In Zoom calls and at conferences, in meetings, and in emails, I regularly come in contact with people who want to talk about coworking. That’s not really surprising, I’m involved in the European Coworking Assembly and have been managing a network of coworking spaces in the Netherlands since 2010.
What has struck me recently is that we in this sector – and by that I mean the commercial real estate sector – lie to each other all day long. Or maybe that’s too strong a statement. We avoid certain topics.
Topics such as: how many people regularly work in your office? How many people look forward to it? If you were to arrange an event, a Friday afternoon gathering for example, how many people show up without it being made mandatory? How many of your customers pay on time? How many of the beautiful square meters you have at your disposal are used by people?
And what is the impact of all our beautiful square meters on society? The environment?
Everyone has a blog, an Insta, a LinkedIn, a Twit – okay maybe not that anymore. A TikTok then. And that’s where the beautiful photos go, but what strikes me is that in the sector we all firmly believe that the image presented by the others is correct, while we know very well that our own socials only show the most beautiful side and in that sense are not a full picture.
We believe that it is up to us, that we muddle through while others race past us and know for sure what they are doing.
For an industry that has always revolved around people in a space, the current period is not easy. It is a period of rapid change and slow reactions. I see it in my own network: recently I asked the members of de Kamer to participate in a survey for a European organization. A number of them were very enthusiastic; an almost equal number utterly bewildered and angry that I should dare ask such a thing. I found the reactions very extreme, and with both I thought, really?
It has been said, written, shouted from the rooftops since 2013 that we need to be more flexible with commercial real estate, that the current approach is not good for the environment, that it is not good for society, that it no longer fits in with how people live. There has been no major change in these industries since the Middle Ages, an average smith of that time could immediately understand how real estate works because there is nothing new here except the means of communication and the speed. But the way people think and act about work has actually changed.
I suggest we just talk to each other again. And here I also see bright spots. I see people and companies going back to basics, to what we do it for, and start building slowly instead of endlessly chasing growth – gotta have that exit plan! – without even looking at profit or sustainability. I mean sustainability for society, as well as for the environment, but especially for society. Uncontrolled and endless growth is the modus operandi of cancer, I don’t think that’s something to base your business model on.
Sometimes I long for a neighborhood pub, but with fast WiFi and ergonomic furniture. And I think many basically think of that as how coworking should be. But the brown pub is a purely local experience, which is also the charm of a brown pub. And work also happens locally, but also more and more regionally and even globally.
The coworking movement once grew out of a collision between the Open Source movement and the hospitality sector, and that is why there was always such a disproportionate amount of coworkers from in and around the IT sectors. We thought of it as an Open Source workplace, where you could introduce yourself just like on GitHub, by showing your work to others and sharing it with them. Over the years it has become something different, it grows with the people and companies. WE are not the future of work: we serve it. And now that the future is in flux, we find it hard to un-learn everything we’ve always imagined.
I don’t have a ready-made answer; I name in this column what I see in front of me. My hope is to get the conversation started and thereby move towards an answer in a few months. Or a story. Together, as befits coworking.