Coworking: present and future Unitec symposium, The Biz Dojo, November 2014

What's going on currently and in the future for the phenomenon known as coworking? The symposium in Auckland investigated.

Yesterday I realised I’ve known of co-working so long that I now use non-standard spelling. Coworking (or co-working as I always knew it) is a phenomenon that is growing by the year where companies share a common space in the goal of cross-fertilisation as well as budgetary constraints. The modern coworking space as we know it began in San Francisco’s Citizen Space in the mid-2000s with tech luminaries Tara Hunt and Chris Messina (not the actor, the guy who invented the hashtag!). Since then there are now over 2000 coworking spaces worldwide.

In New Zealand, the leading light in co-working is The Biz Dojo. They’ve been running for over five years (I remember early tenant Threaded in Karangahape Road’s Ironbank) now run in Auckland and Wellington and are moving farther afield to Australia and the USA. They, along with other speakers from industry and academia, spoke at a symposium yesterday on coworking at the Grid Auckland space as part of an exhibition by Unitec Institute of Technology product and interior design students.

Prototyping an experience – Nick Shewring, Bizdojo

Bizdojo co-founder Nick Shewring ran through their company’s ethos and learning through over five years of running co-working spaces (slides available online).  Starting with only 15 spaces, “we didn’t realise that co-working would be an unstoppable force”, they’ve since grown to several spaces.

 

It was heartening to hear that they do take something of a pastoral role as managers of a space. They look for diversity when it comes to the people that are there rather than just having all startups or all coders, “It’s toxic to have one type of personality in a [co-working] space. You need a mix” and also have learnt to allow for different types of spaces. They also keep an eye on whether there may be issues with members of the space: “if someone can’t stand someone else it can possibly be resolved just by changing the space so they’re not next to each other!”

Shewring emphasised allowing for openness, diversity, and excitement between businesses. Part of the joy of a coworking space is potentially being able to pull in the people around your for ideas and collaboration. He told a particularly surprising story (I’m not sure if this was Bizdojo or not) about two competing companies in the same coworking space deciding to pool resources when it came to a client overseas!

Shewring had had the luck to be involved a few years ago with the IDEO fitout of Air New Zealand. He explained that this hammered home to him the importance of designing experiences. This has particularly found root in the Bizdojo constantly re-evaluating how their spaces work and what could be changed “if we could explain our ethos in one word, it would be ‘prototyping'”.

There were also some questions about space: as it turns out, the Bizdojo really packs a lot of people into their spaces (an average of 4.5m per person, which is far lower than some office spaces). Shewring did note that co-working spaces do attract a kinda of person that would be somewhat comfortable with this, but also put this down to well designed spaces, “if you’re working in a cafe you’re very close to people but don’t feel uncomfortable”.

 

Offices for sensemaking – Tony Moore, Europlan

Coming from a more office-space perspective, Tony Moore of Europlan discussed their learning from making offices more suitable for mixed-use. He started with a quote from Gerry Taylor  of Orange Box) – “life is made of three things: love religion work. [work is only one of the three]”.

(As it turns out, it’s worth investigating Taylor’s/Orange Box’s work on spaces, see a video below)

Moore notes that the generational gap between what’s expected of work is changing, be it dress code, the desire for a corner office, aesthetics, ergonomics, or amenities.

Moore suggested common themes similar to that of the Bizdojo: applications (not necessarily tech) to support tasks, a sense of personal space, delivering a feeling of sense-making, and community. Oh, and coffee.

From the cities to the provinces – Dominic Plume, Warren & Mahoney Architects

Dominic Plume shared an architectural perspective on shared spaces. I did take umbrage to his initial idea that in the past we had a sense of freedom, safety and community in our villages—as someone who grew up in small-town NZ that sounded more rose-tinted than reality. However, he did point out that now more than ever, we’re focusing on making learning environments such as schools encourage multi-modal learning and different types of space… only to throw an 18 year old entry level worker into a cubicle. As examples of how to counter this, he included a seemingly left-of-field but relevant case study: a gym. Their team had worked on the Fitness Centre, they noted that idea of common membership (things available to all) supplemented with add-ons.

He also focused on some particular issues that he has come across. Across all sizes of businesses he noted common needs such as inclusion,  a public area, and retaining of staff. However, he suggested that medium-sized businesses have particular concerns when it comes to planning spaces – they’d like some flexibility but don’t necessarily have the space or budget for it. In situations like this, one means of doing this is having an adaptive semi-public space that can be converted.

He also ventured further afield, noting an uptake in ‘provincial’ (can that word be used in a neutral way?) working spaces which have better quality of life and less of a commute.

I particularly liked a tangental thread about the history of coworking spaces brought on by a question about the limited wifi at Auckland Library of all things. Libraries can really be considered “the original coworking space”. What’s more, some communities are really playing with this concept. One I’ve been aware of for some time is the work going on at the Brisbane Library/The Edge. (watch the below talk from 11:44 – 21:30 or read a related blog post).

EPIC urban planning and innovation projects – Dushko Bogunovich, Unitec Institute of Technology

Unitec architecture prof Dushko Bogunovich spoke not only from an academic perspective but also through some involvement with Christchurch’s EPIC innovation project, “a space that they’re maybe not proud of it [e.g. architecturally] but should be”. The building was put up as a temporary structure after the Christchurch earthquakes, but since then people have kept fighting for “this plain and simple” building to be kept up since it has become a valuable space for working. It was meant to only be up for 5 years but has now been up for  7 and running.

Bogunovich noted that the way the building is designed with many ‘street corners’ allow for bumping into other people. For all the “casualisation of work” and “desire for funky working places”, allowing for collaboration and serendipity still can provide a lot of joy in an office space. (In this respect, I was reminded of Christopher Alexander’s work with Mexicali, though that notably didn’t work 7 years on as residential space [PDF] due to concerns about privacy).

He highlighted one interesting trend that counteracted Dominic Plume’s earlier one about the provinces: in many places, cities are fighting businesses fleeing the centre by upgrading them in a way that emphasises their history and place. Detroit is a key example of this, but it can even be seen at the Auckland quayside (including the very building that the symposium was being held in that day!)

He suggested common themes of coworking spaces to be open space format, technology, knowledge economy, start-up  business, and HRM/productivity.

The future of coworking – Cris de Groot, Unitec Institute of Technology

From the present to the future, the session wrapped up with speculations from Unitec’s Cris de Groot about what is already starting to change in terms of the office.

He noted some interesting tensions: for all of the likes of fancy places such as google changing the workplace to be about the person rather than the cubicle (Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr. finally getting his due?), there’s also mass automation happening in the Amazon factories, where you could soon be required legally to wear a Fitbit so that your energy expenditure can be tracked! (For the record, the audience was surprisingly unfamiliar with some of these concepts that are pretty well known and argued in tech “everyone knows about quantified self, right? *silence*).

This change toward quantification is actually an interesting one given that many agencies are starting to look at how offline can be quantified (in the past you couldn’t track phone call leads across channels …. soon that may change).

Combine this with new generations that are far more laissez-fare when it comes to privacy, and this does mean that things will change in our daily lives. Will it be all or nothing when it comes to going off the grid, as frogdesign’s Jan Chipchase suggests?

Vicky Teinaki is a user experience designer at Newcastle upon Tyne agency Orange Bus. She is also working on a PhD at Northumbria University about better ways of communicating design methods within the design industry.