Hey, #dctech — how do we define coworking, anyway? - Technical.ly DC

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Oct. 27, 2016 10:16 am

Hey, #dctech — how do we define coworking, anyway?

A Gensler-hosted panel discussion on Tuesday got us thinking.

At one of WeWork's D.C. locations.

(Photo by Tajha Chappellet-Lanier)

Sometimes, I’ll get halfway through describing some new B2B tech startup with a SaaS business model when I notice that the eyes of the person I’m talking to are completely glazed over and they look utterly lost. That’s when I realize that not everyone works within the tech (satellite) world, and thus not everyone is familiar with our particular jargon. I’m not proud of it — but don’t tell me you’ve never found yourself in a similar position.

Acronyms like “B2B” (business to business!) and “SaaS” (software as a service!) and so many others are good, and clear, examples of jargon. But there are other words, less jargon-y words, that we use within the world of tech and the creative economy that have developed their own, specific, meanings — one example might be the word “coworking.”

At the second in this fall’s three-part, Gensler-hosted series of events on tech, policy and design on Tuesday night, the discussion centered on coworking and the offices of the future. (Heather Nevin, regional tech practice area leader at Gensler, previewed the topic for us in a guest post about the secret to innovative office spaces.) But in order to discuss coworking effectively, the panel — which included Nevin, Carr Properties CEO Oliver Carr and Eaton House director Carl Pierre — first had to define it.

Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate that you’re probably thinking that the definition of coworking is super obvious. But when was the last time you tried to explain coworking to someone who is only familiar with the traditional office space? It’s a challenge.

Back at the Gensler panel, Nevin (a very prepared panelist) offered the Oxford English Dictionary definition of coworking:

The use of an office or other working environment by people who are self-employed or working for different employers, typically so as to share equipment, ideas and knowledge.

But she seemed nonplussed by this particular description, by how dry it is.

“Coworking is one of those things that you know it when you see it,” she said. And it’s not just about space, either, she thinks: “It’s more of a movement in my mind.”

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Pierre, who used to work as the city lead for WeWork in D.C., said that for him coworking is defined by what it offers customers. “It’s all about flexibility and options.” Carr, more or less in agreement, finally added that word that so often comes attached to any description of coworking — “community.”

So here’s a question — what do we mean when we say “coworking”? Is it a type of space, a type of experience or a “movement,” as Nevin suggested? Is it about the business model of the companies that provide coworking or the variety of people who fill the space? Is it a bit of hype that savvy, or opportunistic, real estate developers are using to brand new office spaces? Or is it, perhaps, about a little bit of all of the above?

It’s a question we circled around when writing about restaurant coworking spaces last month — that trend toward branding underutilized space as “coworking” availability. Clearly, these spaces are not traditional coworking options like WeWork or MakeOffices or cove, but they are spaces being used as a collaborative (or at least open-for-all) work place. Do we include these initiatives in a definition? How far does that definition stretch?

We asked #dctech to weigh in on Twitter, and got some pretty broad ranging answers:

As you can see, there’s a lot going on there. Coworking can be described, with equal ease and arguably equal correctness, by the experience it offers as well as the type of space it tends to occupy. And then there’s the question of what these spaces mean for the surrounding community…

The Gensler panel didn’t necessarily manage to nail down a specific definition, but we didn’t mind because exploring possible answers was probably the most interesting part of the whole discussion. And now we want to know — how do you define coworking?

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