Coworking: what’s the real story?
About two months ago, I started doing research at a “coworking” space in Los Angeles. Coworking is something of a phenomenon in urban cities across the U.S. and around the world. The basic idea is for otherwise independent workers to be able to pool resources such as office space, internet connection, equipment, and some of that je ne sais quoi of traditional office environments—networking opportunities, water-cooler rituals, someone to have cigarette break with.
Popular accounts of “coworking” trace its origins to San Francisco, where in 2005 a young computer programmer named Brad Neuberg opened Hat Factory, essentially a large space he filled with IKEA desks and rented out to other tech-minded independents by the hour, day, or month. Since then, a mere five years later, coworking is, as say they say, ‘blowin’ up.’ The one I frequent, let’s call it “LA Co.” (though the real name is far more clever), literally has to turn people away for lack of space. A plan is in the works to open a site three times as big.
Most social commentators are unabashedly giddy about coworking. The New York Times’ Dan Fost calls it a “cooperative for the modern age,” alluding to the communal utopianism of the 60s. Coworkers themselves act more like evangelicals than paying customers (rates range from $99 to $1,000 a month at LA Co.). And me? I love going to my “field site.” My cube at UCLA is quiet and lonely. LA Co. is lively and hip. The people are fascinating and helpful. I look forward to going there and I always leave more energized than when I came in.
But an unabashedly giddy tale does not sociology make, my friends. Beyond the requirements of my would-be profession—find something controversial, or else!—there are a few incongruities about coworking that have me scratching my head. I’m going to use this blog to tell you about them. Maybe you can help me figure out what it all means.
An interesting place to start is Brad Nueberg himself, the aforementioned godfather of coworking. About his decision to open Hat Factory, Mr. Nueberg told The Times
“It seemed I could either have a job, which would give me structure and community or I could be freelance and have freedom and independence. Why couldn’t I have both?”
Neuberg opened Hat Factory ostensibly so he cold have both, but today he no longer coworks. He’s a “Developer Advocate” at Google. Perhaps Mr. Neuberg decided that freedom and independence couldn’t compete with health insurance and a killer 401(k)?