The co-working movement began in the 1990s with computer scientists, programmers and engineers looking for flexible, communal spaces from which to work, share knowledge and collaborate. ‘Hackerspaces’, ‘Hacklabs’, ‘makerspaces’, ‘media labs’ and other equivalent spaces emerged across Europe, Asia, and the US, with a string of open source software following. The internet promised a truly open space where the power of the collective could be tapped into like never before; the co-working space was where this promise was finally going to be realized.
Fast forward 25 years and there are now 14,425 co-working spaces globally. Fortune global 500s have teams placed in co-working offices in the world’s major cities, working alongside aspirational startups, freelancers and established small to mid-sized companies across all industries. By 2022, a predicted 5.1 million people will be using co-working spaces. In London, Singapore and New York, co-working locations have been increasing in number by an average annual rate of 20%.
Co-working has become an increasingly popular choice for freelancers and larger companies across a wide range of industries for a number of reasons: it’s flexible, it’s convenient, it’s easy and it’s trendy. Companies hoping to attract and retain the best talent or slot into already established healthy and vibrant, aspirational working cultures; companies that hope to expand (or shrink) with relative ease. Individuals that are looking for identifiable working communities have all looked to the co-working market for serviced office solutions, flexible desk space and great coffee.
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What does all this mean for co-working operators or for those looking for a way into this emerging market?
As co-working spaces continue to grow in number, so grows choice, so grows competition. How can operators establish spaces that not only sell, but are valuable beyond merely usable floor space? I believe the answer is the same now as it was for the ‘Hacklabs’ of the 1990s: community.
Community is the word every co-working operator throws around, but very few are effectively cultivating. A valuable working community collaborates, exchanges services and offers value through association. The early ‘Hacklabs’ were spaces for computer scientists to share interests, services and ideas, making it the place to be if you were a computer scientist. The difficulty with many of today’s co-working spaces is that interests are not necessarily shared between co-workers, and whilst a young architectural firm may find themselves alongside a firm of structural engineers, they may also find themselves working alongside a blockchain programmer or a social networking consultant.
I believe that industry-specific co-working spaces will become an increasingly attractive choice as the co-working movement grows. Spaces for members working in the food industry, spaces for members of the fashion industry, media, legal services, design - the list goes on – will pop up across major cities. There are a myriad of benefits to industry-specific co-working spaces as each can be designed to specifically answer the professional needs of its users: Events can be on-point, guest speakers of majority interest and memberships can be tailored accordingly. Industry-specific workspaces can be marketed with more focus, and in a crowded market, this is half of the battle.
Industry-specific co-work spaces are already beginning to successfully emerge: The Ministry in London for members of the music industry, The Brewery in Singapore for members working in media, Viva MedSuites in Arizona are offering space for medical practitioners, to name a few.
For co-working operators offering space for tenants across mixed industries, community can of course still be nurtured to be of great value, and in some cases, diversity is preferable. However, community managers should carefully factor the specific professional needs of members in order to remain of value to them. As co-working becomes the new normal, good coffee and trendy furniture won’t be enough to remain competitive; value through professional engagement, collaboration and association are, I believe, the reason co-working spaces started and the reason they will continue to thrive.