If you think coworking spaces foster innovation and networking, think again.

posted on January 23rd 2017 in Productivity & Remote work with 0 Comments

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Working remotely in coworking spaces is considered as “cool” (I will come back to that word later). To meet the growing demand, coworking spaces pop up like mushrooms. On Popupoffce, a swiss Startup for a pass giving access to multiple coworking spaces, I would have the choice between over hundred coworking spaces in the whole of Switzerland and let alone five in walking distance of where I live in Zürich.

Let’s consider a coworking space as an open office but with less desk space.

Coworking spaces are used mainly by individuals, but attract more and more corporate teams. A recently published study by University of St. Gallen Switzerland (sorry only available in German) on the use and the effects of coworking spaces used by companies (in this case Microsoft and Swisscom) shows the reason behind this trend – or should I say: the ugly truth?


The thing about assisted serendipity

The basic findings: employees consider the coworking space as – quote –  “cool” (there it is that word again). Companies want to be seen as innovative, open and flexible offering the possibility to work remotely to their employees as well as using a new leadership and work culture as part of the their branding concept.

Coworking Space Genève. Photocredit: Manuel Schmalstieg (flickr)

What both expect from coworking spaces is something called “assisted serendipity”. Assisted serendipity is the peer to peer connection in a collaborative environment that fosters the flow of ideas and innovation and it is one of the magical things considered to happen at coworking spaces.


Why open space offices popped up in the 1950’s

This is also the magical thing considered to happen at open space offices. So before moving on with the findings of the study let’s have a short look at the open office concept. It was designed back in 1950 by a team in Hamburg, Germany, who thought that this would ease communication between employees (but maybe it was just for maximizing space while minimizing costs). The startup scene quickly adapted the concept and the “startup mentality” of open spaces keeps on being the underlying idea of companies’ office planning (as explains Lucas Stolwijk, Facility Manager at Google Zurich about the new HQ in an interview titled “These are the offices of the future”.)


What science tells us about open space offices

Traditional open space office. Photocredit: Fabio Comparelli (flickr)

But, there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that an open office concept fosters a collaborative and creative work environment. Worse, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting it to be the worst possible set up for work undermining the very things that it was designed to achieve – it doesn’t improve neither culture nor communication nor idea flow (find an overview of studies in The New Yorker, The Guardian and in Forbes).

Let’s consider a coworking space as an open office but with less desk space, fewer facilities, the same background noise (and you even have to pay for desk and food and coffee) –  you will face the same negative effects.


“It’s not my goal to build a network, but to work”

Back to the findings of the study we find this harsh reality confirmed. Test persons who took part in the study spend a daily maximum time of 4 hours in the coworking space. They didn’t use the possibility to take part in the networking community (remember, the “assisted serendipity” that should happen), and moreover didn’t seem to be much interested in it (quote of a test person: “it’s not my goal to build a network, but to work”). They mostly seeked to escape social control, escape the “bunker” (as one testperson called his office), and saw it as an opportunity to retreat from family, colleagues and bosses.


Coworking Space Zürich. Photocredit: workspace2go.ch

These findings show a very interesting underlying problem: poorly designed workplaces, poor leadership and a negative team culture. Employees basically just wish to get work done in an adequate work environment (which means quiet, with all facilities needed and with privacy) and neither open space offices nor coworking spaces are offering it.

There is a growing awareness about this issue, but only few of the companies I know with open spaces enlarge privacy and quiet areas or have even integrated them at all in the design of their floors. Google here in Zurich is one of the few exceptions.



How to really help employees to become more innovative

The researchers who conducted the study concluded, that the use of coworking spaces serves more as a symbol meaning showing the company’s openness towards innovation, culture and creative collaboration. It is a well-intended aim to help employees to become more innovative. But this doesn’t happen by just putting them in coworking spaces and then waiting for the magic to happen.

As the study suggests, remote working employees need coaching, as the intended change in behavior patterns doesn’t fall into place and neither does becoming innovative.


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