From Coffeehouses to Coworking

The coworking phenomenon is nice in that nobody and no company can claim to have invented it — and when it started, really nobody can know. Apparently, in the annals of urban lore and perhaps myth, the first self-proclaimed communal workspace popped up in San Francisco in the early 21st Century. Now, of course, it is a worldwide thing and there are many global organizations promoting this social resource and labor revolution. Yet, people have always worked together; “coworking” is what we are calling this same act but when people dictate the terms of their own shared workspaces (in some cases there is a buy in or group ownership), and they even have their own work!


What Is Really Going On


Coworking is a function of wide-ranging historical conditions. At essence, it is comparable with the coffeehouse rage that took London by storm in the 16th and 17th centuries and provided hundreds of “third spaces” (i.e., apart from work and home) for political, scientific and commercial collaborations, a concept that then spread all over the world. (That was way back, before the British got themselves hooked on tea.) Similarly, a coworking space is the decentralization of intellectual capital and skilled labor, yet that is true even though each such space attracts and gathers talented workers. That is, these workers are moving away from the traditional centers of labor power (companies, corporations, militaries, government agencies, and so on) — and instead they are owning their own efforts and products, forming independent workflows and professional partnerships.


How much is this current trend powered by the anytime-Web and mobile devices? Coworking spaces are not like past “Internet cafes” where people flocked to experience new media on rented, public equipment (perhaps cutting their teeth on using personal computers or using the Web in the first place). Our technology and equipment have progressed to the point where each person who would be interested in a coworking space, as it were, possesses and brings their own devices on which to do their work. Only larger peripherals like printers and flat screens, and coffee makers or what have you, are needed by patrons in addition to Web access and comfy furniture, and perhaps a gaming console.


The value of a coworking space is rather subjective, since participants seek intangible gains and advantages that can be difficult to measure. (Such as the right vibe, and complementary coworkers.) Connections and epiphanies, for instance, may not lead to income for years after the fact, and yet once the fruition has occurred a person will realize how crucial that day of office hours had been. Part of the draw to coworking spaces is that they could offer an ideal balance of working and networking with other coworkers.


Playing All Day Long


There is a nice interaction between the ideas of work and play inside these joints. Startups as well as the goliaths of the tech world including Google, Apple, Yahoo!, and Facebook, had already discovered the power of letting work spaces go fully over to the workers instead of maximizing them into cubicles. As it turns out, when workers can move about as if they were humans, they do better work within less time. Psychologically, accountability is higher amongst people who are doing their work out in the open with others than it is for those who work in a private space.


And, we must note that there is an element of playfulness inside the tech world itself, from the casual attire worn by some of its CEOs, to the uncensored ways many tech and startup blogs are written, to the playground-like atmospheres found in most of its professional spaces. Various types of games and big sized toys are common to find in those spaces, for moments when workers need to unwind their minds, see the forest for the trees, or just take their breaks. Many a tech startup would be equipped with gaming consoles, or might even host home grown games on their intranets.

We live during an era of work, in which the normality of desk jobs is eroding. Companies are recruiting location independent professionals and using freelancers and outsourcers, in what seems to be a win-win situation — with the overarching expectation from both sides being that the results matter most, without needing too much fuss over how those results are attained. A coworker fulfilling a contract or coming up with actionable ideas does not need to note that time was spent playing multiplayer poker with PayPal (sound fun? — check out!) — these are professionals who are more likely to have billable results than billable hours. It seems, and we hope it is true, that working for yourself today does not mean entering the realm of geniuses who work alone. It's about working for oneself but not by oneself!

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