To begin, I have to say, our tour of Affinity Lab was incredible. The front entrance is metro accessible in Washington, DC’s, vibrant U-Street area. Immediately upon entering the space, you’re greeted by four or five desks (for the “virtual members,” which are part-time members who usually come in after their full-time job), some low sofas, and a front desk for management.
Behind them are a couple of steps that leads to a raised level. This has a small kitchen and, to the right, a hallway that leads to the main workspace. The walls of the entrance are lined with paintings for sale produced by a local artist who had a relationship with Affinity Lab.
The main workspace is a large room filled with low sofas, chairs, and open desks. The far wall is partly made up of glass panels that look into two conference rooms. Off of the main workspace and towards the front of the building is another quieter, more formal room filled with desks. Both workspace areas have access to mailboxes and copiers.
It really was a great space to be in. Not necessarily because of any noteworthy use of design (it was simple and modern) but because of how its inhabitants use it.
People were everywhere. They curled up on the couches with their laptops in their lap. Others were a bit more organized with their surroundings and had set themselves up in the desks with a makeshift office around them. Still more were crowded into a back conference room, which was apparently playing host to an app development conference.
Everyone was working very intently but not so much that they were lost in their own little worlds. If a fellow lab member walked by, they were sure to acknowledge each other. Affinity Lab is its own microcosm. Its sense of community and coworking culture is so strong that an outsider (like me) who was simply passing by for thirty minutes could understand it. I was really taken with how this community just kind of formed of its own accord.
Our tour guide, Charles (also the founder/owner) gave us a glimpse into how their community was able to form. He told us that he acts as a gatekeeper for Affinity Lab. When an outsider is interested in joining Affinity Lab, the community must approve first. The outsider is invited to come in for a trial day so that the lab members can see how she works among them. (As Charles put it, they have a strict “no assholes” policy.)
If the outsider doesn’t seem like a good fit, Affinity Lab simply won’t accept his application into the community. This keeps the coworking culture tension free and allows lab members to have some control over who goes into their midst. I think this brings them together in a bit of an “us against the world” mindset, which in turn strengthens their bond as a group.
Charles went on to talk about the various events Affinity Lab hosts during non-typical office hours. They have art shows, DJ nights, speakers, and happy hours. Again, all of this serves to foster a sense of community within the lab, which, in turn, creates a culture.
In Affinity Lab’s case the co-working culture is laid back, friendly, but not overtly loud or rambunctious. Members range in age (from barely 18 to middle aged) but all seem to share an interest in collaboration and innovation. So when in need they help each other out.
When considering how coworking can influence commercial development projects, the first thing I can think of is to instate a designated gatekeeper. Someone who sees him or herself as a visionary and entrepreneur and is also protective of his community (much like Charles).
Aside from that, a great way to foster and bring together a community is clearly through art and artistic expression. The community of people within a space should feel empowered to create, and arguably one of the best ways to encourage this is by having creativity around them. By showing the work of local artists, they would already have a supportive customer base. Also, doing so will lend authenticity to the space.
And, ultimately, spending time in authentic ways — around collaborative people in a genuine, positive community — is a core tenant of coworking.