Kim Findlay, national A&D development manager for furniture manufacturer Edge Design, shares his thoughts on the drivers of ‘coworking’ and what this revolution means for companies providing the spaces and people working within them. 

It’s easy to laugh at workspace buzzwords, so let’s do that. Coworking, agility working, ability working, scrum working, well-being and Biophilic Design: are these, perhaps, just other words for Hot Desking (very last century) and pot plants? Coining an expression is never far from the lips of a workplace guru.

Ever since the seminal Johnson Wax building (constructed Wisconsin, 1936 to 1939), when putting office workers in large open spaces without walls was invented, it has been called different things, but the motivation has often been cost reduction because putting staff in individual offices is expensive.

We are now in the middle of the coworking revolution, but is there any substance or is it just about helping Millennials and Generation-Xers suppress their FOMO (which stands for ‘fear of missing out’, for those not in the know!) and appealing to a collaborative hipster vibe?

Interestingly, in a world overrun by methods of communication, bumping into someone and having a conversation across a table is, apparently, very popular. But again we are told that this is a generation of young people who find it difficult to communicate face-to-face and who hide behind their social media profiles and smartphones.

So, what – or who – is actually driving the seemingly unstoppable thrust of coworking?

Is it employers, landlords and business centre operators seeing an opportunity to cram more people in a smaller space and adding a good coffee machine, some graffiti and a pool table to distract the occupants from the meagre environment in which they are being asked to work? Or is it those Millennials and Generation-Xers demanding a different type of workspace?

Landlords are starting to realise that by leasing offices to coworking providers their buildings can become associated with exciting new entrepreneurs, without the risk of direct exposure to their limited credit history and often unsubstantiated covenants (source: The Coworking Revolution, DTZ).

The typical set up within a business centre is that the tenant will, in fact, rent two spaces: a share in the coworking space and a very small and compromised individual working area. Equally, companies providing a coworking space for their own staff will also expect employees to work at home, on the train or plane, in coffee shops and at individual concentration areas if they actually need to get anything done.

There is, however, some evidence that Generation-Xers are rebelling. Perhaps because of their bedroom-based upbringings they are demanding a far more traditional and structured office working environment. They want their own individual space and a well-defined hierarchical structure so that they know their place within an organisation.

This is not the case with Millennials, 74 per cent of whom, in a recent survey, indicated they wanted flexible work schedules with 88 per cent in favour of the kind of collaborative culture offered by a flexible working environment over a very competitive culture (source: Toby Ogden, head of Central London Tenant Representation, DTZ).

The answer is inevitably a combination of the two: commercial rents continue to rise putting pressure on landlords to maximise the income per sqm and technology has freed people from being tied to their keyboard and screen.

There are a number of other elements that are often overlooked. If workplace design is driven purely by function and having to appeal to the current trend, where is the space for atmosphere, interest and personality? It is these elements that make an environment stimulating to work in.

Equally as important and seemingly regularly overlooked is ergonomics. Using a tablet or laptop without a separate screen is an inherently un-ergonomic thing to do but is in conflict with the coworking- and agility-based ‘work anywhere’ ethos. Muscular skeletal damage, RSI and eyestrain caused by poor posture will, over the next few years, become a serious issue. A boring old desk and chair has its problems but at least there are some parameters for helping people work without injuring themselves. An employee hunched over a small laptop on a sofa peering at a tiny 13” screen is not doing themselves a great deal of good and employers need to consider occupational health issues some way down the line.

So, if coworking is going to expand exponentially and encompass the entire working world, it will have to adapt to an ever-changing workforce. A lot like it has done just this since Wisconsin in the 1930s and, no doubt, there will be another version along very soon. Anyone for working in the clouds? Oh, that’s already been done!