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 […]

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

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