Bright Future for Coworking: Reflections from GCUCAU


I’ve been to a lot of conferences but there’s something electric about being in a room with a hundred people focused on collaboration, community and culture all rolled under the banner of coworking.

I attended the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, in Melbourne on the 25 August on behalf of the North Sydney Innovation Network. This network is focused on creating a hub for collaboration and community with an innovation focus. Follow us #NSIN on Twitter: @NSydInnovation or find us on Facebook. Read our vision document here.

What is coworking?

Coworking — defined as a the practice of working alongside people in a shared workplace but not necessarily from a shared organisational affiliation — is a growing trend. (Coworking can be considered part of the shared spaces approach to fostering innovation along with Accelerators, Incubators, Government-sponsored work hubs).

The coworking industry (including the spaces, desks, offices, events, facilities) has been dubbed to be worth USD$1B, according to GCUC.

The coworking offices of today are not ‘one-size-fits-all’. There is a mix of small, independent operators, running a single space in their local community, to global businesses like WeWork (with its 216 Office Locations in 53 Cities), ImpactHub (86 global locations but not in Australia)  and Hub Australia (currently four locations).

An example of that mix can be found on the north shore of Sydney:

Huge growth and work culture change

The growth of coworking is underpinned by changing work culture. Firstly, within big corporates, there is a growing focus on overall wellbeing rather than a continued teetering along a barely existent ‘work-life balance’. Many big businesses realise that people don’t want to work (nor do they work well) in cramped cubicles with bland walls and soulless ambience. Employees can more often work from home or a coworking space in a suburb, rather than have to commute (sometimes for hours in our big cities) to get to the office.

Culture changing in office environment

Culture is changing in the office environment

And secondly, people working for themselves as entrepreneurs, freelancers or small business owners do not always want to work in a home office or living room. And they may not want to sign a five-year lease on expensive office space.

A study by Deskmag estimates that nearly 1.2 million people worldwide will have worked in a coworking space by the end of 2017. Up from just 43,000 in 2011. And there are approximately 14,000 coworking spaces around the world.

What’s happening in Australia?

In Australia there were just over one million independent contractors in 2015, making up nearly 10% of all employment; a quarter of these were professional services workers.

And when it comes to coworking spaces, In Australia, by the end of 2017, there will be an estimated 309 of them. Despite the very fast growth, Australia is a bit behind the global trend, according to John Preece from Knight Frank.

growth of coworking spaces in Australia

The growth of coworking spaces in Australia

“Coworking in Australia is in its infancy, accounting for 0.6% of the office market. I think 30% of real estate could become coworking space,” he said.

There are challenges to this growth including that landlords like to receive stable incomes. The idea of lots of different people coming and going and incomes for their tenant varying from month-to-month, doesn’t align well with their risk profiles.

“There is a lot of scepticism, but landlords will look to Shanghai, Hong Kong and London to see the trends. Landlords never do anything unless forced to. For example, why would a landlord do small suites, subdividing etc. where the asset value would decrease if not good return on dollars? Every tenant is still a number at the end of the day,” said John.

Promote the benefits and make it profitable

John Preece recommends that coworking space managers promote the other benefits to landlords. For example, in the case of a high-rise, a floor or two of coworking among standard office space will create vibrancy in the building and also promote more foot traffic to their business and other businesses in the building. As people outgrow their coworking desks they’re more likely to move to more permanent offices in the building.

And there are ways for coworking spaces to make revenue to guarantee rents, as well as provide incredible value to coworkers, including:

  • Coffee and food sales
  • Events
  • Wellbeing services like a gym
  • Renting out meeting rooms
  • Childcare
  • Professional services like accounting, lawyers
  • Business services like managing mail and telephone calls.

Conrad Tracey said that as well as coworking spaces providing a vibrant work location for members, there can be good economic outcomes for local business too.

“If you provide a place where people are going to be happier, they are going to do more, be it activities or shopping,” he said.

The big C of Community

As was expected, the GCUC conference focused a lot on the core of coworking: community.

In a really popular session, the panel of Nick Shewring (Cofounder, CoLo), Conrad Tracey (COO, inspire9), Tim Mahlberg (University of Sydney), and Kasia Stelmach (Hub Australia) talked about the the challenges and opportunities that come with creating community.

“Coworking is a catalyst for community and change. It is also the catalyst for diversity and inclusion. There’s an opportunity to build a community that’s open and accepting, as long as you are too,” said Nick Shewring.

Speaking about their ‘No Dickheads’ policy, Nick went on to say that managing a coworking space comes with the responsiblity of making a safe and great environment for everyone. Sometimes this means some firm words from community managers about what is and isn’ t acceptable.

Tim Mahlberg spoke about the incredible benefit of being able to bring one’s whole self to a workspace.

“Work is such an important part of who we are. It represents such a significant part our lives; our time and energy. Nowadays who you are at work is a huge part of your identity. People want to work with others with shared values, connecting more authentically with who they are doing work they love, and exploring who they want to be,” he said.

Tim also highlighted the opportunity of being able to apply learning from coworking spaces in other areas to make significant social impact by addressing isolation. BallyCara‘s ‘Living Room’ is one example where retired people are encouraged to come together to network and learn, share their experiences and participate in fun activities.

“There is an incredible amount of wisdom in the older generations. The Living Room is giving some of our elders the opportunity to establish new identities in the community, to belong and thrive in later life. How might we tap into that wisdom to build a better community?”

Wellbeing + work

Coworking space leaders, such as Biz Dojo (New Zealand) and Hub Australia are creating spaces where wellbeing is at the forefront.

Biz Dojo in Wellington, for example, was designed with the explicit aim of building more resilient, capable people, according to Nick Shewring. They offer facilitated wellness programs like meditation and massages. And a diversity of work spaces to suit the workstyle needed on a particular day, including: quiet, active, focused. People who get to choose how they work have a better day at work.

Liz Elam, the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) executive director, agrees that coworking has a unique angle in the marketplace.

“We are selling happiness. A quarter of Americans are lonely. Coworking provides connection,” she said.

A 2015 survey of coworking spaces in the US found that 89% of people were happier due to coworking and 83% felt less lonely.

Takeaways from a few Sydneysiders that attended GCUCAU?

Clive Dale, Bioom Consulting

There are many expressions of coworking, from early stage incubation to high-end club-like facilities. GCUC underscored the importance to collaboration and knowledge sharing among the coworking industry sonthey are best placed to provide compelling services to their residents.

Tom Fleming, Work Inc

I’ve never been in an industry which is so openly collaborative and the people involved are happy to provide insight on their own businesses to ensure that the industry in Australia grows and succeeds.

It’s clear that while coworking is very much in its infancy in Australia it’s here to stay and is causing great disruption to what was a very steady commercial property market.

I found that the best thing about the conference was the people you met; a lot of enthusiasm, differing levels of experience and ways of operating – great contact points for the future. The ‘unconference’ structure was very useful as it allowed discussion and participation, but also meant you could pick and choose what interested you.

Tim Mahlberg, University of Sydney

At GCUC this year I was struck by the presence of our regional coworking space operators. Their passion, resilience and vision for their community was so evident.

In our report launched at GCUC, we introduce the coworking space archetype, the Townhall Terminal. Regional operators hold powerful, symbolic spaces for their communities to reimagine their future, drive new economic development, and empower new businesses. We saw the beginning of a regional coworking alliance emerge at GCUC… I look forward to seeing it establish and plan to support it as much as I can.

Claire Harris, Innovate Communicate

I really enjoyed the format of the event with formal sessions in the morning then a range of diverse sessions in the afternoon, chosen by attendees. The massive focus on people as the core of coworking stood out to me.

Plus I had lots of positive conversations with people and everyone was very open about sharing their activities, innovations and challenges.

I feel fortunate to be part of the growing Australian coworking community (both as a user of coworking spaces and as a general supporter of the concept). It is also exciting to be part of the North Sydney Innovation Network, which is supporting a project seeking to establish an innovation precinct, including coworking, in the North Sydney area.

Claire Harris in front of the GCUC sign

Claire Harris in front of the GCUC sign

Further reading

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