Coworking Is Disrupting the Traditional Office

This looks like a nice place to work. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Coworking started out as a way for freelancers to get out of the house and the coffee shop. Starre Vartan described it as...

...the future of how we work — near, but not always in our homes, coworking offices allow us to get out and about without the distractions of a typical office. And it gives us independent workers a place to go and an excuse to get out of our pyjamas every day.

But over the last few years, it has evolved beyond that role, becoming an alternative for businesses that want a different kind of working environment. A new British study finds that it's beginning to have "a major disruptive effect on commercial property markets worldwide." It's not just about getting out of pyjamas anymore. In London, there are now over 1,000 coworking spaces, totaling almost 5 percent of the market. In Workplace Insight, the author of the study notes that "the world of work is changing and flexibility is no longer sought by the tech, creative and media sectors alone."

working the rainmaking loft
People at work in the Rainmaking Loft in Copenhagen. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

While in Copenhagen recently, I visited the Rainmaking Loft, a coworking space that is a world away from the small local "place to go" spaces that Starre and I are used to. It was 30,000 square feet of converted military barracks renovated into beautiful white flexible space, occupied by 300 people in dozens of technology start-ups. They all seemed to be having a wonderful time at lunch together, but there are lots of other things to do:

We offer lounge zones on each of our four floors. Residents take a break – and sometimes a nap – in soft couches, while others perfect their ping pong in the Game Room. The atmosphere is relaxed, but at the same time we have conference rooms that fit the strictest advisory board. Morning yoga is a priority here. Just like nice bathroom facilities, so you can take a shower after a run along the harbour. We value jazz in the coffee shop on afternoons, our library of world literature, and a beer to kiss off the week.

Really, I want a desk there. Or in the London branch, which is in a great location near the Tower Bridge, complete with "a ping pong table and bean bags."

CSI working in canoe
Hard at work in the Center for Social Innovation. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The new coworking spaces seem to coalesce around themes; the Rainmaking Lofts are about tech, while in New York City and Toronto, the Centre for Social Innovation is a "home for a diverse community of people and organizations that are creating a better world." They explain:

The Centre for Social Innovation is a place of possibility. We know that society is facing complex economic, environmental, social and cultural challenges. We also know that new innovations are the key to turning these challenges into opportunities to improve our lives, our communities and our planet.
CSI New York work space
In the interior of Centre for Social Innovation, some of the tables are made from reclaimed lumber. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The New York branch is 24,000 square feet of renovated space in Chelsea's vast Art Deco Starrett-Lehigh building. Everything in it is recycled, from signs to doors. Designer Matthew Cohen told me:

We know that the best coworking spaces are more than just tables and chairs. We create spaces that are equal parts function and whimsy — spaces for people and ideas to collide.
Architects coworking space
Architects at work. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

In Toronto, a new coworking space called Fold caters to architects and designers. This is an interesting phenomenon because architecture used to be equipment-intense, with drafting boards and tools and Letraset, sample and product libraries, and hundreds of tubes or drawers filled with drawings. Now of course an architect can carry her office in a notebook computer and work anywhere. Working from home as an architect can be problematic; I once had a client pick up their drawings but they were stuck to the dining room table thanks to the strawberry jam my daughter had left there. Fold solves this:

Tired of meeting clients at a coffee shop? Fold gives you a professional work environment -— a business address, meeting areas, and a endless supply of coffee!

In fact most offices used to be about fixed land lines and receptionists and file cabinets, all of which have pretty much gone away. So where coworking used to be for the independent worker, it's now for everyone from startups to bigger corporations. I suspect that there's a lot more disruption yet to come.