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While coworking began as a movement of creative freelancers, in more recent times small businesses and even larger companies have started to get involved. We took a look at the future of coworking and asked nine coworking activists and space operators for their opinions about the likely developments over the next five years. Most predicted that the concept would expand to a much wider portion of the labor market. If that’s the case, perhaps the word “coworking” will become known simply as “working”.
By Carsten Foertsch - Tuesday, 06 September 2011

Based on the current number of coworking spaces and their average member base, there are now about 40,000 coworkers worldwide. That number may sound small to some, and even growth trends continue it would reach just 500,000 in five years – a large, widely connected community, but a small niche market. However our respondents believe that coworking isn’t restricted to official coworking spaces, so we could see a much higher number of participants in other locations within the working world.

Coworking to differentiate – and will not only be called coworking

For Tony Bacigalupo of New Work City, in the next five years coworking will “continue to grow as more and more people pursue careers that entail a different way of working and living than that which we are used to. Coworking will grow as this population grows, but it won't always be called ‘coworking’,” Tony said.

“Indeed, the word itself simply refers to a shared set of values and needs that define a way of working which is in visible contrast to what we're used to thinking of as ‘working.’ Over time, however, the distinction between ‘coworking’ and ‘working’ will become less and less apparent.

This will take far more than five years, but in the meantime I believe you will be seeing coworking happening a lot more - even if in many cases it isn't labeled as such. (...) In an increasing number of cases, you will see coworking happening outside of coworking spaces - corporations, public spaces, libraries, and more.”

Coworking spaces themselves will begin to diversify.

“There will be many coworking spaces of increasing variety. They will be large and small, in cities and in smaller towns, focused on various industries or not focused on any industry at all. There will be several franchise chain coworking spaces with weak communities but large networks, and even more small community-driven coworking communities. Coworking will not just expand horizontally, but vertically as well. (Coworking Spaces) will also be helping their members in a wider variety of deeper and more valuable ways.”

For Beth Buczynski from GoneCoworking, coworking will expand to every large city, “and also probably become bigger. The idea of the coworking franchise, which can already be seen in California, will become more popular as well.”

Big companies to adapt coworking for productivity

Steve King from Coworking Labs sees things similarly: “Coworking as a style of work – collaborative, cooperative, cross-functional, cross-organizational and centered around projects instead of departments or companies – will become much more common,” Steve said.

“Freelancers, small businesses and startups will continue to embrace coworking and larger firms will adopt and adapt coworking methods to improve productivity and increase employee engagement.

The number of global coworking facilities will expand at an exponential rate.  Traditional, office-based coworking spaces will continue to grow at a rapid pace, with expansion in the developing world being particularly strong.

Also driving coworking’s rapid expansion is the growing diversity of work environments offering coworking. Companies of all types and sizes are starting to offer coworking spaces. Third places, such as hotels and libraries, are expanding their coworking offerings and non-office environments including industrial spaces, labs, community kitchens and others are offering coworking-like facilities.”

Focusing on price is the top risk

“I also think that in five years, more variations on coworking will emerge“, says Alex Hillman of Philadelphia’s Indyhall. “Coworking will become something that anybody can do, anybody is likely to know about, and anybody is welcome to participate, not limited to the majority being freelance and mobile working types like we see today. We're already seeing coworking have impact and involvement on academia and government. Small businesses and even large businesses and their teams have value to be seen in coworking.

I (also) expect that in less than five years, coworking will have gotten past being ‘trendy’ and more significant successes will be documented. More significant failures will be documented as well, which is necessary for the long-term health and strength of coworking. Best practices don't only include ‚how we did it and it worked’, but‚ how we did it and it totally fell apart, and why’.”

A danger arises if people and companies turn to coworking primarily as a way to reduce costs: “That’s our number one risk today, and why I’m anxious about ‘find a desk’ systems that many coworking spaces are turning to to recruit members,” Alex said.

In defense of helpful information sites like our own, we say that there’s always a need for people to find coworking spaces via the internet. Displaying prices isn’t meant to be a reflection of the community in which that desk resides. Community spirit is subjective and can’t be measured objectively. And ultimately, the users will decide if the location measures up to the price, and will vote with their feet. Like any business, coworking spaces might be able to attract first-timers with low prices, but they’ll lose them quickly without quality.

To that extent, Alex is right when he suggests, “If we’re not careful to develop more leadership and stronger community bonds, coworking is likely to become a marginalized word to describe any open floorplan workspace. This is why I think it's extremely important that we put as much effort into developing and sustaining core values for the community as it is to developed best practices and guides.”

Coworking Spaces vs. Executive Centers

That’s a risk also forseen by Angel from Cohere Community: “I think that in five years the original definition of coworking will get diluted and may become more associated with executive centers, office shares and property management companies, which will make me a sad coworking enthusiast.”

Massimo Carraro of the Italian Coworking Project thinks that in the next five years the difference between these kinds of locations will diminish:

“Business centers tend to be more expensive, and to be more oriented to privacy. They still don’t get the idea of coworking yet. But I’m seeing some business centers changing their concept already,” Massimo said.

“Most of coworking ads come from business centers, this is what we haven’t had three years ago. They now start to reduce their prices, rearrange the space, tear down the walls and place a big table inside the room. But in the end, if you don’t care for the people, it’s a sad place where you work alone.“

Anni Roolf, organizer of the European Jelly Week, says that with different business models, philosophies and location sizes all operating side-by-side, the small spaces will eventually be unable to compete with larger ones.

However, she also predicts that more public institutions will subsidize coworking spaces, and more companies will open their workspaces for external freelancers in order to develop interfaces between themselves and coworking communities. Anni believes that coworking needs an official association to help represent the movement’s interests and to lobby on its behalf.

Coworking to split into two types of spaces

Eric from Mutinerie in Paris regards the development somewhat more pragmatically: “The coworking movement is likely to keep expanding while structuring itself in the next five years. Today, coworking gathers together a bunch of different realities in terms of services and business models. It ranges from five friends working in a shared space and sharing expenses to unified networks of thousands of coworkers proposing various types of memberships.

Some business models are going to gain weight in the next five years, especially the sponsoring one. Firms are starting to grasp the value of independent workers communities and might be willing to tie closer links with them. Coworking spaces definitely have to find sustainable business models in order to last or to expand.

“??I think the coworking movement is going to split into two main categories. The small coworking spaces, relying on a strong local community and a specific identity and larger networks offering more or cheaper services using scale effects to generate revenues and expand.

Any statement about the future of coworking narrows its potential

Araceli Camargo from The Cube in London refused to embark on a detailed assessment. "Coworking is such a collaborative and diverse organism. Despite the industry being so young, it already has many tangents, applications and visions. So to be able to say what it would look like (in future) would be narrow down its potential.”

Next week we’ll take this topic further by asking coworking operators about their wishes and desires for the movement.


Related article: A wishlist for coworking

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