Intentional Coworking

For a long time, I’ve been trying to hone in on something that’s been bothering me about the way the coworking concept has been growing over the past several years. It’s awesome that, in such a short span of time, it’s gone from an obscure thing to a nearly household name, but I can’t help but feel that some signal has been lost to noise over time.

In my perception, most people see coworking as not much more than a different way of splitting up office space. This isn’t the worst thing in the world: this allows people to associate coworking with something already familiar, which can be necessary to get non-early adopters to stomach a new idea. You have to start somewhere.

But I’m constantly thinking about how to drive more of the spirit behind what coworking is really about. Thinking back to the earliest iterations of coworking, the Brad Neuberg kind and the Jelly kind, there are some intriguing clues. In both cases, there is an explicit intent involved. You’re not just a member of a space; you’re choosing to attend on a specific day with explicit expectations that are shared with others.

The earliest versions of coworking were heavier on intent.

In the case of Neubergian coworking, you’d arrive and leave at a designated time. You’d do yoga and take a lunch break as a group. You were essentially opting into a structured day of activities with others. This wasn’t just you showing up and sitting on your laptop with your headphones on for 10 hours straight alongside others doing the same. Your interactions weren’t restricted to the occasional trip to the bathroom or the coffee pot. The intent to interact with others was baked into the thing from the start.

In the case of Jelly, it is an event that happens on a specific date. When you RSVP, you add your name and what you will be working on to a list where others will see it. While it’s far more loosely organized than a Neubergian coworking gathering, with Jelly it’s clear that you’re not just going there to sit and do work. You’re there to share a bit about what you’re working on and see what others are doing too.

In both cases, there’s a clear mandate for valuable interaction that extends the base model of sharing common space while working. The issue with modern coworking is that, because of its workspace-based business model, someone could go to a coworking space, sit and work, and leave without ever having spoken to anyone else– and they could think that’s a perfectly acceptable way to cowork.

A good coworking community, of course, has safeguards against this. They make it rather hard for you to be anonymous, because the staff and the members are so engaged. But it can be a constant fight, as each new person who walks in the door has to be educated why, really, this is more than just an office space!

So what would happen if we made an explicit effort to practice “Intentional Coworking”?

To combat this, I gravitate to the concept of “Intentional coworking.” I’m borrowing from the world of intentional living communities, which face a similar challenge. Any living community– any neighborhood– should, obviously, be one in which its residents intend to live near one another and interact with each other, right? Intuitively, that might be the case, but we know that in reality many people are total strangers to the people who live around them. The theory of a neighborhood falls victim to various failures of urban planning and such.

So intentional living communities emerge as a way of compensating for the shortcomings of any community which fails to be intentional. (You could argue something similar for “social enterprise,” but that’s another conversation.)

What would an Intentional Coworking community look like? It would take the base vanilla model of coworking and add at least one explicit layer on top of it: some clear expectation of a shared interaction. It could be as simple as agreeing to all show up at a specific time or as complex as a completely choreographed workday. It could be centered around a shared activity or a similar goal. It could be a lot of different things.

I’m keenly interested in exploring this concept further. I think at the other end of this conversation are concepts that would advance the whole movement and help coworking spaces continue to claim their rightful place as champions of a new way of defining work as we know it.