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Coworking: Amazing

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 03 Nov 2008.

Coworking is a concept I’ve only recently come across, but it is an excellent idea.

What’s it all about? If you don’t usually have an office to go to (because you’re a freelancer, or because your company is virtual, or because you’re on the road a lot etc.) you have probably experienced that slight madness which sets in after a while when you’ve been in the same room for too long, had too little contact to other human beings, lost the excitement and motivation, feel you’re getting stuck in a rut of just working and not really developing any further…

Watch this video (from Podtech).

“How can I have the kind of community and the kind of cool people around me that I’d have at a place like Google, without having to join Google? Without having to join a big company?”

Community is incredibly important; we are social beings. There seem to be two schools of thought on how independent workers can form communities: Some think that it’s best to meet at specific times/dates for socials; monthly pub meets, networking events and things like OpenCoffee and Likemind fall into this category. The coworking philosophy is a bit different, it’s more about having a space where you can both get work done and also socialise, all day every day. (No reason you can’t have both types of community obviously.)

I think this is a thoroughly brilliant idea. It addresses a number of problems and provides new opportunities:

  • Many people are unhappy working for a big company, but are afraid of the step into freelancing. Having a physical community of freelancers, in which people get to know each other and get to trust each other, can be very supportive and help individuals in making that transition.
  • The big questions which all freelancers have: How do I find clients? How much should I be charging them?  – In a trusted community of peers, it becomes possible to discuss these things, and to gain a lot of self-confidence from it.
  • You’re starting a company and you don’t want to work from home (e.g. because you want to retain a modicum of work/life separation), but renting an office is a rather daunting activity. It’s expensive, you get tied into (potentially long-term) contracts, there are lawyers involved, you potentially need to buy furniture, … enough to put anybody off. Having an extremely flexible space where you can just move in and out makes this a lot easier.
  • Freelancers typically experience that they have periods of no work alternating with periods of far too many projects at the same time. Or maybe sometimes you find an opportunity for which you’re not qualified yourself, but someone else might be. Knowing the other freelancers and knowing what their strengths and weaknesses are (from discussing things and maybe looking over their shoulder from time to time) allows such project opportunities to be shared around, to everybody’s benefit.
  • Shared events such as workshops can easily be put on by members of the coworking group, and allows people to learn from each other as well as strengthening the community.

Two weeks ago I visited The Werks in Brighton, founded by James McCarthy and Ian Elwick. I really liked the atmosphere there, and I fully agree with their philosophy of openness. There are many more examples are listed on the Coworking Wiki, such as The Hub with several branches in London and elsewhere.

My company has an office in St John’s Innovation Centre in Cambridge. We moved there in the hope of finding a vibrant, buzzy environment full of young people and start-ups, but I’m sad to say that so far this hasn’t been my experience. The companies are hidden away behind their individual unit doors. There are a few people who are good to talk to, but mostly I feel like the people there are more or less like the people in a corporate environment, bored with their jobs, not really excited about anything, waiting for the end of the day so that they can go home. I may be grossly misunderstanding them, but that has been my impression.

What I really would like is something like a coworking environment. I envisage something very transparent and strongly community-driven, functioning a bit like an Open Source software project – anybody who can contribute in some way does contribute. Of course it will have to pay the bills, but it might work best if the owner of the space actually had no commercial interests, was a registered charity or community interest company, and the accounts were open for to all to see; that way it would be easy for everybody to see how they are part of the financing of the space. Of course, in order to work as a charity, a lot of work will have to be done by volunteers, so it will depend very strongly on fairness and mutual respect.

I would like to have a discussion with people working independently in and around Cambridge, to gauge the level of interest. Apparently there was a recent thread on the Refresh Cambridge mailing list, which is an encouraging starting point. Please use the comment facility below or send me an email, and please spread the word. If we can get a critical mass together, I think we should seriously consider setting up something like this in Cambridge.

EDIT: There is currently a lively discussion on the Refresh Cambridge mailing list (as a member you can read it in the archive), and a public Cambridge Coworking Wiki has been set up by Dave Briggs. Please join the discussion there.