Coworking: Two Lessons For Corporate Leaders

Coworking is now recognized as more than a passing trend; the movement is  rapidly growing and evolving. Why do people love it so much and what can we learn about coworking that might influence our everyday work experience inside a more conventional company? I had an opportunity to talk with the owner of the largest coworking company in Northern New England and this is what I learned.

Patrick Roche founded Think Tank in Portland in 2010. He told me that as much as coworking is an appealing new offering for entrepreneurs and “untethered” workers, he also sees coworking spaces as a catalyst for downtown urban revitalization. With Think Tank, Patrick has created a “gravitational center for people who have been untethered from their space.” The term untethered in this case simply means an employee who either works remotely (telecommuting from home), or from a satellite location. Patrick shared that currently 30% of the workforce is untethered and that number is expected to climb to 60% by 2020. Although some may think that working from home is a panacea, research shows that telecommuters actually can be less productive and less happy than those that have more connection and interaction with coworkers.

Patrick shared, “My philosophical belief is that as we continue to embark on digital (and virtual) transformation as a society, we are all simultaneously vying for more analog experience – seeking out community spaces – and we want connection to each other. Coworking facilitates connectivity in a real way.”

How coworking accelerates connection is the result of two things – the obvious one, which is the physical design and layout of the facility, and a more subtle thing, which Patrick articulated well but may not recognize it as such: leadership. Let’s start with the obvious first.

The physical design and layout of a coworking space is critical to creating a successful experience – one that fosters the “happy collisions” that lead to connection, innovation and even new companies. “The flow pattern of a space is key,” Patrick shared. “Having a mezzanine level, a large open front area, lots of natural light, and, probably the most vibrant aspect of the Think Tank space,  a horseshoe shaped counter area is the perfect place to mingle and hang out.” Patrick tells me that the space helps, “Engineer serendipity.”

Patrick off-handedly and humbly noted that any good coworking space needs an emissary or host. “Good spaces have someone at the helm who has a magnetic personality, is a good communicator and connector. Without that you don’t have a thriving ecosystem…you just have a bunch of people working in a space. If you want an entrepreneurial ecosystem you need to foster it – it is an active process – and you need to make introductions and connections.” I don’t know if he saw the analogy, but I picked up on it immediately: to change the culture you need to do more than solely change the space. You need to have people who can lead and who will establish the desired culture through their actions and their ability to connect people to one another. Patrick hit upon what many companies do not realize: sure, you can trick out a space with the trendiest furniture and artwork and look cool, but to truly transform a workforce, a leader needs to be visible, accessible and foster connection among her employees.

Whether your employees are becoming untethered or you are looking to recruit the brightest and best to your company, take a couple of lessons from coworking. Create a cool space and be a visible, accessible leader.

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Lisa Whited