Technology has freed “knowledge workers” from the tethers of place. Software developers, writers, designers, and many others can now work anywhere and any time they have internet access.
This has led to an explosion in freelancing, also known as the “gig economy.” A 2014 study looked at Australia’s freelancing economy and found that 30 per cent of Australian workers are freelancing, making an economic contribution of $51 billion yearly.
All those freelancers require a place to get the work done. Some make use of a home office, some use coffee shops, and many use coworking spaces. Coworking refers to an office-sharing model started in 2005 by Brad Neuberg, a software developer in San Francisco, who said he wanted "the freedom and independence of working for myself along with the structure and community of working with others."
Architect Augustin Chevez has studied coworking and will be addressing the topic at the Total Facilities EXPO March 29-30 at the ICC. Chevez is Senior Researcher at international design firm HASSELL and Adjunct Research Fellow at the Centre For Design Innovation at Swinburne University.
According to Chevez, coworking could be a reaction to the “work anywhere, anytime” idea. “Once we realised that we can work anywhere anytime, the other side of that coin is we actually need to work somewhere, sometime,” he said.
In addition, not all work spaces, such as coffee shops and home offices, can offer all that each person needs. “You can work at home, you can work at the beach, you can work in all these different spaces,” Chevez said, “but these spaces seem to be falling short in some qualities, and these qualities most of the time are social qualities of interactions with others.”
A public space such as coworking can provide certain amenities.“It allows you to have a sense of community, someplace that you belong,” Chevez said. “It allows you to interact with others, to get out of your pajamas if you work from home and interact with others in that professional way.”
In addition to a place to work, coworking was founded on the values of community, openness, collaboration, sustainability, and accessibility. “Coworking has a social agenda,” Chevez said. “It’s a little bit like Club Med or going on a cruise. You have all these activities that are provided for you during the day, so you have yoga, meditation, sessions on this, sessions on that,” he noted.
In order to learn about coworking, Chevez immersed himself in coworking for three months as a research project. “I was very curious to see the extent that this coworking phenomenon works,” he said, “and what I found when I was part of this environment is that not many people take up these offers. Not many people are involved in these different activities, but perhaps the idea is that they are there as incentives for people to belong to these type of spaces.”
Some freelancers, of course, simply need a place to work, not a values-based approach or group activities. This “real-estate solution,” Chevez said, appeals to small and start-up firms that can’t commit to a lease and can’t accurately predict their growth.
“Coworking is helping those organisations that cannot foresee their growth pattern to stay there because it’s like space on tap,” he said. “Like beer on tap, coworking can be space on tap, because you can turn it on and off, or increase it as your needs go.”
This tends to be a temporary stage for a small company, he noted. “Eventually they’re too big to stay in coworking, or they want to have an office that reflects their culture, or have their independence, so they move out,” Chevez said.
Perhaps later, they'll move back in to coworking. Large companies are also making use of coworking spaces, Chevez said, for two main reasons. “If they need special teams to work on a specific project, they can actually rent a space in coworking and they can go work from there and concentrate on this special project,” he said.
In addition, big companies use coworking spaces to recapture something lost. “Big companies are going back to coworking spaces to remember how they used to do things when they were smaller, when they were more agile,” he noted.
“It’s like a time capsule, going back to see how things were done when we were hungry, when we didn’t have the resources that we have now, and have that freshness again,” Chevez said.
A more recent evolution of coworking, Chevez noted, is “hoffice,” which entails people opening their homes to strangers for office space. The concept started in Sweden, and features work sessions of 45 minutes, followed by breaks of 15 minutes. The founders studied work performance and concluded that this model optimises productivity.
Chevez joined an hoffice group for research. “You go to someone’s house, ring the bell, and they open the house for you. They are very, very friendly. They give you their wifi password, and then you just work from their home,” he said.
This personal approach to work resonated with Chevez. “As tech evolves, and automation is happening,” he said, “what I’m seeing is that spaces need to be more human, because at the end of the day, we’re just going to be working at things that only humans can do.”