Broadening and Building in Coworking

It seems that many people who join a coworking space find the experience to be overwhelmingly positive. Much of the growth of this movement can be credited to the fact that people who partake in it are often the most vociferous proponents of its continued existence. How can this phenomenon be explained? What is it about coworking spaces that makes them so overwhelmingly positive for people?

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has developed a theory known as broaden-and-build which may help explain it. It’s easiest to explain broaden-and-build by contrasting it with what we experience due to negative emotions. In times of fear, our bodies react in a very narrow and focused way in order to help us escape or vanquish the threat (fight or flight). Negative emotions generally produce a very intense and narrow repertoire of actions and thought. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Negative emotions are usually accompanied by things that could possibly kill us, generally something we are looking to avoid.

On the other hand, broaden-and-build posits that positive emotions like contentment, joy, interest, and love, allow us to have a broader thought-action repertoire which leads to increasing physical, personal, psychological, intellectual, and social resources. For example, Fredrickson looks at animal research which shows activities exhibited during play by young mammals, such as throwing oneself onto a sapling and being catapulted in an unexpected direction, is only ever shown in adults faced with threat. Building these important resources can lead to better outcomes in future threatened situations.

What does this mean for coworkers and coworking spaces?

Coworking spaces can, and should, be environments where positive emotions are cultivated and shared. Interacting with positive people, building relationships, being in an aesthetically pleasing environment, and doing good work can all lead to positive emotions. These positive emotions, in turn, lead to important adaptations like increased creativity, being more open to information, being more flexible, and increased efficiency. Most independent workers would argue that these characteristics are important to doing good work.

Not only do positive emotions lead to better outcomes, but the better outcomes can lead to more positive emotions. It is a cyclical process that can “build” on itself in what has been described as an upward spiral. For example, a member of a coworking space builds relationships with her fellow coworkers which leads to an increase in positive emotions, these positive emotions allow her to think more broadly and creatively on a project she’s working on, her client is very pleased with the quality of her work and recommends her services to a friend which leads to another well-paying job for our fictional coworker. This obviously elicits more positive emotions which in turn lead to more positive outcomes. It’s a reciprocal and self-feeding cycle that can lead to very high levels of well-being.

Coworking spaces can provide excellent environments for this positive upward spiral to begin. By providing a pleasing environment to do work, opportunities to meet interesting new people and collaborate on new projects, and by providing a way for an independent worker to feel like he or she belongs to a group, the stage is set for increasing positive emotions and the positive outcomes that accompany those emotions.

Reference: Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

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.

Coworking As a Hub of Positive Psychology

I throw around the term “coworking as a hub of positive psychology” a lot when I’m explaining to people why I’m interested in this concept of coworking. I’ve always had a rough idea of what I mean when I say this in my head, but I’d like to explore the idea a little bit more deeply. I think this article will expose me as the complete idealist that I am — but I’m okay with that. A movement as young as coworking has not even come close to meeting its full potential. Here are my thoughts on where that potential might be.

First, the rest of this article is built upon a couple assumptions that I should probably get out as soon as possible. I’m assuming that the growth of independent work is going to continue. According to everything I’ve read about the economy and the shifts it’s experiencing worldwide, I think that is a safe assumption. More and more people are either going to find themselves working independently (against their will) and more and more will choose to embark on a career of independent work. Secondly, as independent work becomes more normal, I think the idea that personal development falls under personal responsibility will become more normal. For a long time, personal development outside of a job context was not something people spent a lot of time thinking about. Jobs provided opportunities for you to grow as a person because your continued promotion through the ranks required this growth. Jobs also provided the structure for extracurricular activities like volunteering as a company for various causes or retreats that focused on something such as team-building or creativity. Less and less people are working in jobs that feature this kind of security and support nowadays and I think taking a more direct interest in personal development and philanthropy will become much more normal.

With those two assumptions out of the way, here’s what I mean when I describe coworking as a hub of positive psychology.

Coworking spaces can become spaces in the community where events, activities, and education can happen. Obviously, the primary use of any coworking space is going to be for the members completing their work. However, I don’t think coworking can, or should, end there. The people who are members at coworking spaces have a wealth of knowledge that many other people can benefit from (even beyond just other members of the space). I’d love to see coworking spaces create regular workshop series that introduce topics of interest to the general public. I know many have already done this but I think even more can be done. I think more membership plans that allow people to be involved in the extracurricular and community aspect of a coworking space are needed.

Secondly, my utopian view of a coworking space involves a sense of belonging to a team that is interested in more than just each individual’s business. I’d want to be a member of a space where each member feels like their work is contributing to a larger purpose. Where it feels like each of the members is doing something that can be beneficial to society as a whole. That doesn’t mean a space has to be filled with entrepreneurs trying to save the world, but it does mean that there is a certain level of focus beyond making a buck. It’d be completely possible to have a normal job (if there is such a thing at a coworking space)  and still be interested in volunteering, as a team, for good causes or creating something positive together as a space in our collective free time.

I’d love to see coworking spaces become centers of collaboration, communication, and education for the general public. A place where someone who is interested in bettering themselves in some way can go and be surrounded by people who are interested in the same thing. Where someone who has a normal 9-5 job can come after work and spend a couple hours working on a personal project in the company of people who are supportive and willing to share ideas.

When I first started thinking about the idea of coworking, before I even knew what coworking was, I had a different phrase stuck in my head: “personal development gym.” I wanted to find, or create, somewhere I could go and work on improving myself as a person. If I want to become physically stronger I could join a regular gym and if I wanted to know more about a specific topic I could take a community college class or find some kind of tutor. But where could I go if I just wanted to find other people who were passionate about doing something to improve themselves and the world? Where could I go to work on a project around other people who are also doing interesting projects?

I think coworking spaces can be that “personal development gym” I envisioned several years ago. Many spaces already seem to be moving rapidly toward that description. I understand that not every coworking space will become this. There will always be people who are mostly interested in a cheap space to rent where they can do their job in peace and then go home at the end of the day. I don’t begrudge anyone who wants that kind of coworking experience and there will always be spaces that will cater to that type of person. I think, however, there will be a growing niche of coworking spaces that cater to this desire to be a part of a team that has a focus outside of itself. A growing niche for spaces that are interested in personal development as a general concept and not just a place to get free coffee and a good Internet connection.

I’m not 100% sure how to create something like this, but I think it’s worth the effort. I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you have a similar vision or ideas for how to make it happen, in the comments below.

Sam Spurlin is an American graduate student studying the intersection between developmental and organizational psychology. He writes and coaches at SamSpurlin.com 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).

The Positive Psychology of Coworking

One of the main reasons coworking has expanded so quickly over the past few years is the desire for independent workers to cultivate and be a part of a community. Of course, having an aesthetically pleasing place to work that makes you feel good to be in it certainly doesn’t hurt — but it’s not the main draw. I think the best explanation for the success, and the continued success, of coworking is best understood through positive psychology.
Positive psychology is a relatively new focus of psychology that aims to better understand what makes life worth living. Traditionally, the discipline of psychology has done a great job helping people with mental sicknesses diagnose their problems and help restore them to normality. This is a noble and worthwhile goal, to be sure. Positive psychology, however, argues that we have neglected the positive mental conditions and behaviors that make life worth living. Things like peak performance, optimal experience, flow, happiness, joy, passion — do we understand what these are and under what conditions they can be facilitated? Positive psychologists want to know if it’s possible to do more for people than restore them to normality. Can we help people reach a level above average?
I think coworking provides an excellent environment for many components of positive psychology to be explored and nurtured.

Flow

One of the two “fathers” of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has made his career on what he describes as “flow.” In the 1970’s he began studying people who do things apparently for no reason other than for the enjoyment of the activity. Some of these individuals became so absorbed in what they were doing they would forget to eat, use the bathroom, or completely lose track of time. You’ve probably experienced what he ended up calling flow when you were super engaged in some kind of work that you found challenging, yet doable, and at least somewhat interesting. His further work into this concept showed that engaging in activities that let you experience flow is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. While most people don’t report that they’re happy or having fun when in the midst of the flow activity (they’re way too “in it” at the time), almost all look back on it and wish they could do it again. Coworking spaces can be a great environment to help facilitate flow. In my own experience, being around other people who are engaged with their work makes it easier for me to be engaged as well. The more we can find flow in our work, the more likely we are to enjoy the work we do.

Positive Relationships

Christopher Peterson, an important individual in the positive psychology field, has succinctly summarized his view of the most important lessons of positive psychology as, “Other people matter.” Much of our individual happiness and well-being is tied to the relationships that we have with other people. Many entrepreneurs and freelancers cite the social isolation as one of the main reasons they pursued joining a coworking space. It can be tough to spend the majority of your time working in almost complete isolation. Coworking provides an arena to cultivate the interpersonal relationships that are so important to making life worth living. Everybody is quick to point out the networking possibilities of a coworking space — a claim I won’t deny. However, let’s not forget that simply cultivating relationships, even friendships, with people at your coworking space is even more important than business contacts. Very simply, your coworkers and the relationships you build with them can help you have a more complete and healthy existence as a human being.

Happiness & Positive Emotions

Most people who have heard of positive psychology tend to think of it as the science of happiness. Or, as positive psychologist cringe when they hear, “happiology.” Serious positive psychology researchers shun this label because positive psychology encapsulates much more than understanding happiness. Regardless, cultivating our understanding of happiness and positive emotions (which are not necessarily the same thing) has been a major aim of positive psychology since its inception. For example, Barbara Fredrickson coined a theory known as broaden-and-build to understand why and how positive emotions have been important in human evolution. Almost a foil to the fight-or-flight impulse in response to threat that most of us are very familiar with, broaden-and-build is our response to positive experiences. Whereas fight-or-flight narrows our response options in a panicked effort to keep us alive (adrenaline and narrowed vision to help us escape a dangerous situation), positive experiences broaden our response repertoire and therefore helps us expand important internal resources that are important for survival later on. For example, her theory explains play as a broaden-and-build activity that helps teach and prepare young animals (including humans) how to flee or respond to threats later in life. Instead of narrowing potential responses to a stimulus, positive experiences allow the individual a broader array of possible responses. When you pair this idea with the concept of a positive affect spiral (basically, being positive and happy will make the people you come into contact with positive and happy, thus instigating an upward spiral of emotions in a community or organization), a coworking space suddenly becomes a haven of positive emotions and happiness.

Strengths, Values, Passion — The List Goes On

This is only a small smattering of possible positive psychology concepts that I think are relevant to positive psychology. Others include the identification and development of character strengths and values, the development of sustainable motivation and passion, and a myriad of organizational ideas such as job design and self-management. When positive psychology was set as Martin Seligman’s focus during his APA presidency term in 2000, a framework to help describe it was developed. Positive psychology can be thought of as having three pillars that are all interrelated; positive experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. I think coworking spaces have the potential to be one of the most positive institutions for individual happiness and well-being that has been formed in recent memory.
Sam Spurlin is an American graduate student studying the intersection between developmental and organizational psychology. He writes and coaches at SamSpurlin.com 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).

The Potential Energy in Coworking

When I look at a coworking space I see potential energy. Remember that concept from middle school science class? Kinetic energy is what you have when things are in motion. However, potential energy is invisible. It’s just sitting inside an object waiting to be released into kinetic energy. A tennis ball sitting on a table has potential energy, a tennis ball bouncing around a room has kinetic energy.
Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a lot of kinetic energy in a coworking space. The conversations, the typing, the laughing and all the work that happens day-in-and-day-out. Some days are quieter than others, the kinetic energy is a little bit lower, while other days it seems like the space isn’t enough to hold all the action happening inside its walls.
Kinetic energy is great, but it’s not what gets me excited about coworking. I’m interested in all the potential energy that is just waiting to be released. What does potential energy look like in a coworking space?
  1. The serendipitous connections just waiting to be made: You’re struggling with a coding problem that has you absolutely stumped. You haven’t met the guy next to you, yet, but little do you know he just responded to a question on Quora that precisely relates to what’s driving you crazy. Or, as you hold the door open for someone as you enter the space you realize she’s wearing the t-shirt of the start-up your buddy just started and they’re looking for a consultant. The opportunities are nearly endless for all of these connections to happen in a coworking space.
  2. The member-led workshop that changes your business: You decide to sit in on a workshop that your coworking buddy is giving. Not because you’re super interested in the topic, but more of a show of support. Little do you know he ends up saying something that solves a very specific, yet annoying problem, in your own business and/or life. Boom, potential energy turns into kinetic.
  3. The beer with a coworker that solidifies a business deal: You head to happy hour with a friend you made at your local coworking space. You’ve built up a friendship over the past couple of months, have bounced ideas around with each other, and have landed on something you’re both excited to pursue. What was once a small nibble of an idea in the back of your head has become an actual project.

 

You get the idea. A coworking space is as ripe a place as any you’ll find to change potential energy into kinetic. What does it take, though? A tennis ball won’t fall of the table by itself. It needs something; it needs a nudge.

Have You Answered The Nudge?

Your coworking space owner or manager may be the one who lands that successful nudge. I’m sure they’re emailing you with announcements and opportunities all the time. Have you tuned them out or do you still read every email? Have you considered going to the after-hours get together or the lunch-hour brainstorm session — just to see what it’s like?
Maybe the nudge takes the form of one your coworkers convincing you to go to a workshop with them. Or maybe you convince someone to go with you. Maybe you can nudge yourself with the thought that with nothing ventured, nothing gained. The nice thing about stepping out of your comfort zone once (and potential energy IS comfortable, there’s no doubt about it) is that it ends up taking much less effort the next time you want to do it. One small success acts as a catalyst for the next time you want to change some potential energy into kinetic. It’s cumulative and exponential and you can act as the nudge to get the newest member involved in the process.
Potential energy has never changed the world. It’s only when we release that potential that we begin making connections, making changes, and seeing positive change in ourselves, our spaces, and if I may be so bold, the world.
Sam Spurlin is an American graduate student studying the intersection between developmental and organizational psychology. He writes and coaches at SamSpurlin.com 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).