What can we learn from the co-working phenomenon?

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By Kate Lister

Edition 3 – June 2014 Pages 25-26

Tags: technology • co-working • shared space

Co-working offers a petri-dish-view of the future of work,” says Melissa Marsh, Founder of Plastarc, an expert in Workplace Strategy and a leader in Change Management services.

“It’s a unique microcosm that can tell us a lot about what happens when individuals are left to decide where and how they work.”

She describes co-working as: “both a spatial and an organizational business model where individuals or teams come together in ad-hoc or purpose-built spaces rather than – or sometimes in addition to – working in traditional offices, in home offices, or in third places such as coffee shops, libraries, and the like.”

Marsh and Ingrid Erickson, PhD (Assistant Professor, Rutgers University), are conducting research [1] to discover:

• Why entrepreneurs, freelancers, and corporate employees choose co-working over traditional offices.

• The impact “4th places”, as they are sometimes called, have on organizational identity, culture and work practices.

• The role that tenure, proximity, motivations and organizational-type plays on collaboration and cooperation.

• What co-working portends about the future of the traditional workplace.

The Why of co-working

While Marsh and Erikson’s preliminary research suggests that small companies look to co-working as a way to leverage precious resources, obtain work, and scale growth; large companies are looking to inspire innovation, foster creativity and increase agility.

Their analysis of survey data indicates that co-working spaces are attractive because they:

• Fulfill social needs, foster learning and provide social context for members.

• Provide freelance income opportunities for struggling entrepreneurs.

• Provide respectability, brand expression, and meeting place options that enhance client interactions.

• Provide an economical solution to social, technological, administrative and physical infrastructure needs.

• Allow individuals and teams to connect in a variety of ways: face to face, with digital tools and even through games.

• Offer access to a diverse groups of people, new networks, and potentially new ideas

• Offer a sense of community, something that, for many, is far more important than the physical space.

Who are the co-workers?

According to a global survey of co-working spaces, over half of co-workers are freelancers, 20% are entrepreneurs who employ others, and another 20% are salaried employees of larger firms (Foertsch, 2011 [2]). While still a minority, a number of big name firms are beginning to experiment with the co-working workplace model:

• Accenture and a growing list of medium and large enterprises have contracted with LiquidSpace [3] to support their workplace mobility both internally and externally;

• Zappos plans to build a community of spaces and turn Las Vegas into the co-working capital of the world[4];

• When Plantronics eliminated 500 desks in its Northern California office, it offered employees the option of co-working rather than working from home or commuting to the company’s headquarters;

• AT&T is relocating dozens of developers, researchers, and technologists to co-working facilities around the US, even inviting value chain partners to join them.

How will co-working influence the way we work?

Marsh asserts that just as the consumerization of IT ignited a firestorm of change in how organizations provision technology, co-working is, in a sense the consumerization of the workplace In the context of the workplace, Marsh and her colleague see co-working as a “disruptive innovation”, a term coined by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen in his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” (Christensen 1997 [5]).

Such innovations are often spawned by entrepreneurs who are willing to doggedly fight the uphill battle for market penetration and profitability. The successful disrupters eventually gain exposure, then acceptance, and ultimately forever change market expectations.

“Digital nomads have spoken with their actions,” says Marsh. “They choose to work in places that offer caffeine, music, anonymous companionship and daylight views. As a result, they now expect nothing less from their other working environments.”

Similarly,“the consumerization of IT” exponentially increased consumer expectations for the digital experience and, at the same time, decreased consumer tolerance for inferior solutions.

“If I can Facetime my grandparents in Florida using my iPhone,” says Marsh, “why should setting up a simple conference call be such a challenge at the office?”

The tipping point may be nearing. Venture-funded LiquidSpace has attracted mainstream partners including JLL, CBRE, Steelcase, Marriott, Hilton and Expedia with its mobile and web enterprise solutions and its large network of on-demand workspaces and meeting spaces. Though first launched as a public marketplace of pay-per-use space, it is now also being used to manage private workspace and meeting space operations.

CBRE’s new DTLA HQ is using LiquidSpace for internal meeting space booking by employees and guests. Recent launches in Australia and Canada are just the beginning of LiquidSpace’s international expansion plans.

Whether or not co-working will, in the end, disrupt the traditional workplace model remains to be seen. But one thing is clear. There is much that corporate real estate can learn from this emerging workplace trend.It’s time we start thinking outside the box. W&P

Editor’s footnote: When it comes to co-working there is not only a clear interchange of ideas with those related to conventional workplaces, but with those associated with a wide array of public spaces (and especially coffee shops).

About the Authors

Kate Lister

Kate Lister is president of Global Workplace Analytics, a San Diego CA-based consulting and research firm which helps organizations and communities quantify and communicate the business case for agile and health-centered workplace strategies.

e [email protected]

w http://www.globalworkplaceanalytics.com

Melissa Marsh

Melissa Marsh is an expert in Workplace Strategy and a leader in Change Management services. She has defined a career in workplace innovation by embedding the added value of real estate strategy within design, architecture and master planning projects around the world. Melissa began her career following the completion of her Masters of Architecture thesis entitled Design for Achieving Strategic Business Objectives. Working in both Europe and the U.S., Melissa has been on the forefront of delivering alternative workplace solutions, and has led virtual teams throughout her career. She has contributed to courses for CoreNet, Worktech, spearheaded international learning and technology initiatives, and lectured at UVA, Cornell and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

e [email protected]

w http://plastarc.com/


  1. Ingrid Erikson research. http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/library-and-information-science-features/ingrid-erickson-receives-imls-grant.html
  2. Carsten Foertsch (2011), The First Global Coworking Survey, Deskmag in cooperation with the Technical Universitaet Berlin; survey included 661 participants from 24 countries.
  3. https://liquidspace.com/press
  4. https://about.zappos.com
  5. Christensen, Clayton M. (1997), The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail, Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard Business School Press, ISBN 978-0-87584-585-2.
  6. http://plastarc.com/index.php


…According to a global survey of co-working spaces, over half of co-workers are freelancers, 20% are entrepreneurs who employ others, and another 20% are salaried employees of larger firms.

…The successful disrupters eventually gain exposure, then acceptance, and ultimately forever change market expectations.



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