Coworking office industry has blossomed exponentially every year for the past decade (Pasquier 2015). Shared offices with various themes and plans are easily found in corners of all kinds of communities, small and big, around the globe. Some are designed only for startup companies in technology, while others for arts and crafts or yoga and wellness or cannabis-related companies. Some are run by monthly memberships, while others by hourly. Also, they come in various physical appearances; some use an entire stand-alone building or multiple floors of a building designed with diverse interior features, and others use a tiny corner of a place. Some coworking office providers continuously offer various amenities and external programs to promote the spirit of coworking and entrepreneurship, while some of them are not even staffed regularly, only providing desks and chairs. Regardless of such a vast diversity in shapes, purposes, and functions among coworking offices, however, we tend to call all of such offices homogeneously as “coworking space” rather than “coworking place.” In this post, we suggest some ways in which these two words differ in the context of coworking because understanding this can inform those who are currently looking for a shared office of what to look for when making a decision.
"The concept of space creates more room and flexibility for value attribution and spatial expansion than a place"
So, what drives us to use space rather than place when talking about coworking offices? Behind this word choice seems to lie our disparate imagination of each spatial concept. For many, space would evoke an image of an open-ended area carrying endless potentials, whereas place would give an impression of sets of tangible features within rigid boundaries. The concept of space creates more room and flexibility for value attribution and spatial expansion than a place, which would better resonate with the intention of many coworking space providers. Although different in core qualities, however, the two concepts are closely interlaced and inevitably embody each other. Then, what triggers the mutual embodiment between space and place? Human experiences.
Indeed, our everyday existences are grounded and shaped within material places as well as in intangible spaces in between those physical boundaries. The profound connection that humans have with spatial dimensions have led to scholastic queries on space and place. Especially in Human Geography, space is seen to earn various qualities through locales or places that human experiences, values, and meanings contextualize (Tuan 1977). Space, place and human experience are so deeply intertwined with one another that without one, the others lose their meanings: “. . . space and place are dialectically structured in human environmental experience, since our understanding of space is related to the places we inhabit, which in turn derive meaning from their spatial context” (Seamon D. & Sowers, J. 2008). In sum, human experiences, as a transformative vehicle, materialize space into a place and recreate space out of place. Now, weaving this back with our main concern, coworking, what roles do human experiences play in creating space in coworking places?
"interactions with others take place on physical and psychological, and social and cultural levels"
Human experiences occurring in shared offices are inevitably divergent from those in isolated places such as home offices. In shared offices, interactions with others take place on physical and psychological, and social and cultural levels, all of which feed into molding a place set up for coworking into a value-ridden space. In what follows, we show some ways in which human experiences of the two levels impact the space-molding procedure.
Tangible features constituting a place play an integral role in informing human perception and shaping human experiences within it (Kim and Kaplan 2004). Shapes, layouts, and materials of furniture and lighting within a place fundamentally and visibly influence physical interactions. Eye contacts and verbal communications are likely to occur more often in an open space with a wide work table, desks with lower dividers, and couches for multiple people. In relatively small-scale coworking spaces less than 5,000 sqft, the proximity of its office features maximize the spatial fluidity as well as human interactions. On the other hand, tall non-transparent walls and a massive cluster of numerous, tiny private offices as built in some coworking spaces would likely to interfere with physical contacts among tenants.
Such physicality of place visibly reflects values
- i.e., relaxed ambience, cohesive community, the priority of family, reserved independence, and augmented privacy - bestowed by the place provider who intends to shape human behaviors within their places. The burgeoning of specialized coworking spaces targeted at niche needs makes an excellent example to illustrate the phenomenon. Wide glass windows on walls, multiple family rooms, and furniture with smooth edges at coworking spaces with intensified childcare programs allow place users to stay connected with their children while working. These carefully chosen physical features reflect the space providers’ value on a family-oriented lifestyle. Similarly, natural light, exposed brick wall and wooden floor oozing out natural ambience, and low tables at yoga-coworking spaces emphasize the importance of work-life balance and wellness. What is important, place users are not merely passively influenced by these physical features carefully maneuvered by place providers; rather, experiences of the place users become deeply intertwined with values embedded within physical features, becoming an integral part of the space existing within the place and ultimately enriching it.
"the physical divide within the office reinforced the hierarchy that is already deeply rooted in their culture, which then thwarted the frequency of communication and creates anxiety and nervousness."
Examination of human experiences on a socio-cultural level can further illustrate the process in which space is enriched and recreated. During and beyond physical interactions, values intended by place providers encounter various place users that are socio-culturally differently oriented. In this process, the place users internalize the values according to their socio-cultural background, and in turn, attribute the now-transformed values to the space. For example, the relaxed ambience created by frequent physical encounters in an open layout may spark different responses among those who are more accustomed to a rigid hierarchy in a workplace. A tenant of a coworking space who used to work in a traditional corporate firm in an East Asian country confessed that the physical divide within the office reinforced the hierarchy that is already deeply rooted in their culture, which then thwarted the frequency of communication and created senses of anxiety and nervousness. On the other hand, in his current coworking space which values fluidity of ideas and a sense of community make his professional and personal experiences within the place much more flexible, relaxed, and productive. Through these experiences in the coworking space with a specific physical layout laiden with certain values, his cultural perception of a workplace and its values transforms and is newly attributed to the workspace.
Can you tell the difference people can make to a workspace? Which office is a place and which one is a space?
Human experiences affected by the processes of physical interactions and value internalization and attribution, in turn, heavily influence the users’ psychological responses to and perception of the place, eventually feeding into space transformation more heavily. Experiences, perceptions, and memories that users earn from a value-laden place now recreate the space within their minds. The space becomes an arena with meanings and qualities that enable extended networking, productive collaboration, work-life balance, and wellness. As Tuan says, the space earns values through human experiences happening in between physical features of a place. Alternatively, reversing the order, places present values to humans who internalize them to embellish and recharge the space within their minds. This is how coworking places with values transform into spaces that are filled with human experiences and expectations, expanding beyond its physical limits. So, what are your experiences going to look like in the coworking place that you are considering right now? What kind of a space will the place create for you?
*This article bases its examples in the author’s observations of multiple coworking spaces in the San Francisco Bay area.
Gieryn, T. (2000). A Space for Place in Sociology. Annual Review of Sociology, 26. P.463-496.
Kim, J., & Kaplan, R. (2004) Physical and Psychological Factors in Sense of Community: New Urbanist Kentlands and Nearby Orchard Village. Environment and Behavior, 36(3). p.313-340.
Pasquier, M. (2016, September 27). The Future of Coworking: Coworking visas, corporate partnerships and real-estate specialists. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from http://www.innovationiseverywhere.com/future-coworking-coworking-visas-corporate-partnerships-real-estate-specialists/
Seamon, D., & Sowers, J. (2008) Place, and Placelessness, Edward Relph. Key texts in Human Geography. London: Sage. p43-51.
Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place: the perspective of experience. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.