Coworking, software & services

For a little over two weeks, I’ve been using the social audio app Clubhouse to discuss topics, much like a radio show with guests and callers tuned in. Of course, I talk exclusively about coworking, including on Clubhouse. I’ve already had two talks with betahaus founder Christoph Fahle. Last Monday evening, we talked about ›the operating system of the office‹ with a couple of guests. 

The conversation didn’t always run along with the actual question of whether software for managing flexible workspaces is gaining relevance. Afterward, Christoph blogged about his thoughts on the relationship between software and workspaces (in German). For him, the goal of automation must be that community managers become even better hosts. I can only agree with this wish. 

Services, not software, are
becoming more relevant.

However, it is not software that makes this possible, but (the digitization of) service. That’s a big difference. In the past, we bought software and implemented it into our processes or aligned them according to the software. Nowadays, however, we use services that are only made possible by the software. We buy digital services, but not software. 

Accordingly, it is not software that changes our everyday work, as Marc Andreessen proclaimed at the beginning of the last decade – »Software is eating the world« – but services that do so. Through services, we are shaping the experience of users in our coworking spaces. At first glance, this makes our work easier, frees up resources for community management, the real core of our value creation, and more. 

The use of services also has intangible economic benefits for us. It’s only through it that scaling our often very modest business model is possible. One person used to worry about registering maybe a hundred users and giving them access during the day; now, services with a matching app do this for thousands of doors and millions of users registering themselves. 

There’s not one but three catches to this. At least if one cares about the Why and How of being a coworking host and it is not just about the What, renting workspace for money:

  1. The service acts directly with users and no longer with us.
  2. Services shape the user experience associated with our brand.
  3. We are dependent on the evolution of services through providers.

Services limit our freedom of action.

As operators, we controlled software because only we operators used it. However, we don’t control the services; we unleash them on our users. Services are giving our users access to the coworking space, the Wi-Fi, and the printer. More and more often, they also enable networking with each other, controlling the temperature, the light, and the coffee machine. It’s not us doing all this anymore; it’s services.

Digital services are intangible offerings that cannot be grasped but which evoke a formative experience in users. That is also perceived and evaluated individually because users consume in their way. So we don’t know how it feels to them, what they think they got from us. As operators, we’re powerless here because we have very little ability to shape that experience.

And we’re more dependent on service providers than we ever were on software. Behind the most innovative and sought-after services are mostly start-ups. What do we do if they no longer exist in a few years and their services are not developed further? Or if they are acquired and terminated, or if they could be absorbed into an unsuitable offer?

I’m afraid that we hosts will only be needed for specific fixes in the new flexible-workspace industry, like changing a broken light bulb, for example. More and more digital services will shape a shared workspace experience, and, unfortunately, that will be enough for many users. No one develops a need for something they don’t know and can’t imagine.

Which path do we choose?

Of course, there will be flexible workspace offerings in the future that will be completely through-digitized. It will happen because it is possible. These places will offer almost no human interaction with operators and charge for their products built on digital services. With any luck, they won’t call themselves coworking places anymore. At least, that’s what I hope.

Coworking Spaces that cannot afford such services or do not have to, given the size of their spaces and communities, could gain in importance as a result. The support provided by a human host would then be a distinguishing feature. Neighbors from the immediate surrounding in particular and small and well-defined communities, or better societies, would probably prefer this.

Some operators rely on services because their coworking spaces are larger or manage multiple locations without forgetting users. They could use services to better help users, for example, in discovering and understanding members’ needs for a workspace. This would give each of us a better understanding of how we want to work. 

So services are not the problem, but how we operators use them. Do we use the increased efficiency to make more profit, or do we invest the resources and time gained in people-to-people interaction? Which path do we choose? And do we still call it coworking?

Header Image: James Pond (on Unsplash)