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 / Summer 2010 / Issue 59(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Promise of the Cloud Workplace

Co-working spaces attract young, resourceful employees. The spaces fill up rapidly with people in their 20s and 30s, often those employed in technological fields (Web development, graphic design, social media, videography, blogging) or as writers, attorneys, or management consultants. Rather than cubicles or closed-off rooms, the work spaces tend to favor open desk arrangements that encourage cross-communication and collaboration. In some spaces, workers nest in preferred corners; in others, they switch locations, views, and office mates regularly.

A couple of co-working spaces were set up as experiments in reshaping corporate climates. For example, the Steelcase furniture company opened Workspring in Chicago, which it describes as “a network of extraordinary spaces, designed to inspire and support creative collaboration, productive retreat, and transformative exchange.” The company applies the insights gleaned from space renters to its own next-generation furniture designs. “The trend [in facilities] is for corporations to reduce their fixed real estate costs,” says Steelcase Senior Vice President Mark Greiner, the general manager of Workspring, explaining the reasoning behind this venture. “I was seeing a shift toward elements that weren’t necessarily playing toward our strengths.”

A few other companies are embracing co-working. Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy producer based in New Hampshire, rents space for its West Coast sales staff at Sandbox Suites in San Francisco. A northern California software company called Automattic has sales and programming employees at a space called Conjunctured in Austin, Tex., where they co-work alongside some of their customers. The biggest obstacle to setting up such spaces is often not financial or logistical, but cultural. When Macquarie Bank in Sydney tried to convert some offices to more flexible spaces (even inviting other companies to come in and co-work), some older, established managers protested; they did not want to give up their private offices. Rather than welcoming collaboration, some employees fear distraction and instability. Some also worry that co-working could make it easier to inadvertently reveal company secrets to outsiders.

But space is culture, and the informality and openness of co-working could be valuable to many companies — for fostering innovation, attracting talent, and funding facilities in a more flexible manner. Co-working is often cheaper and less disruptive than equipping a telecommuting employee’s home with high-speed Internet and phone service. It might thus represent the future of many corporate workplaces. Companies may turn to co-working because it is relatively inexpensive, and then stick with it because of its other advantages, including the benefits of learning to experiment with parts of the business, such as facilities, that have resisted experimentation to date.

Author Profile:

  • Andrew Jones is a founder of Shift, a consulting firm in Austin, Tex., and Birmingham, Ala. He is coauthor of I’m Outta Here: How Coworking Is Making the Office Obsolete (with Todd Sundsted and Tony Bacigalupo, Not an MBA Press, 2009) and author of The Innovation Acid Test: Growth through Design and Differentiation (Triarchy Press, 2008).
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