how much they cooperate. Annoying colleagues and difficult customer relations can be forgotten.

Connection to a coworking community is entirely voluntary. Instead of contracts, the basis of collaboration is mainly trust and mutual sympathy, just like in friendships. And just like friendships, relationships have different levels of intensity. They work with individuals and groups on various projects as they see fit.

Relationships between coworkers have four key properties. They are entered into voluntarily, you can choose to leave freely. They are not built on specific commitments; just as they begin informally, so they can be stopped. Coworkers treat each other equally; they don’t need to have everything in common to achieve equality, even if it is more helpful. And their relationships are based on the value of reciprocity (adapted from Rebecca Adams and Graham Allan, 1998: "Placing Friendship in Context").

Coworking operates on an economy of exchange, although a non-financial one. An individual offers their skill and networks to others, in exchange for their help. Exchanges are not necessarily for the same services, they don't need to be 'paid' back immediately, nor is the value fixed. They interact with others for mutual benefit in networks of trust and reciprocal exchange. The more similar coworkers are, the more likely this process is to be effective and enhanced. Without respecting the norm of reciprocity this relationship will break.

As we’ve previously written, even those who are connected by weak ties can build helpful links with others. Regardless of how practical the exchange benefits are, the result is that coworkers are more productive, motivated and usually happier in their activities.

So what is Coworking?

Coworking is a self-directed, collaborative and flexible work style that is based on mutual trust and the sharing of common core objectives and values between members. The members treat each other equally, can increase their well-being by working in a collaborative atmosphere, and accumulate through cooperation (not competition) greater economic, social and cultural capital, above that which is possible through an isolated form of work.

We are aware that we haven't addressed every aspect of the changing labour market. We intend to publish more definitions what coworking is about in upcoming articles from other authors and coworking activists, so if you have the feeling we missed something important in these lines, just let us know.

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