‘My office is at WeWork but my spirit is with my company’

New research has found that employees at large enterprises feel stronger connections to their companies when they work from coworking spaces

If you’re reading this from the comfort of a coworking space, you can probably tick off the benefits of working where you do. Studies have shown that compared to traditional offices, people who work in coworking spaces report greater levels of flexibility and thriving (defined as vitality and learning at work), a greater ability to network, and a stronger sense of community—especially when they work at enterprise companies.

Those personal benefits are incredible—but what are the benefits to your company? Peter Bacevice, Ph.D., a research associate at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, was curious whether employees identify more with the culture of their organization or of the workspace itself. He and coauthors Gretchen Spreitzer, Hilary Hendricks, and Daniel Davis conducted research exploring the pervasiveness of shared workspace culture, the results of which were published in the Harvard Business Review in April.

We saw that identity with one’s organization was significantly higher than with WeWork.

“Organizations invest valuable resources nurturing connectivity among employees and developing work cultures,” the researchers wrote. “But in a coworking space that houses multiple organizations, there are several messages, norms, and values competing for members’ attention.” As the research team explored this hypothesis, the results were surprising.

Research has shown that when employees feel a connection to their company, they are inclined to participate more, work better, and stay longer. “When you meet someone, you often ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ In our society, work plays such a prominent role. So the notion of being part of something at work is so central to our lives,” Bacevice says, adding that over the past 50 years, our collective commitment to work has increased while our participation in other community-centered pursuits, like civic involvement or religious organizations, has decreased. “People want to feel like they’re a part of something,” he says. “When you’re a member of a specific company, and you can align with the values and the mission of that organization, you’re part of a profession. “If you identify more with something, you’re going to likely be more committed to it.”  

To understand the extent to which one’s workplace identity (defined here as the extent to which one feels emotionally, psychologically, and subjectively bound to an employer) is altered when the additional social layer of a coworking space is factored in, Bacevice and his coauthors administered three waves of surveys to more than 1,000 respondents from WeWork member companies ranging in size from 10-person teams to global corporations. 

Bacevice and his team hypothesized that employees’ identity with WeWork would increase over time while their identity with their employers would decrease, lessening and diluting the benefits of identifying with their company. However, the team observed the opposite effect. “We saw that identity with one’s organization was significantly higher than with WeWork.” 

The WeWork environment actually supported and enhanced the connection employees felt with their organizations. “We talk a lot about making a life, not just a living,” Liz Burrow, WeWork’s head of workplace strategy for enterprise said in a fireside chat with Bacevice at WeWork’s Chelsea HQ. 

Upon analysis, Bacevice and his team observed that coworking spaces give some members a sense of professionalism and credibility that traditional remote working (say, from a home office or local café) does not. One survey respondent said of her company’s investment in the WeWork space, “We know that it means we are important and worth the cost they’re spending to keep us together in an office setting.”

Survey respondents also felt the curation of the space was a positive reflection on their company. Bacevice cites one respondent from a large enterprise who said, “[Working at WeWork] helped my company do a 180; it makes us look really cool.”

Of the members who indicated that WeWork plays an active role in shaping their professional and organizational identities, Bacevice and his coauthors noted higher identity scores for both their work organizations and that of WeWork, as well as higher levels of thriving and productivity. The takeaway, Bacevice says, is that when employees align with a community at work, “you can expect to have potentially better work experience and stronger sense of identity to your own company.”

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