5 Things We Learned About Coworking Last Week at GCUC

Insights into the roots and recent explosion of coworking from the Global Coworking Unconference Conference.

Liz Elam, the executive producer of GCUC, kicks off day two of the conference at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, Calif. Photo by Nathan Phillips, courtesy of GCUC.

We convened in Berkeley, California with hundreds of workplace experts, “people-people”, and coworking space providers last week for the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, better known as “juicy”. The international gathering is the brainchild of Liz Elam (whom you may remember from our recent webinar and this popular Expert Insight), and the three-day event—full of talk about design, technology, branding, and real estate—had something for workplace nerds of every persuasion.

Day one saw an introduction to the event and the history of coworking for first-timers, followed by two full days of presentations, “unconference” (where attendees chose and then voted on discussion topics for breakout sessions), socializing, and tours of nearly 30 coworking spaces across the Bay Area. On top of all that and in the spirit of coimmersion, we shacked up with Copass (a global network of coworking spaces that also organizes week-long Copass Camps—coliving and coworking adventures in far-flung places) at The Red Vic, a coliving experiment in the Haight. But more on that later.

Below, we’ve whittled our notes down to five takeaways that have stuck with us and have us thinking about coworking as movement, strategy, and lodestar for what the future of work has in store.

Tony Bacigalupo, founder of New Work City, hypes the morning crowd of GCUC first-timers on day one of the conference. Photo by Nathan Phillips, courtesy of GCUC.

1. Shifts in real estate combined with shifts in the way we work have created a perfect coworking storm

“The category of coworking is exploding and it’s an underserved market. There’s a tremendous number of people looking for a home,” said Rosemarie Ryan, the co-founder and CEO of co:collective, a strategic branding firm.

How underserved and how tremendous, you ask? Right now, there are 44.7 million independent workers in the U.S., and only about 88,250 coworking seats. That means there are 506 potential coworkers per seat.

“There’s been a fundamental shift in real estate, and a fundamental shift in the way we work,” she added. “These are two very different constituencies, [and] if you can figure out how to meet them in the middle” then, well, you’ve got coworking gold.

2. No one has mastered the phone booth

“Are they rentable? Paid for by the hour? What’s the policy? The reality is that people camp out—it’s comfortable, but it’s not fair,” said Jerome Chang, an architect and the founder of BLANKSPACES, a coworking community in Los Angeles. “Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see really well-executed phone booths.”

We nodded in agreement. In our own brief coworking experience, the phone booths gave the impression of privacy—a heavy wool curtain—but acoustically, you could hear every word. And, despite the 30 minute time limit, people still camped out. What’s the solution? “People want to pace,” said Chang. “Maybe it’s to have a 7×7 meeting room, [one] that’s actually soundproof.”

A gaggle of conference attendees rush to add their desired topics for the unconference sessions to the pool. Image courtesy of GCUC.
A gaggle of conference attendees rush to add their desired topics for the unconference sessions to the pool. Photo by Nathan Phillips, courtesy of GCUC.

3. There’s room for both a Four Seasons and a Ritz

Plus a few Marriotts, a Holiday Inn, and any number of boutique hotels. And that’s just in one zip code. See where we’re going with this? The coworking market is saturating fast, but, “in terms of differentiation,” said Ryan, the branding expert, “coworking spaces should think of themselves like hotels. Just because there’s a Four Seasons doesn’t mean there can’t be a Ritz.”

In the end, a coworking space is going to flourish because of the authenticity of its brand and the community that builds up around it. Which brings us to…

4. People aren’t just showing up at your coworking space because you have better printers

“Our work lives and personal lives are blending,” said Jacob Sayles, the founder of Office Nomads, a coworking space in Seattle. “Coworking supports this way of life.” During his presentation, he shared the results of a recent survey of nearly 700 coworkers across North America, conducted by GCUC and Emergent Research.

Jacob Sayles, founder of Office Nomads, a coworking space in Seattle, shares the results of the 2015 GCUC/Emergent Research coworking survey. Image courtesy of GCUC.
Jacob Sayles, founder of Office Nomads, a coworking space in Seattle, shares the results of the 2015 GCUC/Emergent Research Coworking Survey. Photo by Nathan Phillips, courtesy of GCUC.

Of the respondents, 84 percent said that they were more engaged and motivated when coworking; 67 percent said coworking improved their professional success; and 89 percent reported that they are happier working in a coworking space than at home or in a more traditional work setting.

“These are the reasons people will come to your coworking space,” said Sayles. “It’s not just because you have better printers.”

5. There’s so much more to coworking than cutting up office space and leasing it to businesses at a profitable margin

The GCUC crowd was comprised of a gritty, go-getty, dedicated bunch of fiends, striving to stay true to the coworking “core values”—collaboration, openness, community, accessibility, and sustainability—set forth in 2007, two years after the word coworking was coined by Brad Neuberg. In his opening remarks, Tony Bacigalupo, the founder of New Work City, a—you guessed it—New York City-based coworking community, drew a distinction between the larger, very buzzworthy office space providers—Regus, WeWork: the “Starbucks” brand of coworking—and the smaller, more specialized and community-oriented spaces: your local boutique coffee roasters.

“Is coworking a new way to cut up office space and lease it to businesses at a profitable margin, or is it about something more important?,” he said, and answering his own question, to hearty applause: “We’re building a movement to change the way we work forever.”

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