Supporting Coworkers’ Well-Being In The Gig Economy

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Caren S. Martin, PhD, CID, NCIDQ, FASID, FIDEC

Coworking, an alternative to and growing influence on the traditional office is defined as “A global community of people dedicated to the values of collaboration, openness, community, accessibility, and sustainability in their workplaces” (Capdevila, 2015). Societal change, evolving global economics, and the influx of digitally savvy workers has set the stage for the origination of coworking space as a concept and subsequent expansion. The ‘knowledge economy’ has instigated a greater emphasis on creativity and innovation, boosted by changing demographics and the millennials’ impact on how we work. Though coworking has been characterized as “working alone, together” (Spinuzzi, 2012), the influx of corporations into the coworking arena have begun to shift that equation.

Independent workers comprise 36 percent of the US workforce. Due to outsourcing, mobility, technology, and a growing creative class, in 2018 over 19,000 coworking spaces hosted 1.7 million gig workers, globally. At first, coworking space was identified as an alternate to working at home, alone—a destination or option for entrepreneurs and sole-practitioners. It was viewed as a trend, but no more. As noted by Liz Elam in her article, “Coworking Megatrend Predictions for 2019”, at this time corporations are deeply invested into housing their employees in coworking spaces and that demand is experiencing exponential growth. She states that “coworking is the fourth industrial revolution.” For corporations and smaller business alike, the coworking movement is empowering independent actions by prospective tenants over building owners. Furthermore, at times the tenant can bypass parties typically involved of the traditional leasing equation, including real estate brokers and/or leasing agents. The outcome is a shift that is not making everyone happy, though coworking brands like WeWork are certainly feeling the love in this strong, global economy. It is estimated that by 2022, there will be over 6,200 coworking spaces in the United States.

Yes, coworking is here to stay! There are too many economic and environmental benefits of coworking space versus the traditional ways of working to overlook. Evidence comes from the reduced cost and flexibility of contract duration of coworking space—especially by corporations. In fact, there has been an explosion of corporations entering the coworking market. As of 2017, 15 percent of the Standard & Poors 500 Index (S&P) companies were engaged in coworking to some degree—including companies like IBM, Facebook, and Cisco (Liz Elam, 2018). The ability corporations to occupy a smaller footprint—reducing the demand for building system operations and associated energy—if things are done right can benefit people and the planet.

However, beyond this body of evidence relevant to real estate occupancy rates, energy, and environmental cost implications, it is equally critical to identify the effect of coworking space on coworkers’ performance, learning, and well-being. Until recently, “wellness” or “well-being” were not even being discussed. However, engaging a human-centered design lens exposes a growing number of studies published globally, especially since 2016, about the concept, characteristics, challenges, and benefits of coworking space on the people who occupy them. Knowledge from academic research community is finally percolating down to coworking brands, building owners, and design teams to the benefit of coworkers.

Focusing on the “Non-Corporate” Coworkers

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Coworking first evolved in 2015 in San Francisco as a type of “third-place” environment for those who were self-employed. It enabled them to work outside of their homes or singular office spaces to avoid isolation or reduce rental costs, respectively. In more recent years, corporations have engaged in occupying coworking spaces to balance their volatile space needs and to cut costs. This article focuses on support needed primarily for those who first engaged with coworking space—the self-employed. Their needs for support go deeper perhaps than those employed by a corporation, whose parameters and boundaries for work, direction by a leader, process, and systems are prescribed; whereas, the self-employed coworker is ‘making it up as he/she goes.’ Certainly, the physical space needs and amenities are critical for both types of coworkers. However, it could be argued that the emotional and psychological aspects of support needed by those who are self-employed, many in the creative or entrepreneur class, are greater. Though depending on the size of presence of the corporation in a specific coworking space, those untethered workers could have needs as great as their independent counterparts.