‘Coworking’: the downsides of shared workspaces

Coworking workspace

Coworking has exploded in popularity over the last ten years. In 2007, there were just 14 coworking spaces worldwide. By 2022, there will be an estimated 30,432.

The first ‘coworking space’ appeared in Austria in 2002. It sought to attract entrepreneurs who wanted to get out of the house and work alongside like-minded people. Soon enough, much like modern coworking spaces, consultants, freelancers, and startups had moved in as well.

Over the next few years, the model spread from Europe to the US. This picked up many of the features that we associate with it today, such as on-site coffee shops and industrial-chic interiors. At the same time, computers became smaller, the internet became faster and cloud computing became a reality. As a result, working remotely became more common. The rise of these trends along with easy payment plans had a profound impact on coworking’s growth. Modern workers were less reliant on the office, but they didn’t want to work on their own every day. Shared office spaces were the ideal solution. 

Compared with traditional office workers, coworkers reported increased productivity, creativity, interaction and job satisfaction. Soon enough, large corporations wanted to leverage the benefits that were taking the workplace by storm. 

Over the last few years, IBM, Facebook, and UBS have all commissioned the world’s largest coworking network to create shared spaces for their teams. These offices are coworking hybrids – sometimes called ‘corpoworking spaces’ – where corporate employees can work alongside relevant startups and experts from outside the business. The goal is to encourage chance encounters that lead to new ideas and innovation. 

But is corpoworking right for every business? How does it affect company culture and team spirit? And is it possible to ensure that data and intellectual property remain secure in a shared space? 

Dilution of culture

More and more of our lives are lived online, but physical spaces are still vitally important to us. They shape how we feel, how we interact with others and we tend to become attached to spaces that we’ve spent a lot of time in. For this reason, facilities teams have traditionally gone to great lengths to create spaces that support positive and productive company culture. 

Workplace culture is hard to put your finger on. It can be thought of as a combination of your company’s values, history and the behaviour of its leadership and employees. The physical office plays a vital part in shaping whatever culture you want to create. But is this possible in a shared space? How can companies stamp their mark on an office which is only partially theirs?

It’s interesting to note that most of the large corporations who made headlines by experimenting with corpoworking also have head offices which are as grand and impressive as you’d expect. This suggests that while there is something to be said for shared spaces, there’s also something to be said for owned spaces. Walking into an impressive head office can be exhilarating. Owned spaces can be a source of pride for the employees and leadership and a draw for potential recruits and customers. 

Lack of flexibility

As we’ve talked about previously in this blog, we believe that the secret to creating workplaces that help your people to be their best is to listen to them. After all, no one knows your workplace better than the people who use it everyday. And decision-makers can sometimes have a skewed view of how the workplace is really used because they’ve been involved in its creation.

The best workplace initiatives solve genuine problems for employees. Decision-makers that listen to their staff are better placed to create ideal workplaces than those that assume they know best. But how much freedom do companies in coworking spaces have to tailor the workspace to the needs of their staff? They may look Instagrammable, but do they meet the needs of your people?

The coworking trend is just one example of the booming ‘sharing economy’. But one of the downsides of the sharing model is lack of flexibility. Just as Enterprise Car Club members can’t fit a spoiler to the back of their rental vehicle, coworking members don’t have much control over their environment. And I can only imagine how they resolve the annual dispute over when to switch the air conditioning on…

Introverts versus extroverts 

One of the benefits of the coworking model is interaction with others outside of your business. And also the opportunity to discuss and share new ideas. Coworking spaces are often a hive of activity and, more often than not, open plan. Unless you have a floor of your own or separate room.

While this environment can be energising for some, it can be a bit full-on for others. Introverts in particular, or people who need to focus such as programmers. People who spend a lot of time on the phone to customers may also find the level of background noise a little challenging. Especially if there’s a ping pong table nearby…

Security, privacy and intellectual property 

Cybersecurity is a concern for every business, as is the protection of their intellectual property. Even if your company has a robust cybersecurity policy that it follows, others around you may leave you open to cybersecurity risks. Connecting to shared hardware is another key risk that would be less of an issue in an owned space with owned technology and infrastructure. Some spaces offer the option to install your own equipment, but there is a significant charge for doing so.

Coworking can facilitate the sharing of new ideas with others. But there is always a risk that you end up sharing more than just ideas. You may even end up working in the same space as your competitors. 

Privacy is another key concern. Not just information security, but physical privacy. For instance, leadership may wish to announce company performance for the last financial year. Ordinarily, staff would gather in one of the office’s social spaces to do this. But most businesses wouldn’t want to share this with their fellow coworkers. They may be able to rent a meeting room, but even then, outsiders may be able to see inside. 

Leadership, in general, is an interesting point. Leaders often have to get up in front of their team to make announcements or address issues. Some things are best delivered in-person, after all. But is this possible in a shared environment? Or will leaders have to rely more on digital channels of communication?

The rise of coworking may be the most significant workplace trend of our times. But while it’s perfect for startups, freelancers and smaller businesses, SMBs and enterprise organisations may find themselves looking for more flexibility than coworking spaces can give them. And they may find it harder to retain their unique company culture if they move into a space that they can’t make their own.

Humans are naturally territorial. We attach a sense of belonging to the places that we live and work. Facilities teams strive to create environments that provide a sense of community and connection. But is it possible to feel this for a place which is only partially and temporarily your workplace?

Creating the right workplace for your people isn’t about one-size-fits-all solutions, it’s about listening to your people and what they need to work better. Click here to learn more about how to customise your office to your workforce. To also learn more specific detail regarding our workplace solutions and how we support customers through the process of empowering your workplace please read our Workplace Services Guide.

You can also drop me a line on LinkedIn if you want to learn more about anything discussed in this piece.

Simone Fenton-Jarvis

Workplace Consultancy Development Director at Ricoh UK & Ireland

Read all articles by Simone Fenton-Jarvis