Before I officially began researching coworking spaces, I had some exposure to what coworking spaces were. I had been to a few coworking spaces as part of research on issue-oriented hackathons. One space was near Gramercy Park on Park Avenue in Manhattan; another space was in Downtown Atlanta on Peachtree Street; another was in Brooklyn, housed within an old pharmaceutical research building. At the time of that research I did not pay much attention to these spaces as coworking spaces, but focused more on how these spaces compared to other sites for hackathons. What I recall was that these spaces were set up with plenty of power plugs and a strong WiFi signal, as well as endless coffee, all of which were vital for hackathons to run smoothly. I had also unknowingly been to a coworking space on multiple occasions as part of some contract web development work I did during my PhD. The space was located in Alpharetta, Georgia (a sprawling suburb of Atlanta) on the second story of a generic stuccoed strip mall. Rather than meeting at his house, I met the lead developer in a numbered meeting room behind a frosted glass sliding door. I recall asking why we didn’t just meet downstairs at the Starbucks, to which he commented something about not wanting to have to pay for coffee to do work as if the meeting room came at no cost. In these early instances, coworking spaces were intriguing, and particularly the term coworking.
In very general terms, coworking spaces refer to a large category of short-term, privately-operated facilities that subdivide leased or owned space into smaller units. These facilities offer month-to-month memberships, as well as day passes, that are priced to entice small and medium businesses, freelance and contract workers, remote employees, and other people operating with low overhead and in need of work space. While the activity of coworking often implies hot desking (non-exclusive desks or work areas that are occupied as needed), coworking spaces as an industry refer to a broader category of short-term sub-parceled office/work space. As such, coworking spaces frequently offer graduated memberships that include devoted desks and semi-private or private offices. Beyond space, members receive basic amenities with their membership, such as WiFi, printing services, coffee, and conference rooms, and can purchase additional amenities, such as mailboxes and storage, as needed. Where space and office amenities are the visible material of paid entry, coworking spaces offer many immaterial perks too. From my limited exposure (now confirmed from some field work), many spaces highlight that working in a diverse environment leads to new thinking and new opportunities. While the former is hard to determine, the latter finds representation in the professional and social support networks coworking spaces explain as a—maybe the—reason to join. Some spaces even have internal software applications to match members in search of investment, gigs, or colleagues, as well as offer a variety of programming, from Happy Hours to subject-matter panels, to encourage sociability. From these efforts, coworking spaces claim a collective identity (i.e. a community) through the many diverse workers housed within. Lastly, these spaces often claim to be creative, inspirational, and passion-driven places to work.
What initially interested me about coworking spaces was less that these were a global phenomenon (I now know such spaces are everywhere, and maybe I should have known this already) and more that the term coworking—particularly the co part of coworking—was confusing given what I did know. Clearly coworking in the context of coworking spaces does not refer to some traditional notion of a coworker. While other people may not get quite as confused or confounded by terms as I do, I have found confusion of this nature to be very productive;1 hence, my current research into coworking spaces.
Early on in my post-doc I scrawled on the board in my office “What does co mean exactly?” Words fanned out from the question: Colocated? Collaborative? Cooperative? Collective? Communal? While “what does co mean in coworking?” is not an answerable research question, it marked the beginning of my research.
The obvious answer was that co is just an English prefix, co- (kəʊ), that means: 2
- with : together : joint : jointly
- in or to the same degree
3. a: one that is associated in an action with another : fellow : partner b: having a usually lesser share in duty or responsibility : alternate : deputy
Definition 3a seems the most fitting. Coworking spaces are spaces where people are “associated in an action with another”, i.e. as coworkers, engaged in working together with others, i.e. coworking. While this might suffice to explain the name, such a definition seems to be but a gesture as most people in coworking spaces do not work together as much as alongside one another.
As the general description highlights, coworking spaces are not traditional office spaces. Typically the term coworker refers to people who work for the same company. To refer to someone as a coworker indicates an association through a shared working arrangement, often mediated by a company or organization. In other words, coworker is often synonymous with colleague. However, very few of the people working in coworking spaces work for the same company, and so this traditional use of the term coworker is akin to referring to someone who shares a wall in a duplex as a roommate. While coworker qua colleague might alternately mean working for or with a shared goal (i.e. collegiality), the working arrangements of coworking spaces offer very little of a shared goal beyond the general goal of doing work. Instead, the term coworker in these instances seems to indicate people working alongside one another, that is, colocated workers. However, co(located)working is a bad fit for other reasons.
Coworking spaces are more than the structural or infrastructural relationship amongst people or spaces. From the outset of this research, I have been fascinated by mottoes or tag-lines for these spaces. For example, the motto for WeWork, a global chain of coworking spaces, is “Create Your Life’s Work.” Beyond being inspirational to be around busy people or more productive than the distractions of a home office (both common rally cries for joining a coworking space), the mottoes of coworking spaces point to the ideological components of membership. In the month of active field work, I have heard very little about the WiFi connectivity and a great deal about the social life of coworkers and the values of coworking. More than the paid transaction, true membership to coworking seems to be a cultural affiliation. This cultural membership is most apparent in mottoes like that of WeWork and quasi-transcendental comments like “coworking needs to be experienced to be understood.” Referring to coworking spaces as simply colocated working overlooks coworking spaces as ideological spaces, and ignores the felt reality of those in these spaces producing and reproducing the culture they pay for.
As these snippets of early research illustrate, understanding coworking spaces is more complicated than answering what co means in a grammatical sense. Maybe this is most represented by my own shift in spelling the word co-working to coworking. While I certainly would rather type without a hyphen (it is fewer key strokes in a very long writing project), the change is not stylistic or practical. Instead, in surveying coworking sites, I found that coworking (no hyphen) is the preferred spelling.3 As such, this spelling is an internal assertion that coworking is not a portmanteau, but something unique in-and-of itself. For the time being and as I continue doing field work, I need to add coworking with no hyphen to my computer’s dictionary.
I spend some 250 pages lamenting the term “user experience” in my dissertation after witnessing people use UX with so much confidence at a company called LTC. When I finally decided that I would follow the term as my dissertation topic, I recall naively/glibly telling my advisor that the main research question was “What the hell is the term user experience anyway?” ↩