Design for Behavior: Part 3

Coworking Is Like Barcamp Every Day

Last time we showed that the Barcamp format is a simple design that promotes certain behaviors and outcomes. Coworking is a design that promotes a similar set of behaviors on an ongoing basis. This shouldn’t be too surprising as both ideas were conceived and developed by a lot of the same people — Chris Messina and Tara Hunt, among others.

In this round, we’ll cover some of the underpinnings of the design of Coworking; in fact there is so much to cover, the next installment will be dedicated to coworking as well.

What Coworking Isn’t

Upon hearing about coworking (independent workers sharing workspace), most people immediately engage their left brains: OK, so you get a space and then split the rent — you get office amenities at a much lower cost, get out of the house, and work in a “real office.” People immediately assume it’s some kind of real estate play and is similar to the concept behind the postmodern “executive suite.” This conception is dead wrong.

This faulty conception is what has led some to think they would start a “coworking space” and then wade into a lease and other commitments assuming that if they build it, they will come. Who were they building it for? The fact is there is no guarantee that anyone will ever come to any coworking space. So, these folks are left holding the bag wondering what they did wrong.

They failed to build a community first.

Timeline: The Birth of Coworking in Baltimore

Library and Lounge at Beehive Baltimore

Implementing something like coworking or a barcamp is fairly straightforward, but just like making a recipe, the order in which you add ingredients is important. These were the steps we took:

  • July 2007: I heard about coworking online and discussed it at length with Noel Hidalgo while vacationing in Berlin, Germany
  • September 2008: Discussed the concept with Alex Hillman from Philadelphia’s Indy Hall while vacationing in Vienna, Austria
  • October 2008: Mentioned the idea to my friend local attorney and business leader Newt Fowler; traveled to Philadelphia to meet with IndyHall founders Alex Hillman and Geoff DiMasi who generously gave us a crash course in coworking dynamics
  • November 1, 2008: Held a session at SocialDevCamp East 2 to gauge interest in coworking — formed a Google group with 30 members on the spot
  • November 6, 2008: Had our first session at a local coffee shop to see if folks would show up; at least 10 did
  • November 2008-January 2009: Regular coworking sessions at the coffee shop Tuesdays and Thursdays; each day had 5+ people show up
  • December 2008: Sustained interest confirmed our idea that obtaining a space might be a workable idea; developed an arrangement with a local technology incubator location that would allow us to get started without assuming any significant risk
  • January 2009: Incorporated Beehive Baltimore, LLC with a minimal amount of capital from three partners to insure the venture’s success. Secured charter member commitments from 20+ members which would insure our monthly rent number would be covered.
  • February 1, 2009: Had a community “barn raising” where our members and their families came to assemble furniture and setup the Hive
  • February 2, 2009: Grand opening day of work at the Hive with many members present. We’ve been growing and thriving ever since, hosting events like Twestival and Refresh Baltimore.
  • February 15, 2009: Article in the Sunday Baltimore Sun about the launch of coworking in Baltimore

Coworking has an extremely bright future in Baltimore. At each stage along the way, we used tools like Twitter, Facebook, and events to discuss the initiative and get input from our community stakeholders. We figured out who would be served by coworking, drafted them into the discussion, and at each step made sure that we had buy-in from the people who would be the primary users. A chain of dozens of decisions led to a successful outcome; at any stage along the way, failure to observe and listen to our community could have aborted our efforts.

Now that our community is strong, we can exist anyplace; it’s not about the space, it’s about the people.

Some Traps to Avoid

Don’t try to “impress.” It doesn’t matter how “money” your space looks, or how “professional” it appears, or if it’s in a trendy place, or if it’s built with glass and granite. That said, having a pleasant workspace is always desirable, but people interested in coworking are generally not looking to convey a sense of status in their workspace. They are looking for community, company, and mental stimulation. You can get that in a modestly furnished workspace just as easily as in a high-rise office building. Find something that’s sufficiently good and pleasant; if you’re trying to impress people, you’re doing it wrong.

“Amenities” are nice, but people cowork to be around people. The trap of “shared expenses” often leads people to assume that one of the major draws must be that you can share toys like copiers, laser printers, air hockey tables, Xboxes, and fancy coffee machines. Sure, toys are nice. But folks can get good coffee or play videogames a lot of other places. What they can’t get is collaboration and community. Do that well and let the amenities take care of themselves.

Don’t overthink your rules and processes. A common worry among people not familiar with coworking in practice is that it can somehow be dominated by obnoxious personalities and that a well defined governance must be in place to manage everything. This is a huge waste of mental energy. If you build your community first and set the right pricing structure, everything will take care of itself. Communities are self reinforcing, and pricing sets disincentives for ne’er-do-wells. More on this later.

Remember that people are fragile and perishable. Your first and only asset is your community. Listen to them and be sensitive to their voices. They are your stakeholders. If you start holding coworking sessions in a place on the south side of town, don’t setup a formal coworking space on the north side of town and expect the same folks to show up. People are creatures of habit and have their own natural geographic orbits. If you do have to make a major change (like location), don’t assume that just making the change will make it so. Every decision that affects the community needs to be tested and validated by the community.

Don’t be afraid to lead. As a designer of your coworking community, don’t be afraid to make decisions and take steps that you sincerely believe are beneficial. The community will give you feedback if they think you need it. All groups need leadership, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because coworking is a community endeavor that all decisions must be made in tortured group meetings. Your community need not be a democracy, and it’s also not a commune. Your only mission is to be effective — so take the lead. Likewise, encourage other members of your community to take the lead and make stuff happen. If you get mired in egalitarian rhetoric, you’ll accomplish nothing, and people will get frustrated. Avoid meetings: use tools like email and Twitter to stay in constant communication, and opt for one-on-one facetime when that is what’s called for.

Don’t seek institutional validation. You may be tempted to leverage existing perceived power centers in your community to help “seed” your initiative. Don’t bother. It’ll come with strings attached, endless meetings, and you’ll spend lots of time explaining coworking to people who just won’t understand. Act and get things started; then await developments. Your community institutions and the press will scramble to understand what you’re doing once it’s clear you are successful. Then, you can accept partnerships that make sense: on your terms.

Turning the Vision into a Design

OK, so you get the vision of coworking — that it’s about community first and that you shouldn’t try to open a space without finding that community. Suppose you find your community and you’re ready to advance it to the next step — now what? We’ll cover this next time — how to design your coworking community for maximum joy and minimum administrivia. The good news is that you don’t need an elaborate set of processes or a council of elders. On the flip side, you do need to give it some thought. But, that’s what design is: thought.

See you next time — and we welcome your feedback on how you’re using design to shape your life!