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Four scenarios for co-working: sharing workspace offers potential benefits in an uncertain economy.

Telecommuters, freelancers, and others without a regular office to anchor their workday may suffer from loneliness or require a more professional environment than a local coffeehouse from which to conduct business. One solution, co-working, may offer some options to improve working lives and productivity.

With co-working, independent and freelance workers voluntarily share an office space if not necessarily a common employer. Emphasizing cooperation over competition, the process enables remote (i.e., otherwise placeless) workers to create a community, a support system, and a strong professional network among themselves. Co-workers report having found opportunities to collaborate, share skills, and subcontract among each other, and perhaps not surprisingly, many find they are able to be more productive in such an environment.

Regardless of the type of work that is performed, the co-working spaces themselves can be run on either a nonprofit or a for-profit basis; they typically charge a monthly membership fee (generally inexpensive), and the level of membership can vary depending on how much time one plans to spend at the office.

There were more than 700 such spaces around the world as of March 2011, according to online co-working magazine Deskmag.com. While that number may seem small, it is significant: It represents around twice as many facilities as there were just twelve months prior. The movement is clearly growing fast, but its direction is not entirely certain at this point.

To help gain a clearer picture of co-working's possibilities, a scenario analysis workshop was conducted by Thomas Chermack, the director of Colorado State University's Scenario Planning Institute, and Angel Kwiatkowski, the founder of Cohere, a co-working space in Fort Collins, Colorado. Projecting several years ahead, the group at Cohere developed a set of near-term scenarios.

After going through hundreds of sticky notes, the group managed to pin down what participants agreed were the two most important key variables determining co-working's future. The first was an internal game changer (will a given co-working group hold together?). The second was an external one (is the economy stable or unstable?). The group then created four scenarios based on these two variables:

1. Stable economy/stable community. In the best-case scenario, co-working has gone mainstream and its appeal has expanded. More and more companies recognize it as a viable way to increase efficiency, productivity, and employee satisfaction arid well-being. As a result, employees are offered this option upon being hired. Most co-working spaces are staffed 24 hours a day to accommodate everyone's schedule.

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2. Stable economy/unstable community. As in the above situation, everyone is generally doing well career-wise. However, most of the advantages of co-working--including side benefits such as educational classes, guest speakers, social mixers, and other activities--have disappeared. According to this scenario's authors, "new members often arrived to an empty or near empty space and received no orientation or details about their membership." In the absence of any genuine leadership or investment in the community, those hired to run these facilities don't really know what they're doing or why they're doing it (aside from the paycheck).

With no real sense of community and little to keep people there, members come and go. As trust and camaraderie evaporate, those who remain erect cubicle walls. There is very little in the way of communication (much less collaboration) in the space.

3. Unstable economy/stable community. Despite the ongoing recession, "fierce loyalty and tight networking bonds" among long-term members enable co-working spaces to flourish.

Meanwhile, corporate co-working franchises begin popping up. Cheaper to join, these offer "more lavish amenities" but lack the same sense of community as the smaller, less-profit-oriented spaces. As a result, they tend to attract a different, less tightly knit crowd, and the turnover rate is higher. Ultimately, the smaller model proves more sustainable, while the larger franchises struggle.

4. Unstable economy/unstable community. Upon arrival, co-workers (if you can even call them that) walk through a turnstile, slide their credit cards through a plexiglass partition, and then choose an empty stall in which to work in isolation. Everything is pay-per-minute. There is little to no interaction between people. There is also little trust and security (you'd be wise to take your valuables with you if you leave the room).

While this scenario may be more satirical than realistic, the point is clear: Without an emphasis on community building, co-working as it exists today will either take a turn for the worse or disappear altogether.

In the end, Kwiatkowski believes co-working will most likely evolve somewhat along the lines described in the third scenario. On the one hand, there will be co-working spaces "run by really passionate people who love what they're doing," she says. They may not believe in growth or have any interest in scaling their activity. However, they will be fully engaged and immersed in the communities they are creating.

"On the other side of the continuum," Kwiatkowski notes, "you have the 'chain restaurant' [model] of co-working: people franchising and opening multiple spaces and hiring community managers." With the support of corporations, partnerships, and sponsorships, these franchises may or may not be interconnected, and may ultimately be more accountable to their investors than their members.

"That's the division I'm already starting to see," she says. "We're polarizing on opposite ends."

So while many "officeless" workers may increasingly be tempted to join the ranks of co-working in the future, they may want to look for those office spaces that emphasize community over facilities. When it comes to co-working's future, smaller may-be better.

Source: Angel Kwiatkoski (interview), Cohere LLC, www.coherecommunity.com.
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Author:M. Cohen, Aaron
Publication:The Futurist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2011
Words:924
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