Last week, we talked to Ian Sanders writing for The Financial Times about coworking, collaboration, and the sparks of creativity that come from working alongside others. Read the feature article, “The Lure of the Water Cooler” (22 August 2012), here (PDF Download).
Genevieve’s Q&A in all its glory (what didn’t get printed) is below:
You’ve said coworking spaces are challenging conventional notions of where innovation and creativity come from – how so?
I’ve always been torn between whether I’m more productive and creative when I’m working alone or when I’m working alongside others. The world wants to create a dramatic rift between those who root for collaboration and the virtues of work pow-wows and brainstorming, and those who prefer burning the midnight oil, alone, in self-inflicted solitary confinement. And yet, I’ve found that BOTH types of environments are important for innovation and creativity.
Collaboration can jumpstart your creativity, especially in cases where group work is organic, such as casual conversations leading to re-interpretations of existing ideas, those small epiphanies. But there’s also the case for working by yourself, away from distractions, where you can protect yourself from “groupthink,” and where your quirky ideas have time to evolve on their own and not get shot down too soon.
Innovation comes from being part of a larger group–of people, ideas–all shaping your worldview and thoughts. But then you can’t just be an open receptacle all of the time. There comes a time when you need to stop chatting and talking to others and actually sit down and get some work done. So, for me, creativity also comes being able to work quietly, to be mindful, and focus and think critically about a question or problem–away from the noise and buzz of other people’s opinions, thoughts.
Coworking, with its emphasis on working independently alongside others, gives you BOTH these modes of working. It’s perfect. That’s why I think it upends the convention that innovation and creativity are borne out of only one way of working.
How much of a factor is social interaction for attracting people to coworking spaces – does it give people a good sense of belonging?
Social interaction is important; some might consider it the backbone of coworking. But many people don’t realize that there are different kinds of social interaction at coworking spaces and depending on the space, some get more emphasis than others. Case in point: Some people find the schmoozing and emphasis on networking events disconcerting. We aren’t all social butterflies. I know a lot of people who find the coworking scene a tad too “trendy,” especially the coworking scenes in big cities, like NYC and San Francisco. They’ll go to one or two special events out of curiosity, but feel intimidated when they see/hear members bragging about getting VC funding and tripling revenues, and so on. (Though I’d argue that they’re going to the wrong space…). With everything from brownbag lunches and guest lectures, to mixers and group outings, there are a lot of ways to feel like you’re a part of your coworking community. A “sense of belonging” is much more than meeting people and exchanging business cards at after-hour events and mixers. For me, belonging–the point where you feel like your space is your community–takes time and also takes finding the space that fits your personality.
In a world where wifi is everywhere and people can work out of local coffee shops, why do you think coworking spaces are still popular?
True. The coffee shops and wifi hotspots will always be there for the independents who don’t want to work at home–but also don’t want to pay membership fees to be a part of a coworking space. What coworking spaces do is offer an alternative. It’s a more structured, orderly environment than your random stool at the Starbucks counter, but it’s less structured than, say, your typical business incubator (which coworking spaces are often contrasted against). If you’re looking for a community of fellow entrepreneurs to be around, it’s the best place to work. You can’t get that kind of camaraderie at your coffee joint or airport lounge.
And lastly, public wifi spots can be riddled with security holes. If you’re working on sensitive material or if you just don’t want the risks of being exposed to wifi sniffers, working at a coworking space with a secure network is a better option. You also don’t have to worry about random theft or losing your beloved spot just because you left for a bathroom break.
I’m interested in how ideas cross pollinate in coworking spaces. Have you encountered any examples you can share of how collaborations spawn ideas that pollinate in a random/ unplanned way?
Every business and organization we interviewed for our book, Working in the UnOffice (Night Owls Press), shared examples of where a chance encounter or conversation with another member at a coworking space led to something serendipitous. That’s what we found so fascinating in our research and interviews. People talked about this brownbag lunch, or that evening lecture, or those weekly after-hour socials; not to mention the conversations with people they bumped into in the kitchen or common areas. Some people get simple recommendations for tax accountants or baby-sitters for their kids; others find themselves getting a critical introduction to someone that leads to a job or project. And there are a handful who found such a rapport with people at their space that they joined forces with others on a new venture. Loosecubes.com (whose CEO wrote our Foreword) started in a coworking space in NYC, and now they’re coworking evangelists themselves, bringing the work movement beyond standalone coworking spaces and into office spaces across the world.
Is there an ideal mix of different roles, businesses and personality types that every co-working space needs to work?
People have their own definition of their ideal coworking space so it depends on the space’s mission. My ideal coworking space falls within the broad definition of coworking, which is a set-up where a diverse group of people, who are working on their own projects and organizations, come together in a shared space.
But diverse can mean many things: Is it having different industries and fields in a space? Or, just different niches? For example, you can have a space that’s made up of only tech-focused startups (which seems like a homogenous grouping)… but then you find out that the startups are in different niches: There’s a guy working on a car-sharing smartphone app, a woman running a digital marketing company, a group trying to come up with a web-based literary magazine.
What makes a space work is if the members don’t work in their own bubbles. Having pockets of creativity all in one building is great, but what you really want is spillover: startups sharing ideas, exchanging services, and so on. Like the marketing company working with the literary magazine to build up a reading audience; or the car-sharing app developer introducing the digital marketer to a group of freelance bloggers.
You also have a more intangible definition of diversity–the kind that comes from having people around who have different backgrounds or life experiences. These are the folks that will help you not only improve your business but prod the walls and fences of your thinking and worldview, making you a better entrepreneur.
And finally: Any do’s and dont’s for executives and workers to consider when they’re sharing coworking spaces?
Get out there and ditch the office. There’s a big debate about whether private offices and nooks in a coworking space defeat the purpose of achieving community and collaboration out of a motley group of people. You have cubicle-oriented shared office suites like those run by Regus that are trying to re-brand themselves as coworking spaces. I’m sure they’re doing just fine despite the scoffs from many in the ‘purist’ coworking ranks. While I understand the need for hermetic enclosures (I’m the type that can’t write with too much distraction and activity going around me), I also think if you settle and plant roots in a room with walls, it defeats the purpose of joining a coworking space. Coworking is about being surprised, about finding yourself saying, “Oh yeah, that’s a different way of looking at this problem” after a conversation at the coffee machine. I’d recommend sitting out there among the open desks instead of renting a private office. You’re rubbing elbows with others. Coworking is about getting away from the old model of working (the office).
Also, befriend the community manager at your space. These stewards know everyone in the space and are the unofficial gatekeepers to networking opportunities. They can be a great conduit to setting up meetings or introductions with others.
Finally, be helpful and talk to others, but don’t force it. “Don’t be a jerk”–that’s a given, but less obvious is “Don’t be a fake.” People respond to authenticity. You’ll be surprised at how many doors open up from just a friendly, no-agenda, casual conversation every morning with your neighbor before you settle down to work or at the water cooler. After what we learned researching coworking and its impact on businesses, I realize more than ever the importance of “weak ties.” The best leads come from acquaintances and colleagues, rather than close friends or people we know well. Coworking spaces are the best places to cultivate those so-called weak ties.
Find out more about coworking with Working in the UnOffice: A Guide to Coworking for Indie Workers, Small Businesses, and Nonprofits (Night Owls Press, 2011).