How Coworking Fosters Boost Relationships

by cv harquail on July 26, 2013

As a person who works more than half her time from a home office, I sometimes daydream about renting a desk at a coworking space in the city. 

It would be in one of those cool spaces downtown, maybe connected to an accelerator, where I could work on my own stuff and be surrounded by like minded, focused people working in their own small organizations. They’d all be available to help me, ask me for my opinion, and join me for a quick coffee break and a rant about the #trendingtopic.

I don’t actually ‘need’ a coworking space — I have a place on campus where I meet students, a Starbucks app to find a place with wifi on the go, and a great tech setup (plus a dog!) here at home. But even when I have Coco for company, the buzz of a cafe for background noise, and my ambient work group just 140 characters away on Twitter, it’s not quite the same as being in a real, dedicated workspace, with real other people.

I know this for a fact, because one silver lining of Hurricane Sandy was that our house became a temporary shared office space for friends who’d lost electricity and wifi. In my office, in the dining room and in the kitchen, the hum of work activity and the easy availability of human social interaction gave me a taste of what it might be like to have some folks working along side me in a large, lovely, shared space.

My imagined coworking desk at In Good Company My imagined coworking desk at In Good Company

Coworking Is Sharing Physical and Social Space

When people first hear about coworking, they assume it’s a real estate play.   The idea of small business people, startups, and individual entrepreneurs all sharing a flexible, full-featured office space seems like a great strategy for managing the high overhead of having a ‘professional’ office located in a business district.  A small organization can rent desks for less money and more flexibility than a traditional office lease can provide.

Coworking spaces offer the physical support that small organizations need — a clean, safe place to work together, somewhere to store their stuff, a convenient location, an address, a place to meet with clients, and even a kitchen or conference room.

All of these physical resources are important, but ask any coworking space member what she gets from coworking, and she’ll tell you that the real benefits are social.

Coworking spaces gather up potentially useful social resources, in the form of other like-minded people and organizations. Other people can can offer peer mentoring, someone to talk with, role modeling, or some quick feedback.  Other organizations can offer product support, best practices, and potential partnerships.

 It’s within these ambient, indirect and direct social interactions with other coworkers and other organizations where we find the potential for boost relationships.

Coworking is a deliberate physical and social arrangement to facilitate relationships and make serendipity possible.

On the physical side, coworking spaces provide flexible walls, furniture and tools that can be adapted for whatever kind of work you’re doing. The spaces are decorated to create a mood, an aesthetic and an energy that help create a vibe. These spaces are crafted not only to nurture different types of productivity and creativity, but also to encourage informal, unintentional interaction between members.

Coworking spaces shape themselves with more than walls, paint and furniture. They  shape themselves and the relationships of their members, using using social features.

Cowork Space Identity  

Coworking spaces project their specific identities, their demonstrations of ‘what kind’ of space they are.  Spaces have their own organizational identity based in the purpose for which they were formed.  Through their neighborhood location (place identity) as well as the design of the spaces themselves, coworking spaces project an aesthetic, an energy, a sensibility, and a larger socio-cultural context that a fledgeling organization can nestle itself into and feel both challenged and at home.

These identities draw to the space potential members who have some kind of overlapping values, interests and needs because they are all attracted to something about that coworkspace identity.


Coworking spaces each have their own local culture, related to the purposes for which the space was established.  Here in NYC, several of my friends cowork at InGoodCompany, a community for women entrepreneurs that often sponsors women in tech events.  Another group of colleagues just started a new coworking space, The Center for Social Innovation, for social entrepreneurs.  By picking which coworking space they join, organizations can choose what values to surround themselves with, and which values they want to have influence them.  These values also create a shared bridge among members so that they know how helping each other makes sense.

I'd love to sit here and do some peer-to-peer mentoring, wouldn't you? I’d love to sit here and do some peer-to-peer mentoring, wouldn’t you?

 Interaction Norms 

Coworking spaces lead with a set of norms about how members are expected to interact with each other.  These norms can be an explicitly part of a membership contract, they can be part of the patterns of interaction established by members, and they can be expressed and reinforced in the physical design of the coworking space itself.    These norms that protect privacy and encourage interaction literally normalize the acts of asking for and offering help.

Solopreneurs and small organizations self-select into coworking as a general concept and particular spaces more specifically based on their own willingness to interact with others without knowing in advance just what kind of value/s these interactions might have.  Often these norms are used as criteria for choosing who will be ‘accepted’ into the coworking space.

Focused Group Interaction

Coworking spaces often host events that bring the community together. They’ll host seminars, brainstorming sessions, hackathons, show n tell hours, speakers, group training sessions and more.  These events help members get to know each others’ organizations and goals, create a sense of ‘in it together-ness’, and bring in resources that spark productivity.

Lack and Need = Emptiness = Invitation

Coworking spaces don’t come outfitted with whatever an organization might need. Growing businesses rarely know in advance what help they’ll need and when they’ll need it. Coworkers don’t know exactly what they’ll get from other people in the space, or what they’ll end up offering to other workers in the shared space. They do know, however, that other coworkers expect to interact with them and assume that, at one point or another, help will be given and received.

Coworking spaces are spare enough (without the full set of resources that a fully formed, larger work organization might have) that members have to reach out to fill in the resources that they need. With known and unknown needs, often experienced as a lack of something or even an emptiness, opportunity for serendipity is framed into the space between the members.

The space between loosely-coupled members actually serves as an invitation for members to experiment and investigate with each other to figure out what they need and what they can give.

Coworking spaces shape serendipity by allowing possible members to ‘select themselves in’ on certain criteria that end up creating enough of a similarity across members that they can understand and reinforce each other. These criteria are not so comprehensive or rigid  that they screen out differences.

Similarity creates the bridge, differences expand the resources, and ambiguous need provides the impulse. When a coworking space brings all of these together, they construct opportunity for collaboration and innovation.

Catalytic Combinatorial Containers

Coworking is an example of a type of working arrangement that I call “catalytic combinatorial containers”.  Another odd phrase, I know, but it does describe an inter-organizational structure that wraps around (contains), brings together (combines) elements that will interact with each other and create emergent properties (catalytic) beyond the sum of their parts.

Catalytic Combinatorial Containers bring an array of diverse resources (organizations and individuals) together in a shared and protected space, around a loosely aligned purpose, and creates the potential for them to interact with each other to discover and co-create ways to contribute to each others’ work.

Other examples include business accelerators and incubators, hackathons, open space unconferences, and mastermind groups.  More on the other 4 Boost Organizing forms, coming up.



See also:

Boost Economies Don’t Unleash Potential — They Channel It
Company Character Grows From Place Identity


Jen Brown July 27, 2013 at 6:46 am

Fascinating stuff, CV. Gave me some ideas about use of space in academic environments, too!

ronald van den hoff July 31, 2013 at 3:27 pm

In the Netherlands we operate over 60 coworking locations and location operators ‘share’ the community with its knowledge. We facilitate serendipity through real time virtual dashboards (when checking please be aware of the time difference), so you can see not only see who is at a specific coworking location but also the knowledge present at that location at that particular moment. The available knowledge becomes leading (we see that happening right now) in the selection/booking process of coworking desks/seats, instead of the physical location. So, coworking for us indeed is to experience unexpected relevant meetings…
By the way: we offer free coworking and make money on the rental of meeting rooms and desk spaces…

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