What Constitutes Community in Coworking? Providing a Comfortable, Supportive Environment

Ask any of your friends who cowork—one of the biggest benefits of the experience is the sense of community it provides, giving those without a traditional office the opportunity to toss around ideas and socialize in a comfortable, supportive environment. Members can network, sip coffee, and perhaps even play a little pool, all while finishing that big work project.

By providing this sense of community, coworking enhances its members’ opportunities for success in a way that working from home or a lonely hotel room—or even the neighborhood coffee shop—simply cannot.

So what happens when your coworking space fails to offer the comfortable, supportive community you were hoping to find?

Some coworking spaces have been accused of feeling more like an old boys’ club than a community, appealing to and used predominantly by white, middle-class men. Intentionally or not, such places can feel significantly less welcoming to women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and people in other marginalized groups.

To offer women the opportunity for a coworking room of their own, providing them with the kind of “safe, affirming professional network” many had been unable to find at other coworking spaces, in 2016, Lauren Kassan and Audrey Gelman opened The Wing in the Flatiron District of New York City. With luxury beauty products filling its bathrooms, color-coded, woman-authored books lining its walls, impeccable lighting flooding its lobby—even its own review from Architectural Digest—this “workspace with community-building at its core” is part coworking space, part throwback to the women’s clubs of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

More than simply a space for everyone from freelancer to professional to CEO to work and network, The Wing is a place for social activism, offering chartered buses to feminist rallies and bringing in speakers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hillary Clinton. There are panel discussions, performances, in-house cafés, even a cupcake decorating class. But the backbone of all of it is the work, and the inspiration and networking that can come from being surrounded by a group of people you are comfortable with. As Gelman put it, “Women set more ambitious life goals for themselves in the company of other women.”

It’s the kind of space women need to stay competitive, particularly when traditional social clubs and networks have been unavailable or unwelcoming. As Anna North and Chavie Lieber report in their thought-provoking article for Vox :

“It’s the same reason why men join golf clubs,” Cadran Cowansage [creator of Leap, a social network for women in tech] said, “There’s so much more to business than what happens in an office. It’s the sharing of insight, advice, and connections that really supports people behind the scenes and helps propel them in their careers. In a male-dominated workplace, women tend to be excluded from those experiences.”

All that being said, how can a space focused on meeting the needs of a historically marginalized part of the population, a space where even the phone booths are named for female heroes, both real and fictional (Anita Hill, Ramona Quimby, Lieutenant Uhura, Lisa Simpson), be wrong?

The Wing has come under fire for not being inclusive enough, allegedly denying access to potential patrons both directly and implicitly. On the direct side, the Wing has been sued by at least one man, who alleged gender discrimination based on the fact that The Wing did not, at that time, accept male applicants. In addition, the organization’s initial policy not to accept men was investigated by the New York City Commission of Human Rights, on the grounds that it may violate the New York City Human Rights Law, which “prohibits discrimination in New York City.” (The investigation is now closed.)

The Wing has since that time changed its membership policy with the goal of increasing inclusivity, particularly to transgender people and those beyond the gender binary. Applicants are now evaluated based on their “commitment to The Wing’s mission of the advancement of women through community. Members and guests are welcome at The Wing regardless of their perceived gender or gender identity.” (Accordingly, men are now seen on The Wing premises, with some women finding that it is changing the atmosphere.)

While such policy changes may help The Wing with further challenges based on perceived gender discrimination, they fail to address the concerns of a second group of critics, those who allege that The Wing implicitly denies access to the type of women who most need the opportunities offered by the organization. Such allegations focus on the fact that The Wing requires potential patrons to fill out an application to join, and, if an applicant is accepted, charges a fee of over $200 a month for membership (although notably, this fee is similar to or even less than the cost of many other coworking spaces, including WeWork—an investor). By doing so, critics contend, The Wing has created an organization that is out of reach for many women. As Kaitlyn Borysiewicz, cofounder of The Melanin Collective, put it, The Wing seeks to celebrate “a certain type of woman.

Not Everywoman.

Linda Kinstler capably sums up this concern in The Guardian:

The attention The Wing generates is, in large part, because it was founded upon a paradox: its brand is steeped in the feminist language of emancipation, empowerment and equality, while its business is based on one of society’s most elitist institutions: the private members’ club.

Similarly, in an article discussing not only the sense of community in The Wing, but in comparable coworking spaces such as Spring Place, NeueHouse, Soho House, and The Assemblage, Jessica Pressler provides, “You can almost forget that they’re private clubs, which by definition exist to be selective or, as sociologist Diana Kendall points out in her book Members Only, to accrue social capital ‘that is unavailable to outsiders.’”

While The Wing has a fulltime team devoted to diversity and inclusion—and offers one-year scholarships for those who can’t afford its membership (approximately 7% of members are on scholarship)—many, like Borysiewicz, are saying this is not enough. In “Washington Post, We Have a New Title: Is ‘The Wing’ Too White for Women of Color?” (a response to a Washington Post article on The Wing’s Georgetown opening), Borysiewicz notes that “through its exclusive memberships and its misguided use of history, The Wing does a pretty solid job of reestablishing ingroups and outgroups.

 Others agree, and have taken steps to build a space of their own. When Najla Austin couldn’t find a social club/coworking location that fit with her own sense of community, she chose to open her own space. Ethel’s Club, “the first private social and wellness club designed with people of colour in mind”, recently opened in Brooklyn. The website describes it as providing “cozy lounge areas, quiet workspaces, a wellness room, on-site therapy consultations, a rotating calendar of chefs, phone booths and more.”

“The Wing,” Austin told Kinstler, “was created for a certain type of woman, which, from my point of view, is not for me.” That said, Austin has also noted that she admires what the women behind the Wing have accomplished.

Other people have echoed Austin’s desire for a space like The Wing, but one which they feel truly fits them. The notion that The Wing might not be able to provide the kind of safe, affirming workspace they are looking for has grown since a racial incident last May at The Wing’s West Hollywood location. The incident, which involved the threatening confrontation of a member and her guest, both Black women, by a White woman, has led some members to cancel their memberships.

Many people feel that The Wing’s response to the incident has been inadequate, something that Gelman and Kassan acknowledge. “Our handling of [the May confrontation] left everyone feeling disappointed, and the Black member felt especially unprotected and let down,” they wrote to Wing members in a September 2019 email.

Journalist Char Adams, in her timely article, “Why We Need More Black Women Workspaces,” sums up the need for community in workspaces as follows:

For Black women, community is often paramount as we navigate life in predominantly White, and inherently anti-Black, spaces. So, as shared workspaces become increasingly popular, it’s no surprise that Black women are seeking community within this societal phenomenon. The problem is that we’re continuing to see the age-old dilemma of the out-of-place Black woman, even in co-working spaces that appear to value diversity.

In the article, Adams espouses the need for culturally relevant shared workspaces, particularly those with a predominantly Black demographic. Along with Ethel’s Place, she references Zora’s House (in Columbus, Ohio) and Dream Village (in Maryland near Washington, D.C.), as examples of businesses working to meet that need.

None of the controversy appears to be slowing Kassan and Gelman. The Wing has opened 10 locations since 2016 and plans to double that number by the end of the year. Each location is profitable, and members total over 11,000 worldwide, with an extensive waiting list.

Indeed, the controversy may ultimately have positive effects on the future of the coworking, prompting transparent discussion of what constitutes community, and how coworking spaces can better provide a comfortable, supportive environment for all members.

As Borysiewicz states in her article, her intent in writing was not to condemn The Wing, but “to complicate notions of white women creating seemingly inclusive spaces without a single nod to the experiences of women of color. Women of color face extraordinary barriers, not just in the workplace, but in their health and wellbeing, finances, relationships, education, and more.” The controversy surrounding The Wing underscores how important it is that barriers such as these—those that impact women of color, as well as those that affect other marginalized groups—are made part of the discussion.

Written by: Kim Pierson
for CoeoSpace

Learning from the New Kid on the Block: Four Steps to Creating a Coworking-Style Community in a Traditional Office Space

Among the many benefits attributed to coworking is the sense of community it provides freelancers and remote workers—a benefit that appears quite real. According to a recent survey of coworking professionals, an overwhelming majority of them—almost 9 of 10—stated that they are happier and less lonely than they were prior to coworking.

Done right, a coworking space can provide the kind of personal interaction that workers miss out on when working from home, or their local coffee shop.

Or increasingly, when working a traditional desk job.

Remote workers aren’t the only ones experiencing loneliness and isolation. Many traditional employees also find their workplace lacks a real sense of community—and in some cases, that community is decreasing all the time. With the number of remote workers on the rise, those still making the daily commute have fewer colleagues actually within the workplace to turn to for active collaboration and socializing. Talking with their coworking friends, traditional workers are increasingly aware that they are missing out on something.

It doesn’t have to be that way. While property managers may not be able to (nor wish to) recreate the coworking setup exactly, there are elements they can take from these spaces to make the traditional office more hospitable and welcoming for those working there.

  • Create spaces for collaboration. Whether these are dedicated team meeting spaces, open work spaces, or even a lounge or café where employees can go to chat with colleagues, providing workers with an area to bounce ideas off others can help grow a sense of community. Experiment to see what type of set-up works best for your particular employees and adjust accordingly.
  • Hold regular—but optional—events outside of work where employees can interact, learn from each other, and build friendships and relationships.
  • Use technology to maintain connections. Through technology such as video conferencing, employees can continue to collaborate with even those colleagues who are working remotely.

In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”: if you don’t have the capacity within your existing building to offer the above options on-site, consider making coworking part of your business strategy. Use the alternative workspace as a bonus place for your workers to meet and work. Providing access to a coworking space can also help to attract top talent to whom this type of flexible work place has become the norm.

Written by: Kim Pierson

for CoeoSpace

Increasing Meeting Efficiency Through Better Use of Conference Space

With U.S. companies losing billions of dollars each year to poorly organized meetings, it has become increasingly obvious that changes must be made to increase efficiency. While there is no one perfect path to a well-run meeting, there are a number of techniques—such as setting a clear agenda and limiting the number of invitees—that can help. One factor that is often overlooked is how meeting spaces can be used and adapted to improve productivity.

As WorkSocial stressed in their recent piece on meeting room design:

Well-designed meeting rooms can put attendees at ease, encourage conversation, and induce creativity. Mindful meeting room design can drastically improve effectiveness of your meetings.

Many office buildings have several distinct and different conference areas available, and choosing the right one involves an analysis of not only the number of expected attendees, but also the purpose of the meeting, and how your team likes to work. A room that seems perfect for six colleagues preparing for a presentation may not function nearly as well for a large board meeting, and vice versa.

Consider whether your team prefers standing meetings to sitting. Do they like to work on their own, or as a part of a group? Do they do their best work when they have access to a white board, or might they need equipment to teleconference with employees working remotely? All these factors should be considered in order to optimize a meeting’s efficiency. But the size of the room, because it’s the hardest to change, is probably the place to start.

(1) DETERMINING THE BEST SIZE FOR YOUR MEETING SPACE

Today’s offices generally offer some combination of the following types of conference spaces:

  • Privacy Booths: these relative newcomers to the world of meeting spaces are intended for telephone calls or one-on-one discussions. An upgrade on the cubicle, Perfect for sharing sensitive information in otherwise open floor plans, privacy booths are frequently modular and thus can be added easily and inexpensively. Many companies have multiple privacy booths so they can be used as the need arises, without advance scheduling.

  • Huddle Rooms: typically intended for 4-8 people, huddle rooms are particularly useful for brainstorming and collaboration, as well as small corporate training sessions. They commonly contain advanced videoconferencing capabilities that can help to create a connected culture. As with privacy booths, most companies do not allow huddle rooms to be reserved, allowing more flexibility in use. They are particularly valuable in offices with open floor plans, as they allow small groups to meet without noise or other distractions.
  • Small Meeting Rooms: more than simply convenient rooms for internal meetings, these can also serve as places to work on longer-term projects too substantial to be packed up at the end of the day. Rooms this size must generally be reserved ahead of time.

  • Large Conference Rooms: these are the rooms where a company pulls out all the stops. The largest meeting space, with top-of-the-line furnishings, state of the art equipment, and a lovely view, a large conference room is used primarily for meetings with clients or others who executives are trying to impress.
  • Outdoor Spaces: while less traditional than indoor conference rooms, outdoor meeting spaces are becoming increasingly common. Outdoor workspace can promote relaxation, as well as encouraging creativity and innovation. Patios, gazebos, and rooftop gardens have all become popular conference spots—with some companies even holding walking meetings along nearby trails.

(2) OTHER MEETING ROOM CONSIDERATIONS

(A) Décor & Lighting: While not every company has access to an outdoor conference space, all can enjoy the benefit of the great outdoors by bringing certain aspects inside. Placing live plants in meeting rooms can have a relaxing impact, as can maximizing natural light. Indeed, lighting often plays a significant role in creating the desired meeting atmosphere, with softer lights making a space appear welcoming, and (dimmable) brighter lights generally preferred for more formal meeting rooms.

(B) Color: Like lighting, color can impact the effectiveness of a meeting space. Cool colors such as green and blue have long been touted as helping with productivity and relaxation, whereas warm colors like yellow are said to aid in creativity. Materials such as wood also add warmth, while glass is associated with a more modern feel. Some businesses like to use company colors or incorporate a logo into the meeting room décor in order to better tie the space to the company.

(C) Sound: Meeting room acoustics should also be considered. Not only should these rooms be soundproofed—keeping meeting contents private and outside noise from becoming a distraction—but set up to provide optimal communication within the space, without echoing or other distortion. This is particularly important when microphones or speakers are in use.

(D) Furniture & Technology: Comfortable office furniture is an essential part of an effective conference room, but other amenities may not be. While it is important that a company have access to features such as projectors, screens, white boards, microphones, speakers, refreshments—even height-adjustable tables for those standing meetings—not every meeting room must provide each and every one of these. Meeting rooms can be customized according to the ways in which they are most likely to be used—and modified when necessary.

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Does your office’s conference space meet the needs of your team? Please comment below.

Written By; Kim Pierson
for CoeoSpace