Coworking: The Fixed workplace is gone

Some weeks ago Benjamin O’Daniel interviewed me about my European coworking travel and my work as Coworking Manager at St. Oberholz for the blog of the Bonn Science Shop:

Benjamin O’Daniel (BO): You worked in coworking spaces everywhere in Europe for about two months. Do we still need fixed workspaces? What is your conclusion?

Tobias Schwarz: That depends on the job. Someone who is working as butcher or tram driver still depends on a fixed workspace. But all knowledge workers who do their work on a PC or a laptop , who consult colleagues by mail or telephone or who do their costumer care over a project platform do not depend on a fixed office space anymore. They can work from wherever and whenever they want – with the employer’s consent.

From time to time a physical meeting is necessary. But mostly that’s just a short visit to the office. During my travels I had a work meeting in Berlin while I was in Copenhagen. It was a 50 minutes flight, so no big deal.

BO: Many employees would wince now. You make yourself comfortable with your own houseplant, family pictures and a coffee machine next to your desk. Are these perceptions outdated?

TS: Everyone makes himself comfortable in his own ways. We also personalize our smartphones or laptops with stickers or background images. If it were important to me, I could put up a picture frame next to my laptop every morning, no matter where I am. So I don’t see a contradiction there.

In coworking spaces self-employed, freelancers but also employees and companies can rent single workspaces for daily or permanent use. There they have access to a professional infrastructure with internet connection, printers, telephones and meeting rooms. Furthermore there are events, where coworkers have the chance to network. According to Wikipedia, there are 2,500 coworking spaces in use worldwide, 800 of them in the US and about 230 in Germany.

BO: You still regularly visit german coworking spaces. What kind of people are renting spaces there and why aren´t they working in shared offices or at home?

TS: You would expect that there are many designers, bloggers or programmers in those coworking spaces. And of course they are well represented. But beyond that more and more different professional groups are joining these places. For example, I have met a teacher and a magician there who did their paper work in the coworking space.

But the difference to home office or a shared office is that in coworking spaces you meet more different people. By means of events you build up a network which helps you to get new ideas or even new tasks. I’ve been observing a new development trend: More and more permanent employees are going to coworking spaces these days, not only members of startups but also of DAX-listed companies, medium-sized companies or public administrations.

BO: Why are coworking spaces also interesting for permanent employees?

TS: Some permanent employees need to build up contacts or a network of freelancers for their work. Others need a change to their daily life while working in the office. I talked to a permanent manager who is a regular visitor of coworking spaces, every month he visits a different one. He could work there on strategic questions without disruption.

You need a change of scenery once in a while to gain new thoughts. That’s how many new innovative projects start. The principle behind that is serendipity. You find something you haven´t been looking for. An unexpected encounter with another person leads to a new idea. Coworking spaces offer the possibility of these unexpected encounters.

BO: Leaders will doubt the concept. If they allowed their employees to work in coworking space they would lose control.

TS: Yes, that is true. But especially knowledge workers have to be serious about their job and have to take responsibility. I recognized myself that I got a high sense of responsibility since my employer let my travel through Europe and placed his trust in me. What matters is the companies’ benefit. They opened up themselves and their employees for new ideas and contacts.

Some companies are already living this. Coca Cola opened their own coworking space. Microsoft allows their employees to work wherever and whenever they want. This could also be in a different city or country as long as there is a Microsoft location. No employee will quit due to private reasons for travelling anymore.

In Paris, I visited an accelerator who was financing different startups. The company transformed their ground floor into a coworking space. Every morning at nine o´clock, more than 50 programmers, designers, writers and others were waiting to use the coworking space. When the company was looking for a freelancer, they only had to go down one floor. However, the freelancers on the ground floor are no day laborers who are waiting for work, they have their own projects. But maybe some of them may have time and are interested in work. The company has their own talent and cooperation pool inside their house.

BO: Coworking spaces are mainly found in metropolis like Berlin. People living in a suburban or rural area can only dream of it.

TS: I look at it the other way around: for many rural districts, the coworking initiative could be an exciting form of regional marketing and business development. Many people want to live on the country due to lower rents and because of the fact that it is more quiet than in the city. What is keeping them from doing that is the commute. Many regions have to fight rural exodus while the cities overflow. Affordable coworking spaces would enable people to work at locally independent and digital workspaces.

BO: Which differences in the coworking spaces did you observe during your travel through Europe?

TS: In France, coworking spaces are booming. In a manageable city like Nantes you can find up to five coworking spaces in one street. These things are always a reflection of the economic situation. In France the economy is currently stagnating. That’s why many people are forced to become self-employed. They are looking for professional workspaces which give them stability. There’s an old tradition behind this: I go to work regularly and don’t hang around at home.

BO: Which coworking space you liked the most so far?

TS: You can find many really nice coworking spaces in Gent in Belgium. The reason is the demand of their municipal administration. The city decided to approach every project like a metropole would do. That means: If a new bicycle system is invented, the person responsible checks how New York City is handling this. As a result there is an enormous professionalism and euphoric restless in the whole city.

My favorite coworking space was LikeBirds in Ghent, a converted gas factory. Bright rooms surrounded by historic gasometers and a really nice community which was not too big.

Image by Carolin Saage

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