What is coworking?

Here’s everything you need to know about coworking spaces and the companies that use them

WeWork Sony Center in Berlin. Photographs by WeWork

Coworking is a term used to describe a working arrangement in which people from different teams and companies come together to work in a single shared space.

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The first coworking spaces began appearing in the early 2000s. They attracted mostly self-employed freelancers and web entrepreneurs searching for an alternative to working from coffee shops, business centers, and home offices. 

Since then, coworking has become a global phenomenon, and coworking spaces themselves have evolved to keep up with the changing ways we work. There were an estimated 19,000 coworking spaces around the world in 2019. Today, they’re used by everyone from individuals working remotely to entire corporate teams.

What is coworking space?

In the simplest sense, coworking space is an environment that’s designed to accommodate people from different companies who come to do work. 

Coworking space is characterized by shared facilities, services, and tools. Sharing infrastructure in this way helps to spread the cost of running an office across members, but coworking spaces are more than just a way of reducing overhead. 

Coworking spaces are community centers, collaboration hubs, and social spaces where workers from different backgrounds can come together to share expertise and explore new ideas. Coworking has communal roots dating back to the first “hackerspaces” in Europe, and today’s coworking spaces retain a strong social aspect.

WeWork 80 George Street in Edinburgh, UK.

Lately, coworking spaces are also being used by larger companies seeking to cut down on their unused office space, move away from traditional headquarters, and embrace a more flexible way of working. 

Coworking spaces are a way for growing businesses to expand into new areas and access fresh talent pools without taking on the risk of a long-term lease. They’re a convenient space for newly remote workers to continue to meet and collaborate with colleagues without having to travel too far.

The history of coworking

  • 1995 — The first hackerspace opens in Berlin. A precursor to the modern coworking space, these community-operated venues attracted coders, scientists, and software engineers and acted as a hub for sharing new ideas, comparing code, and hosting social events and seminars.
  • 1999 — Apple launches the first iBook. One of many increasingly powerful laptops of the era, the device enabled workers to be productive on the go. The iconic and colorful clamshell design was a common sight in coffee shops, study halls, and anywhere freelancers gathered to work.
  • 2002 — An “entrepreneurs center” opens in Vienna. Located inside a run-down factory, Schraubenfabrik was a shared open-plan office that fostered a growing community of startups, freelancers, and architects before the term “coworking” entered the mainstream. Schraubenfabrik exists to this day, and proudly calls itself the “mother of coworking.”
  • 2004 — A “work club” opens in Emeryville, California. When Neil Goldberg, an architect and designer, couldn’t find a buyer for his warehouse in the Bay Area, he transformed the building into the Gate 3 WorkClub: a shared space for dotcom telecommuters working in and around San Francisco. 
  • 2005 — The first official coworking space opens in San Francisco. Software engineer Brad Neuberg devised a new type of shared workspace that would bring together individual workers in a setting that was more social and productive than a home office. He launched the San Francisco Coworking Space at Spiral Muse, a feminist collective in the Mission District.
  • 2008 — The global financial crash and the ensuing recession changes the world of work. With businesses downsizing and rising job losses, record numbers of workers turned to self-employment, reshaping the job landscape.
  • 2009 — At South by Southwest, several unofficial coworking events take place. These impromptu meetings formed the framework of what would later become the Global Coworking Unconference Conference. By the end of the year, there were an estimated 160 coworking spaces around the world.
  • 2010 — The first WeWork location opens in New York. The 3,000 square foot coworking space on the corner of Lafayette Street was characterized by its industrial aesthetic, wooden floors, and exposed brickwork—iconic design elements still seen in many WeWork locations around the world today.
  • 2013 — The coworking movement is now firmly established, with new sites opening up almost every day to meet the growing demand for flexible office space. That year, there were an estimated 2,500 coworking spaces worldwide.
  • 2014 — WeWork opens its first coworking space in London. Today there are 43 WeWork buildings in the UK capital.
  • 2017 — WeWork opens 90 new locations in 31 cities around the world. In New York, the company launched its first gym and fitness center at its coworking space at 85 Broad Street
  • 2019According to Statistica, there are almost 19,000 coworking spaces around the world.
  • 2020 – WeWork launches WeWork On Demand and WeWork All Access, two new membership options designed around the flexible future of work.

Advantages of coworking space

The continued rise of coworking spaces in cities all across the world is driven by a bunch of different factors. Some of them are economic. The 2008 financial crash led to a boom in newly self-employed entrepreneurs and freelancers, many of whom needed someplace to work and collaborate that wasn’t their own living room.

The COVID-19 pandemic shook things up again, accelerating the work-from-home trend as social distancing restrictions put the brakes on returning to the office. Now, as workers demand more flexibility in how and where they do their work, the traditional office is being reimagined as a collaboration hub, a creative space, and a hybrid workplace.

WeWork Crossroads in San Mateo, CA.

Coworking space can be a lifesaver for individual workers, but it also plays a big part in any company’s strategy to shift toward a more flexible way of working. Let’s take a look at some of the main advantages of coworking spaces.

  • Greater flexibility. Most coworking spaces don’t require you to commit to a long-term contract. Instead, freelancers and startups can take advantage of shorter leases and flexible pay-as-you-go terms, which can help keep things affordable for young companies just starting out.
  • A sense of community. Coworking was created to help early web entrepreneurs escape the drudgery and isolation of working from home, and while they’ve evolved to fulfill a much wider range of roles, they’re still very much social spaces at heart. A coworking space connects you with a group of like-minded professionals.
  • Frictionless networking. This goes hand-in-hand with the community aspect of coworking spaces we mentioned above. When you share a physical space with workers from your own industry and beyond, you unlock potential opportunities, build strong relationships, and develop lasting connections with new people.
  • Boosted productivity. Sharing a coworking space with a bunch of driven and focused coworkers is a surefire way to enhance your own productivity. Not only is it more difficult to slack off when someone else is around, but physically traveling to a space that’s dedicated to working helps to regiment your schedule. 
  • More creativity. We’re more creative when we’re around other people. Whether you’re working in a creative industry or you simply need a creative solution to a tricky problem, chatting with friends and colleagues helps kick-start new thought processes and introduce perspectives and ideas you hadn’t considered. 
  • Lower costs. One of the main benefits of a coworking space is greater cost-efficiency. By sharing things like office facilities, reception services, internet, and printers with employees from other companies, businesses on a tight budget can avoid service charges and cut out many of the usual overheads associated with a long-term real estate lease.

Disadvantages of coworking space

Of course, a coworking space isn’t necessarily the right fit for every type of business. Let’s take a look at some of the potential downsides of moving to a coworking space, as well as how best to mitigate these disadvantages.

  • Limited scope for customization. Members of a coworking space tend not to have much say in the shape, design, and layout of the office. What you see is usually what you get, so if a coworking space is too small for your needs or doesn’t have the exact utilities your business requires, you’ll need to look for a more suitable solution.
  • Less privacy. If you’re a bigger corporation, or you work on undisclosed projects or with sensitive user data, you obviously can’t have strangers wandering around the place, peeking at screens, and leafing through printouts at the copy machine. Coworking spaces are community-driven social hubs that thrive on collaboration, but this may mean less privacy for those who work there.
  • No branding. Many coworking spaces won’t allow branding or company logos to be displayed around a shared office, so if you want to make a good first impression on new clients or potential hires, your options are limited.

There is a better solution for large companies who want the flexibility and features of a coworking space without giving up any privacy or control. WeWork has dedicated private offices in cities across the world that can be configured to suit the way your company works. 

Additionally,  full-floor office solutions are equipped with high-end amenities only accessible to you and feature privacy-enhancing phone booths, stylish meeting rooms, branded entry, and scalable design for 100 or more workers.

Who uses coworking space?

The demographis of coworking spaces are changing. They’re no longer dominated by the classic stereotype of Silicon Valley startups and creative freelancers. Instead, modern coworking spaces attract a broad community, from small businesses to enormous international companies. 

For example, Microsoft is taking full advantage of the benefits of coworking space to cut their employees’ commuting time around New York City. The tech giant used WeWork All Access to avoid countless wasted hours spent traveling between meetings. This led to a boost in productivity, happier teams, and invaluable access to the collaborative communities found in WeWork’s coworking spaces.

WeWork Pequetita 111 in São Paulo.

Joining Microsoft are a host of other large technology corporations trying to move away from formal offices, including IBM, Facebook, Samsung, and Verizon. Even notoriously secretive Apple was reported to have used a coworking space in Berlin to discreetly work on undisclosed projects in 2017.

Despite this influx of business titans, freelancers continue to make up most of the members of coworking spaces worldwide. According to the latest report from the Global Coworking Survey, 42 percent of coworkers are freelancers, while 14 percent describe themselves as digital nomads.

However, when you zoom in on major cities—especially across North America and Asia—it’s employees who represent the largest group of members in coworking spaces by far. The trend can be explained by the growing number of companies leasing full-floor offices in coworking spaces in urban areas, while freelancers are a lot more likely to use coworking spaces in smaller towns closer to home.

The most popular profession in coworking spaces globally is IT, followed by marketing and public relations. Slightly more than half of all coworking members are women, and the average age is 36.

The evolution of coworking space: other methods of coworking

Although the term “coworking” was only recently coined, the basic concept is nothing new. Collectives and maker spaces have always existed in some form, and people have been working alongside one another for about as long as there have been people. 

But in just the past few years, coworking spaces are being reconsidered in the context of fast-changing workplace trends. Companies are shifting toward a more distributed way of working. Employees are demanding more flexibility and autonomy in when and how they use the office. Remote workers want a space away from home to focus and be productive, meet colleagues, and use specialist equipment.

This has given rise to the hybrid workplace model, a new type of working environment that combines aspects of remote working and in-office working. To support this style of working, businesses have had to transform their existing office layouts by removing fixed cubicles and assigned desks, and introducing design features that encourage more teamwork, creativity, and innovation. 

As you might expect, the results look a lot more like coworking spaces than they do traditional offices. Once thought of as a liminal space filled with digital nomads and tech entrepreneurs playing table tennis, the modern coworking space has matured. Coworking spaces are now flexible offices and collaboration hubs designed to serve companies of all sizes as well as individuals.

Terms like flexible working and hybrid working are often used interchangeably, though they can mean different things in different contexts. To help make some sense of things, we’ve put together a series of articles going into more detail about the key differences between these methods of coworking.

Tips on finding coworking space

Location

Whether you’re a solo freelancer in search of a desk or a CEO in charge of 1,000 people, the most important aspect of finding a coworking space is its location. The best coworking space might not be the one closest to you, but it should be convenient to reach by car, bike, or public transportation. If your goal is to network with like-minded coworkers, make waves in a new city, or even attract new staff, a perfectly located coworking space can make a huge difference.

Amenities

They might seem like a nice bonus, but top-level amenities can truly elevate a coworking space into something special. Endless free coffee, reliable Wi-Fi, and printing facilities are a good starting point, but consider other features when making your choice. Outdoor space is an enormous perk in urban centers, for example, while experienced on-site staff and smartly designed meeting areas help you emanate a professional vibe around clients.

Flexibility

For large employers, a coworking space can be a first foothold in a new market before deciding whether to make a more permanent expansion. Ensure the coworking space you choose offers a flexible, short-term office lease to give your business the elbow room it needs to navigate the unexpected and to easily scale up or down to suit your changing priorities as the company expands.

Budget

With furniture and amenities included, and unexpected expenses such as repairs already covered, coworking spaces can be a cheap option for businesses looking to move or expand. Your budget will ultimately determine which coworking spaces are affordable for you and your team, but consider how things might change as your company grows or shrinks—this is another area in which having a coworking space with a flexible lease can really help you out. 

Privacy

Depending on the type of work you do, you’re probably going to need a degree of security and privacy as you meet clients and generally go about your business. Open plan offices and flexible desk arrangements are an option for companies large enough to be able to lease an entire floor, but smaller teams and individual workers might benefit from private, lockable offices or bookable meeting rooms within a larger shared office.

How WeWork can help you find the ideal coworking space for your company

Whether you’re a freelancer in need of a coworking space or a business searching for the perfect flexible office solution, WeWork provides beautifully designed, adaptable workspaces that can be configured to meet the changing needs of your team.

No matter how large your company is, WeWork can create a personalized coworking space with layouts that scale to suit your privacy and design requirements. With WeWork All Access, you can flexibly lease coworking space in any one of hundreds of WeWork locations around the world. 

For even more flexibility, WeWork On Demand lets you access coworking spaces and meeting rooms in hundreds of locations across dozens of cities, without the hassle of a monthly commitment. You can search and pay for available office space from $29 per day, so you can always find the space, facilities, and community you need to stay productive.

You can search, book, and pay for available office space from $29 per day with the WeWork On Demand app. To get started, download the app and create an account to begin exploring WeWork On Demand locations near you. To unlock hundreds of WeWork locations globally, visit WeWork All Access and try out one month for free. 

Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.

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