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Coworking 101: a new definition

How often do you talk about coworking spaces? Probably quite often if you're reading this article. Sometimes you explain the concept to people who have never heard of it. Sometimes you talk to other coworkers about where extra explanations are usually unnecessary. Not quite, I would say. Although we all have a particular concept in mind, they are not completely identical. Most of the time we are rather vague about it, revolving around the idea, but we seldom pinpoint it.
By Nina Pohler - Sunday, August 21, 2011

This is a guest contribution by Nina Pohler from a series of articles that deal scientifically with 'coworking'. She wrote a thesis on coworking at the University of Vienna in the field of economics:

While I was writing my thesis, it was almost beyond my ability to find a clear definition of coworking spaces. However, the basic rules of scientific work forced me to come up with a concrete and appropriate description.

What was so difficult? I would say it is impossible to define a coworking space based on spatial or organizational characteristics. Do you want to try it yourself? Here is an incomplete list that often sound appropriate as characteristics for coworking space, but were not suitable for the definition from a scientific point of view:

- Coworking spaces create groups of like-minded people who combine a space with the best elements of a café and office - but this does not apply to all

- Coworking spaces are for freelancers - but not only

- Members of coworking spaces come from different professions - but not always

- Coworking spaces offer hot desks - but not all

- Coworking spaces offer variable memberships - but some only offer one

- Coworking spaces are open to visitors - unfortunately that's not always the case

- Coworking spaces form a community of friends - but not all of them are friends with each other

- Coworking spaces offer events for their members and other people - but not all offer them

- Coworking spaces are exciting and are used by nice people - that might actually be true, but doesn't that also apply to other shops?

Coworking spaces have different sizes and shapes. But even though no two coworking spaces are alike, we all know what we all mean by 'coworking spaces'. We can talk about them and everyone, at least in the coworking movement, has roughly the same idea in mind. All coworking spaces, even if each one is unique, have something in common with others.

If one really insists on a definition that should encompass common spatial and organizational features, one could approach the matter like a medical professional diagnosing a disease. If at least X of Y features are found in a certain space, it is a coworking space. But what would be the point?

The search for an elegant and suitable solution was ultimately not as difficult as I first thought. During my investigation, I focused on the wants and needs of the coworkers I spoke to. I wanted to know if coworking spaces actually help members in their daily work life. And if so, how they do it.

That's why I finally decided to define the main purpose of coworking spaces. They are an answer to the search for a strategy that takes up the risks and problems of the new, flexible forms of work. The defining characteristic should therefore address the needs of those who serve coworking spaces. In my opinion, a coworking space is:

Any work space with flexible structures, which is designed by and for people with new, atypical forms of work, and which is not used exclusively by people from a single, specific company.

I think this is a fair definition that works. Try it out. It fits into any coworking space you know, while at the same time excluding other types of workspaces, such as traditional offices of individual companies or cafes. It's just a single sentence. But if you take a closer look, there are more than 29 words behind the definition. It could also help us better understand the new forms of work themselves. That's what makes the definition of a coworking space so interesting.

Solutions to post-Fordist work problems

There is a lot of interesting literature on new forms of work. But although many bright minds dealt with this topic in hard and lengthy work, studies and surveys, no one can really develop a complete picture of the new work order or post-Fordist work models.

In general, new forms of work are defined by what they are not. Atypical forms are not like established forms of work - or, from a scientific point of view, simply not like Fordist work models.

We know a great deal about the working conditions, patterns and relationships of established work structures and they influence the economy, society and politics. We still have a lot to find out about the new ones. We know that post-Fordist work is often project-related, that it responds more closely to individual needs, that it is in globalized contexts, that it is more flexible and that it often demands more from oneself: more self-discipline, self-motivation and independent thinking.

Basically, we know the differences. But we don't really know how they will develop and what they will mean for the future. We may never find out, as with the old model, because post-Fordist work per se is an individualized, heterogeneous form of work and with it the variety of working conditions, motivations and goals increases. Consequently, post-Fordist work is characterized by its diversity. Indeterminacy and unpredictability are the defining characteristics of the new job.

In this case, coworking spaces are not only of great importance for coworkers. Coworking spaces also help anyone who wants to develop an understanding of post-Fordist work. Finally, coworking spaces represent a solution to the problems of post-Fordist work models. They highlight the conditions and risks of this work order.

Regardless of how different the coworking spaces may be from one another in order to get a clear and complete picture of them - after all, they are real, in which everything comes together in a concrete and tangible way. The protagonists of this new work order, their problems and solutions and the discourse on post-Fordist work materialize in coworking spaces.