Coworking Spaces – Chapter 1

All shapes and sizes: The spaces we work with others and the many forms they take.

Here I look at the variety of workspaces, their structures, configurations and their functions. Comparing them to each other and exploring the business models therein. I look a little at what happens when a space fails to stay open.


FIG 1 – Working in spaces with others connectedness infographic

The intro to this report states I will “discuss the spaces in which we work with others” and here’s where I should clarify. This is specific to the kinds of spaces that replace our offices, spaces that have evolved and new spaces that have emerged where we find ourselves working. I have categorised these spaces and how they relate to each other and how connected we are to the people around us from social or neighbourly connection (purple) to new connections that have value to our work (red). In this infographic. FIG 1

There are: 


Labs are being created by large corporations to take advantage of the lean model, they are separate from the top down, CEO 8 filled traditional structure of the parent company, Labs are where innovation roams free, Advertising companies (BBH), Tech companies (Google) and even retail (Norstrom) and Newspapers (New York Times) have adopted the new Lab structure within their companies. 

University labs

Not the science kind – These are innovation labs, where students from a variety of disciplines, can come together, in a highly charged environment to solve common problems, brainstorm and create ultimately the future start-ups and transformative ideas. Currently some of these are, The Harvard iLab, The MIT CoLab and Media Innovation Lab, The Stanford Peace Innovation Lab. 


Business Incubators started around the 1960s and are designed to support start-ups and entrepreneurs with development – They provide all the basics and the structure they need to get going, without the start-ups necessarily having the expense of hiring their own lawyer for example. they are fast, high growth programs to get businesses on their feet, Incubators often host a number of small start-ups at once and they sometimes work alongside each other in the programme, almost like a school for start-ups. 

Touchdown spaces 

This refers to the established workstations and corporate virtual offices, executive suites & touchdown service concepts that have been around for 30 years or so, the biggest name in the business is Regus. 

The office 

I put this in as a means of comparison, we all know every office is different but somehow they are all the same. Let’s take wikipedia’s description for now: “In modern terms an office usually refers to the location where white-collar workers are employed.” 


Working at home in your own home office, either as part of a distributed team, as a remote worker or as an independent business or solopreneur. 

Coffee shop 

Where the home worker often finds themselves. Or the office worker looking for a ‘Third space’ to cure the doldrums of a working day. 9 

Coffee shop + 

There are other Coffee shops which start to verge on coworking spaces, these are the small independent, more likely community coffee shops that see the potential in the remote workforce and offer up the best wifi, small tables and sockets-a-plenty, I’ve named them here as ‘Coffee shop +’. 


An older model, historically this would have been artists. Collectives differ from coworking spaces in that they usually have a co-op business model, they all invest in space together, they are more often than not made up of people in the same discipline, a way of banding together to create a stronger voice than a lone freelancer. 

The Jelly

A gathering, a casual working event where people get together in a coffee shop or a persons home. A popular solution to not working alone “We provide chairs and sofas, wireless internet, and interesting people to talk to, collaborate with, and bounce ideas off of.” Often Jelly events if a strong group bonds can lead to a coworking space being established. 

Cowork Lab or Coworking for Innovation

Another model I’ve witnessed in my studies is a new breed, born of big businesses foreseeing the value of coworking, this model uses coworking as a means to innovate, it allows certain types of business to have a permanent place where they can study their users and much like the Lab model they can innovate and change practices without having to deal with the structure of an entire corporation, these are places to experiment with customer service, usage patterns… whatever they like, it’s the fastest way to innovate. examples of these places are NextDoor in Chicago run by StateFarm Insurance and conceived by IDEO, Google campus in London and ING Cafes situated in various locations around the world. Then there is American express who situate themselves in a coworking space with similar aims “We try to learn from companies,” she continues, speaking of the customers she serves. “Not only because I’ve fallen in love with them, but because they inspire us to get to know them better.” To that end, American Express OPEN took up residence at one of the co-working spaces owned by tech incubator WeWork Labs. “We do that so our team can walk outside their little glass cube and interact with business owners who are around them and say, ‘What do you think about this or that?’” Her team also works closely with 10 another co-working space, General Assembly.**4.25** (Google think quarterly) 

Coworking spaces 

Lastly in our graphic we have coworking spaces, which are a little harder to define…

In May 2012 the Journal of Business and Technical Communication published the paper Working Alone Together: Coworking as Emergent Collaborative Activity **5.1** and it is one of the very few published studies specifically on coworking. The paper reports on a 2-year study of 9 coworking spaces in Austin Texas. In the research they found many contradictions in what coworking was.

“As we examine how participants described the three aspects of coworking—the object (what), actors (who), and outcome (why)—we find contradictions in each. In fact, if we just look at the activity system of coworking, we might even wonder if coworking describes a coherent phenomenon at all. The proprietors and coworkers seem to disagree at every point.” 5.1


FIG 2 – Working Alone Together 5.1 – Shortened Descriptors

Based on the varying definitions the researcher characterises the spaces as community work spaces, unoffices, or federated spaces FIG 2 These descriptors when placed against the now 2000* strong number of coworking spaces around the globe doesn’t begin to help us define the subtleties of difference in coworking space structure. What this paper does give us is a useful set of two configurations of coworking spaces The Good Partners FIG 3 where the relationship is an inward one of collaboration and The Good neighbours FIG 4 where the relationship between coworkers is a neighbourly one, where people work together for the community but don’t work together on projects, if we look at these as not just configurations of coworking spaces but configurations of any space then we can compare and contrast our selection of modern work place options. If you look back at the infographic above FIG 1 you will see in what situations the relationships will be of the good partners and good neighbours type.


FIG 3 – Working Alone Together 5.1 – The Good Partners


FIG 4 – Working Alone Together 5.1 – The Good Neighbours

The book Working In The Unoffice **1.2** categorises coworking spaces into roughly six different types, determined by the section of people that they target: These categories are: Incubators Workshops/D-I-Y/Hacker Spaces, Social Enterprise and Nonprofit Coworking Spaces, Industry-Specific/Niche Coworking Spaces, Coworking Space for Established Businesses, Satellite Spaces.

Because of the huge variety of spaces out there and the complexity of the multitude of possible combinations of people, space, location, network, industry combinations, sponsorships and structures there simply can’t be sub categories of coworking spaces that do justice to everyone. Even here in Working In The Unoffice **1.2** they say that “many spaces defy being pigeon-holed” and can fall into more than one of their categories. Because of this and limited information on the subject one of the most common questions on the coworking google group is about business models, many people keen to start up a new coworking space or struggling with the workload, or the finances of their current space are inquiring about the working models of others. By thinking of this more as a combination of similar things which make up the whole of a coworking space I have created the coworking business model generator as a tool for anyone trying to define their business as a work space, Instead of lumping into categories it helps to define the unique qualities of a space, centring not around how they do it but why they do it by asking what do you seek to do? and how will you bring value to your customers.

I created this as a tool to generate new models and come up with creative solutions for adding value for your members, and creative ways of distributing that value in a way that will either make you money, help improve your community or attract members to your space. The idea is to decide based on each section what you seek to or what value you want to provide your renters and how you can deliver these, you can brainstorm around each section to come up with creative solutions. You should reevaluate the model on a regular basis, there are always new value gaps you can provide solutions to for your renters. It is not meant as a tools to make you money, but to guide you to your business model and help bring the right value to the right people you seek to work for. FIG 5


FIG 5 – Workspace business model generation tool

Then we have the spaces which don’t fit into this pattern, for example coffee shop plus and NextDoor Cowork Lab in the infographic above – these which do revolve around coworking but are not coworking spaces (within my model) because they didn’t have an altruistic starting point – the coworking space is a means to another gain, the coffee shop plus seeks to sell coffee and the value they bring is coffee and coworking and they deliver it with late opening times and power sockets, NextDoor in Chicago (See Appendix for Case Study), the coworking lab as i’ve called it created by Statefarm insurance. They seek to learn more about their customers, how they can better engage them and give a better service they do this by providing cheap coffee and coworking and free financial advice. They bring value by creating a hub in the community. You can almost put these spaces into the machine backwards – where a coworking space is a successful byproduct.

As stated in the introduction coworking is yet to see it’s own failures. There are however some spaces which have had to close. Megan Hunt kindly answered a few questions about CAMP her coworking space in Omaha, which closed in may 2012:

“The biggest pitfall I had with CAMP was that the space came before the community. I tried to build a strong network of support around the few core tenants I started with. As is normal for a coworking space, they all eventually moved on, outgrew the space, found new gigs and moved into other offices, etc, and I wasn’t able to grow the membership roster beyond that.” Megan Hunt 3.2

Community-building is one of the most cited challenges for these work spaces, the spaces have high turnovers because of the nature of the way a lot of renters use the space, it offers them a temporary home especially when it comes to start-ups. 1871 in Chicago anticipate this and plan for companies to spend only 6 month in their space and hope that they move on to bigger and better things. 3.2 Megan’s biggest problem though was that “CAMP never had a profitable month in the 22 months we were open.” Funded by Megan out of her own pocket the space didn’t have a viable business model that could keep them above water, whilst also losing membership without an outlet to promote the space. Megan’s problem can be seen being asked about on the Google group often as people ask for advice for similar situations. The value of this is that Megan’s lessons are learnt publicly, as she shares her story of her space closure others are able to learn from this.

Take aways

A coworking space is what you make of it, but coworking is an act that can be moulded for it’s actors. The structure of a good space should consider it’s membership, you can build a framework or business model around what you know you can provide for your members needs and they themselves will become your community. Some spaces are not for everyone, and one size fits all will never apply, people will find the work space that suits their needs and vice versa, spaces should be aware of this kind of turnover. There is never a right answer, our best lesson is to make use of the lessons learned by others and the information provided by the community, kindly people share their stories and their methods it would be rude not to listen.