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Space as an Enabler - Coworking as a Mindset

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Key Takeaways

  • Coworking is a mindset described in the Coworking Manifesto to support us in addressing today's challenges in order to meet tomorrow's needs.
  • Collaboration, sustainability, accessibility, community and openness are the five values coworking is building on.  
  • Coworking is not a protected term. So be mindful when you pick a space to make sure you get the benefits that real coworking offers.  
  • Coworking Spaces are enablers for people who cowork - no matter if it is for a business idea, a non-profit cause or simply to avoid working alone - we are better together.  
  • You can start with coworking any time you like, there is no need to wait. Simply read through the manifesto and start using the behaviours described there to get the benefits.  

Coworking is a mindset that describes the future of work. The coworking manifesto provides a framework of values to create sustainable communities based on trust, where businesses, entrepreneurs, governmental and non-governmental and technical communities can work together.

Dina Sierralta, an expert in collaborative spaces and methods, spoke about coworking spaces at Goto Berlin 2018. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&A, summaries, and articles.

Often when people hear the term coworking, they think of open space offices, creative work environments with lots of post-its and a foosball table. These are coworking spaces but they do serve the purpose in bringing people together to address certain challenges, Sierralta argued. Coworking is a mindset that describes the future of work. According to her, the coworking space is a tool or an enabler to be able to cowork as described in the coworking manifesto.

The coworking manifesto states:

We have the talent. We just need to work together. Different environments need to overlap, to connect and to interact in order to transform our culture.

In order to create a sustainable community based on trust, we value:

  • collaboration over competition
  • community over agendas
  • participation over observation
  • doing over saying
  • friendship over formality
  • boldness over assurance
  • learning over expertise
  • people over personalities
  • "value ecosystem" over "value chain"

This new economy cannot thrive without engaging the larger business, creative, entrepreneurial, governmental, non governmental and technical communities together.

Sierralta said that the need for the manifesto dates back to 2011 when more and more people started to talk about what coworking was and what we as the coworking movement were aiming for. It was a joint discussion between people from many countries who, tried to write down what we had in common, and what we were trying to achieve, she said.

InfoQ interviewed Sierralta about why coworking is more than a space.

InfoQ: Why is there a need for a coworking manifesto?

Dina Sierralta: I personally like to work with the manifesto because it provides you with a framework, but is not over-prescriptive in what you should do. You still have to think for yourself and figure out what these things mean in the context that you are working and living in. Being clear about a common goal also makes it more likely to reach that goal. So the why and the what is clear while we figure out every day how to do this.

As an agile coach, I also work a lot with the agile manifesto. Sometimes when people get all tied up in discussions about the best frameworks and methods, looking back to the manifesto makes it clear what the goal is and takes away the heat from the discussion, because it provides orientation towards this goal.

Also the agile and the coworking manifesto have a lot of things in common. The agile manifesto says we value individuals and interactions over processes and tools. The coworking manifesto describes this as valuing friendship over formalities, doing over saying, people over personalities, and participation over observation. Both have these strong links to people and an emphasis on doing things, which contributes to their success.

InfoQ: The coworking manifesto states “participation over observation”. Can you elaborate what is meant by this?

Sierralta: Everybody probably knows the phrase “Practice makes perfect”. I do have a lean background, and there we say that we constantly want to improve in pursuit of perfection. So perfection to me is something I can never reach because there is always something I can do better, but striving to make existing things even better is a big motivating factor in everything I do.

So if we ask people to participate instead of observe, we give them power. They can learn, improve and create what is important to them. People learn by doing things and they understand even better what it takes to make things happen.

Let me give you an example. Before I was running our coworking space, I visited a lot of other coworking spaces, and whenever I left a space I had a long list of things that I didn’t like there. After a while, I had the impression that no space was good enough to work at. When I finally started to build up and run our space, I realised how much work had gone into building from what I had been seeing in all of these other spaces. And my feeling about what the others had achieved changed completely, to respect and gratefulness for what they had done. Theoretically, I knew it took a lot of work to create a successful coworking space. But only when I started doing all this work myself did I really get a deep understanding of the subject. Like the agile manifesto, which states that people develop software and are helping others to do so.

So when you only observe, it is very easy to fall into a role as a critic and judge. But when you participate, you are more likely to be supportive and act as a coach to others. And that is the behaviour we need to encourage in others, and work together.

InfoQ: Another statement in the manifesto is “people over personalities”. What makes this so important?

Sierralta: I just recently asked this question to a few colleagues from the European Coworking Assembly as I felt I was not entirely sure what it was supposed to mean. The answer that I got which helped me a lot, was that we should always welcome the whole person who comes to work with us. Not only, for example, their business personality, or what they are famous for. We acknowledge that there is more to every person than just their expertise in a particular field.

To explain, this let’s have a look at the Cynefin Framework by Dave Snowden, which helps in picking a strategy to reach a solution. There are five domains which are simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. The fifth is disorder if we don’t exactly know where we are currently. There are particular strategies that are useful in one domain, but don’t help us if the challenge we are addressing lies in a different domain. 

The Cynefin Framework helps us understand that expertise is a field that helps and supports us in order to address challenges from the complicated domain. So we just need to get the right experts together to help us with their knowledge and expertise, and we are in a good direction.

But when we are working on a complex challenge, this does not help. We need to find an emerging practice by using experiments to find out what can work in this area. And often, it is tough for experts to let go of what they have learned and experienced since a long time.

The coworking manifesto starts with the following challenge that we are facing: “We believe that society is facing unprecedented economic, environmental, social and cultural challenges. We also believe that new innovations are the key to turning these challenges into opportunities to improve our communities and our planet.”

So all of these challenges are complex. And often, innovation is brought to us by people who don’t have expertise, because they have these questions or these ideas that seem completely odd to an expert. But this can encourage a completely new way of looking at a challenge and finding a solution, which emerges when you put people with very different backgrounds together.

InfoQ: What is the aim of considering the "value ecosystem" over "value chain"?

Sierralta: I observe that many people have become very good at looking at value chains. This is something we have been teaching a lot in lean, when we have looked at the value stream. Sometimes there is this danger in losing the bigger picture, because no value chain does exist on its own. It is part of a bigger system, which I would describe as a value ecosystem.

So you have to be aware of the ecosystem that you are operating in, and sometimes you are change dramatically in your actions. Often, when my colleagues and I are speaking at developer conferences like the gotocon in Berlin, people do remind each other very often not to forget the ecosystem they are working in when writing code, or when analysing data. You have to bear in mind that you can always use these things depending on what you are trying to achieve. So thinking about what can be done with what I’ve just created in the ecosystem is worth checking, because not all the things that can be done are for a good cause.

I’m a trained pharmacist, and we have discussions about whether online pharmacies can provide cheaper medicine to people. If you look only at the cost of shipping the drugs to a patient, it might be true. But if you look at the ecosystem of local health services, it shows a completely different picture. You then also acknowledge that local pharmacies have a night and day service, with a very knowledgeable person always on duty. You take into consideration that there is this aspect of elderly people having a chat with the staff at the pharmacy, and that this sometimes is their only chat during a day, which is a strong social component. And there are many more examples which make it clear that if you take all these things into consideration, you may see a different picture and make different decisions.

InfoQ: What does the Berlin coworking scene look like?

Sierralta: The Berlin coworking scene is very diverse and interesting. We have big communities which have been there since a long time, like St. Oberholz and betahaus. To me, they belong to the pioneers who have a deep understanding of what it takes to provide coworkers with a great space to work in.

And we have a lot of smaller coworking spaces just around the corner, which I think is the way forward in coworking. These big coworking communities, complemented with a number of small and independent spaces who are all collaborating, reflects two important values in action. They are thinking of the bigger coworking ecosystem, and they are collaborating to create more happy coworkers.

There is not one right coworking space that suits everyone. Some people wish to work with like-minded people and experts in their field; spaces which focus on one community can provide you with this environment. Others want to see many different people around them. Some like small communities, while others like big ones. Some like a buzzing environment, others like a quiet one. So acknowledging that this is what people need to effectively cowork, collaborate and work on as a city ecosystem of coworking spaces makes the scene in Berlin special to me.To my knowledge, they are the first ones in Germany to do so and inspired a lot of others to follow. So by simply using the values in the Manifesto and applying it to their city, they have already made a big difference in the coworking scene, not only in Berlin but in other german cities too.

InfoQ: What are the things to consider when picking a coworking workspace?

Sierralta: I always tell people not to over-analyse by looking at websites or ratings. So if a space looks interesting and you think that could work for you, simply go there and try it. Most spaces offer either a free trial day or have regular opportunities for you to test if you and that space are a good match.

Also, ask yourself what you want from that space and what you can bring to that space. If you want to join a coworking space, often you get asked these questions by the community manager. That is because we would like to understand who you are and what you would like to achieve, in order to support you.

What often helps is also to question how important your personal space in a coworking space is for you. If you don’t care, you can easily work from any Flex Desk, which often is an inexpensive option. If you prefer a particular spot in a room or if you need a bigger screen which you don’t want to carry in each day, a fixed desk might be a more suitable option for you. And if you need to bring a lot of things to be able to do your work, then you might consider a small office in a big space. But don’t be surprised if the offices in some coworking spaces are really small. The reason behind that is, coworking space operators would like you to come out every now and then and interact with the other people in that space, as the coworking movement is about the community of coworkers addressing the complex challenges of our time.

And even if you are not looking for a space to work in, there is good news. You can cowork any time you like by simply looking at the coworking manifesto and start thinking about how what is written there can add value to what you are trying to achieve, and what it would look like to start acting on the values mentioned there.

As an agile coach, one of my jobs is to create a space for people where they can work and learn together. So I often refer back to the manifesto, and ask myself what a space would feel and look like if people were using the values in their daily work. And then I start to create that space step by step with the team working in it. This space is made up by the way people interact with each other, learn together, take decisions and their ways of working. This is more than a physical space, because these things can change easily. But the mindset which allows this space to be created stays with people; my goal is that this space stays with the teams, even if I as an agile Coach move on.

About the Interviewee

Dina Sierralta creates spaces for people. As an agile coach and experienced facilitator, she knows that the right space is crucial for teams. Her passion is being a host for all kinds of situations in which people can work and learn together. In the past she built and led a coworking space, and shares her knowledge from that industry with you. Sierralta works with Learnical as an expert for collaborative spaces and methods.

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