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 Coeo Space

Coworking Amenities: What Do You Really Need?

So here’s a little-known tidbit about me: when not blogging about commercial real estate, I write novels. (Hopefully will become a well-known tidbit at some point—rest assured that I’ll keep you posted.)
I also have four kids, ranging in age from 9-17. They tend to be loud, kind of smelly, and often suffer from the mad delusion that my purpose in life is to provide them with things. A ride, perhaps, or clean soccer socks (good luck on that one). And food. Always food.
Having loud, smelly, mildly demanding kids in the   house is not conducive to writing anything—be it a blog post or a novel. So I’ve taken to writing elsewhere, most often with a mindful writing group. We meet in the private room of a local restaurant, listen to a guided meditation for about fifteen minutes, then write for four hours.
There’s food available, and coffee, lots of coffee. Although we’re all in the same room together, the rules are that everyone must be respectful—so no talking. The rest of the restaurant chatter is muted as soon as the door to the room is closed. The only sound is the clicking of keys on laptop keyboards (and the occasional sigh of writerly frustration).
No one asks me for help with algebra. Or cares what’s for dinner. No one smells like they came straight from a soccer game.
It’s glorious.
It’s coworking.
And more and more people are finding that it’s the best way to do their job.
Now, keep in mind that my coworking needs are not great, and as a result, my amenity expectations are not high. I fully recognize that reserving a five-hour-stint in a private room in a restaurant twice a week isn’t going to be a solution to most people’s coworking needs. Still, it’s fine for me, for now. The price is right—the cost of a meal, and coffee, and a really big tip. And the camaraderie can’t be beat.
But the room is cold, no matter the season. And there’s only one (one!) outlet in the entire space. Worst of all—no WiFi. While arguably a benefit when I’m working on my novel (no wasting time on social media), this is a huge inconvenience if I’m researching a blog post.
As someone who blogs about commercial real estate, I read regularly about coworking places like The Writer’s Room in NYC, The Hatchery Press in LA, and The Writers Workspace in Chicago, all of which allow you to share equipment, ideas, and expertise 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They provide access to online databases as well as reference books—and in some cases, even a napping area. I ogle their websites and spend time thinking about my own ideal coworking space, and what would it look like.
As coworking spaces have proliferated, the range of amenities has also grown. Options at various locations now include everything from outdoor seating areas to rock climbing walls, yoga sessions to dog parks.
For those pressed for time, there may be an option for laundry/dry cleaning drop-off onsite. Or a fitness center—with locker rooms, showers, and even exercise classes—that can not only save travel time, but provide an option for stress relief during the day. For those with small children, on-site childcare might be invaluable.
And I can see the appeal in all of these. They’re simply less necessary for someone who is only using the space ten hours a week.
My coworking needs—today, at least—are simpler. My ideal coworking space need only offer the following six basic amenities. Only six, and nothing fancy, but they would need to be done well.
(1) Open Work Space
My current coworking location consists of a single room, where we gather to write at a large central table, seated side to side but with enough space to spread out. This works for me. There’s proximity to my colleagues—that’s why we’re here, right? Because writing is a solitary activity and we need community. But we’re also not right on top of each other.
The table—really a mass of smaller tables that have been pushed together—can be reconfigured if necessary, but it rarely is. On occasion, someone will split off and move a single table to another area of the room, which allows slightly more privacy.
Still, there is no place to go to take a call, or to have a conversation without disrupting others. Since we’re talking ideal, in addition to the large table, my coworking space would offer a privacy pod, and a conference room. Sit-to-stand desks would also make the list.
(2) Supplies/Accessories
I’m not even going to discuss the necessity of fast WiFi. Or abundant outlets for charging. Or basic office supplies, and a printer. Clearly these are must-haves that my colleagues and I currently struggle on without—but in my ideal coworking space, we wouldn’t need to.
(3) Food & Drink
There’s coffee available at my current coworking space, of course—that’s a given just about anywhere. But one huge advantage to writing at a restaurant is that there’s even waitstaff to deliver (and refill) it. Meals get delivered, too. When I’m in the middle of a chapter, and don’t want to get out of my seat, this kind of table service is invaluable. It’s one of the factors that keeps me coming back.
(4) Support Staff
Now, I recognize that reasonable minds may differ on the benefit of table service in a coworking space. Some might prefer to get up and walk around. Maybe hit up a vending machine. I get it. But one thing we can probably all agree on is that excellent service in general—having a friendly and knowledgeable staff running the location, even if not also providing dining service—is a top requirement.
(5) Environmental Factors
I’m fortunate that the room in which I write provides good natural light through its abundant windows (which are also equipped with shades to block the occasional glare). Climate control, however—something so basic you don’t even think about it until you don’t have it—is lacking. For now, I rely on a sweater. And a jacket. Sometimes gloves. But my ideal coworking space would definitely do a better job maintaining a comfortable temperature.
(6) Access and Location
In my current space, my writers’ group gets the same two five hour shifts every week. Would I get more done if I could access my coworking space more frequently, or easily adjust the schedule when I have a conflict? Certainly. Many coworking locations offer 24-hour access (often accomplishing this through an access control system, so that they do not need a receptionist or security guard to monitor use), and my ideal space would unquestionably provide this benefit.
Which brings me to one of my biggest requirements of all—finding a location close to me. For all that my current coworking space may be less than ideal in many ways, it’s also only ten minutes from my house. And that’s one of the main reasons you’ll find me there twice a week. Every week.

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Do you utilize a coworking space? Share your must-have amenities!
 
Written by: Kim Pierson
for Coeo Space
 
 
 

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 Coeo Space