From movement to mainstream: the coworking explosion

November 29, 2012 Updated: September 12, 2022 by

Coworking has been growing rapidly over the past five years. This trend has resulted in an explosion in the range and variety of coworking facilities – flexible places to work for freelancers, start-ups and small businesses – where there is also often a “community” element and opportunity to network.

The digital workplace has been an enabler of the movement, allowing people to work from anywhere, on their device of choice. We believe the evidence that shows coworking facilities are growing in size and importance is also an indicator of the rapid evolution of the digital workplace, and shows how it is shaping and influencing the future of work, a theme of Paul Miller’s recent book.

Coworking goes mainstream

Traditionally coworking spaces have regarded themselves as a movement with a strong community and entrepreneurial ethos, which emerged from facilities established in America in the mid-noughties. This has been helped by initiatives such as the jelly movement, which advocates pop-up coworking meet-ups and has a similar philosophy.

But these days coworking facilities now appear mainstream, resembling more of an “industry”. For example earlier this month there was a European coworking conference, now in its third year, with speakers from global brands like Google, Zappo’s and CBRE. Even traditional flexible office providers like Regus are now branding services geared at mobile working, including homeworkers as part of their target market.

The community ethos of many classic coworking spaces is of course still present, and categorizing them together with traditional office space providers who may not provide the same experience can provoke strong feelings among those who do.

Is the growth exponential?

It is hard to establish exactly just how rapid the growth of coworking spaces is. Anecdotally it feels like coworking is exploding, with facilities no longer just confined to major urban areas any longer – for example, a discussion on the Digital Workplace Group’s internal Yammer group revealed that coworking spaces were opening in people’s home towns, including one in Excelsior, a US town of less than 3,000 people. Clearly though, there is still a long way before all towns have a coworking space.

The most reliable statistics come from Deskmag’s global survey of coworking spaces, which is also based on their media monitoring. Based on a relatively strict definition of a coworking space, they calculate there are 2,072 globally, a growth of 250 percent in the past two years. There are now popular coworking spaces across the world and it’s pretty easy to find spaces for Coworking Melbourne, Australia and in most other countries around the world. Around 90 percent of respondents to the latest survey thought that income would grow in the coming year. Interestingly this rate of growth is similar to the number of freelancers who are using online service marketplaces like oDesk, a company which claims to have a year-on-year growth rate of 100 percent.

Even at my local Starbucks, the seats near the power sockets are now always occupied.

Of course, like any young industry flourishing during a prolonged economic downturn, there are also closures. In fact this month Loosecubes, a start-up offering a marketplace for free desk space, was forced to shut down. Moreover, some workspaces are run more as not-for-profit ventures than as investment opportunities.

Maturity leads to more choice

From a mobile worker view, the maturing of the sector is good news, potentially providing more places to work and potentially lower costs. There is a great post from Free Agent Friday which lists the wide range of options available. These include everything from office space networks like NearDesk to campus-style facilities.

Places to work vary in style. For example, I’ve worked a couple of times at the Westminster Hub in London, a “classic” coworking space complete with an internal greenhouse. Less than 100m away is the more traditional Institute of Directors where I have also worked a few times. It has chandeliers and coffee brought by waiters and waitresses, but it also has wifi, desks and opportunities to network, and the cost is very reasonable.

Both provide very different but generally positive experiences. I predominantly work from home, but when I am out and about I find my productivity is much better and I enjoy meeting colleagues to work on collaborative projects. For younger people, the “social” element of going to a physical workplace is also very important.

On the downside, coworking spaces sometimes do not cater for the ability to make calls or have conversations which are commercially sensitive or don’t allow you to make calls because they demand quiet.

Also as coworking becomes the norm it is possible that the best workspaces will become ever more popular, and harder to find space in. Even at my local Starbucks, the seats near the power sockets are now always occupied!

The future of work

There is every indication that coworking will continue to grow, and even possibly start to influence how major corporations organize their desk space. It’s another example of how the future of work is being shaped by the digital workplace, continuing to provide opportunities for flexible working patterns much more suited to individual needs.

We’d be fascinated to hear your observations on coworking. Is it growing as rapidly as we believe? Do you find it beneficial? Is there a downside? Let us know by adding your comments or getting in touch.

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About the author

This is a guest post by Steve Bynghall. Steve was the content producer for IBF 24 2011 and helped research Paul Miller’s book “The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work”. He is also a benchmarking evaluator and has written three research reports for IBF, and regularly blogs for DWF and IBF. Steve is the founder of Two Hives Ltd, a consultancy specializing in KM, collaboration and web-based projects. Steve previously worked at accountancy firm BDO in a variety of knowledge roles, including managing its global extranet programme. He has co-written a book on crowdsourcing with Ross Dawson titled “Getting Results from Crowds”. He tweets (less than he should do) at @bynghall.

Categorised in: Digital workplace

Steve Bynghall

Steve Bynghall is a freelance consultant, researcher and writer specializing in the digital workplace, intranets, knowledge management, collaboration and other digital themes. He is DWG’s Research and Knowledge Lead, a benchmark evaluator and research analyst for DWG.

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