Academic Coworking

A major project I’ve been working on during my time at Locus has been developing a proposal for an academic coworking space to introduce to my university. Not only is coworking itself a young movement, but the subgroup of academic coworking spaces is even younger. I think a lot of the benefits freelancers and entrepreneurs get from joining coworking spaces is relevant to academic independent workers. Students share a lot of the same needs as more traditional independent workers and an academic coworking space could go a long way for helping rectify those needs as well as introduce new opportunities to students, faculty, and the general community.

The constant struggle versus the environment

For many students, deciding where to work on a given day can be a major struggle. There are usually a couple of choices available such as the library, a coffee shop, an empty classroom, or home. In each of these locations there are usually a wide array of stimuli to learn how to ignore. A coworking space isn’t a sanctuary of non-distraction, but at least the environment it fosters is one that supports great work. Instead of having to resist an environment that isn’t very good for the type of work you’re trying to complete, a coworking space can be expressly designed and developed to support the type of work students are likely to be doing. Cafés are designed to consume coffee. Classrooms are designed for attending or teaching classes. Libraries are designed to hold resource materials (and if you’re lucky, give you somewhere to study). A coworking space can be designed expressly for the purpose of supporting great work.

The importance of collaboration

Collaboration is vital in academia. As an undergrad you can easily get through your degree without having to do anything too transdisciplinary or collaborative. Sure, you’ll have group projects but that is a very surface-level type of collaborative work. In graduate school, the purpose is not to just get through the course work. Your success in graduate school largely depends on what you’re able to do outside of the classroom. The focus is on developing creative new projects, lines of research, and ideas. Providing students from different schools or programs but within the same university a space where they can meet each other and collaborate on ideas is very important. I want to be able to go somewhere where I know I’ll be working side by side with economics or public policy or education students. Of course, that’s true in the library. However, the difference is in the environment that is fostered. In the library, you have proximity to students in other programs but the environment is not supportive of collaboration. You’d never go up to someone you didn’t know in the library and just ask them what they’re working on. In a well-functioning academic coworking space, that should be the norm.

A supportive place to do something other than great coursework

If you’re in graduate school, completing classwork is not your ultimate goal. It’s something you have to do so you don’t get booted from the program, but it’s not why you’re there. The self-generated projects and research, the entrepreneurial efforts and the relationships that are developed are what really matter. None of these things are optimally supported by any of the spaces currently provided by the university. There is nowhere I can go to work on a side project and be surrounded by people who are tinkering with their own side projects or, at the very least, are interested in hearing my ideas or frustrations with my own project. I want somewhere I can go to find my classmates who are most interested in something other than getting an A on the next exam — something like changing the world for the better.

I think convincing a school to invest in an academic coworking space is going to take a couple different approaches. First of all, they have to be convinced that the spaces already supplied on campus (library, classrooms, lounge, etc.) are not the same thing as a true coworking space. Part of that process is being very clear about what can happen in a coworking space that is currently not happening in these other locations. Additionally, they must be convinced that it is in the best interest of the university to provide a space where people can be doing these things that fall outside the realm of basic course work.

As more students graduate from programs like mine and get into some kind of independent work, whether as a contractor, freelancer, consultant, or some other type of self-employment, I think universities would like to be seen as being on the leading edge of a new movement.

What it comes down to, in the end, is that I want a space to do great work in surrounded by great people. I want a space that fosters a sense of true collaboration and community with a perspective greater than tomorrow’s term paper. Sometimes it can be hard to explain why coworking is so great to someone who has never experienced it. That’s what is making writing this proposal so hard. I can clearly see how coworking could be adapted to an academic environment but making other people see it is difficult. Through the force of my writing and my speaking I hope I’m able to convince the university that creating an academic coworking space is in their best interest.

Hopefully I can report back with positive news in a couple months.

Research to Be Done

All of us in the coworking movement realize this is still a very young phenomenon. As we continue to grow it will be important to have justification for the decisions made about how we run our spaces. A base of research can be very helpful in making those decisions as well as convincing a sometimes skeptical public about the benefits of this movement. Deskmag has kicked off the effort in the right direction with two Global Coworking Surveys. These surveys have collected a myriad of demographic and descriptive data that has helped us better understand what coworking spaces are like, who coworkers tend to be, and some of the habits and characteristics of both spaces and people. As we move forward as an industry, though, more nuanced research will have to be undertaken. As I see it, here are some of the main areas where future researchers will make major contributions to coworking.

Characteristics of Spaces

What characterizes a great space from a mediocre one? Are there physical characteristics of a space that makes it more conducive to work? More conducive to community building? What is the optimal density of workers? What amenities have measurable impacts on the well-being of the people who work in the space? Are there certain aesthetic choices that are important in designing a space? Where should spaces be located? What are the differences between urban and suburban spaces? Are these important differences? 
There are answers to the questions I just posed (and by no means is this an exhaustive list). There are “rules of thumb” and “hunches” that guide many space owners but very little actual research addresses any of these questions. With good research into the characteristics of spaces perhaps certain amenities, design decisions, and physical characteristics of the space will emerge as the most important. When dealing with a limited budget this information will be very helpful to the space owner who wants to have the largest positive impact on his or her coworkers as possible. What if specific characteristics of coworking spaces can be identified as vital to worker well-being and then transplanted into corporate entities? While this could be viewed as cutting the pool of possible coworkers I prefer to see it as improving the lives of our fellow human beings that are not in a position to take advantage of a coworking space. Regardless, better understanding of the characteristics of coworking spaces can only lead to better spaces.

Characteristics of Workers

Are there certain personality types that benefit more from coworking? Do personality types and coworking space types effect each other? Are there certain types of work that will benefit from coworking spaces more than others? What style of productivity is best suited for coworking spaces? Is it possible to pre-screen prospective coworkers and make helpful suggestions about the type of coworking space they should seek out? How can the dynamics within a coworking space be improved? How can positive interpersonal relationships and a sense of community be stimulated within a space? Do certain types of spaces fit a certain type of worker better?
Better understanding the people who utilize coworking spaces will give owners and managers the information they need to improve their experience. This is the area that I think the Global Coworking Survey (especially the first one) really helped to shed light on. What else can we learn from and about the people in coworking spaces, though?

The Psychological Experience of Coworking

Does coworking increase well-being? Are coworkers happier than their counterparts in more traditional work environments? What aspects of coworking do coworkers like? Dislike? Is motivation affected by coworking? In what way? Does working in the vicinity of other people working on their own projects affect passion, motivation, well-being, happiness, etc.? What do coworkers tend to think about while they are in coworking spaces? Is that different for people that work in office buildings or coffee shops? Is it more or less focused?
These are the types of questions that really fascinate me as a positive psychology student. The psychological make ramifications of coworking seem to hold the most promise for expanding coworking to more people. If coworking is shown to have a net positive impact on people psychologically then there is more of a reason for people to investigate it. If coworking has measurable effects on happiness or well-being then we should strive to better understand why.
Obviously, there are lots of other types of non-psychology research questions that are relevant to coworking as well. Work needs to be done on the economic impact of coworking on the communities in which it is situated. Does coworking positive impact the surrounding community? How? Does coworking effect the productivity of workers? Does it have positive economic outcomes for workers? Where does coworking thrive and where does it struggle? Can we predict where successful coworking spaces should be established?
There’s a whole lot of questions that should be answered about coworking. I don’t see it as a daunting list of incompletes, but as an opportunity to better understand this thing we all love and to provide the information and facts to relay that information to the public.

Have you done or are you doing any research into some component of coworking? I’d love to hear more about it.

Sam Spurlin is an American graduate student studying the intersection between developmental and organizational psychology. He writes and coaches at and is spending the summer in Prague working in Locus Workspace. He’ll be sharing his thoughts and observations about coworking here for the next couple of months. You can follow him on Twitter (@samspurlin) or send him an email (samspurlin AT gmail DOT com).