This is the substance of a talk we delivered at a conference in Potsdam last week. I’ve expanded it slightly to include some of our observations from visiting coworking communities in Berlin, during the week.
A few years ago when we decided to re-brand our company, we wanted to promote the core values that drive our business. One of these was our foundational belief that we can achieve more working together, rather than independently. This is the idea behind our distinctive G in George, with its multiple dots forming a solid letter. This plays out in the kinds of courses and coaching we deliver, focused on teamwork and collaboration in Agile product delivery.
It was also behind our decision, this year, to start a new company, Cheltenham Coworking CIC, which aims to promote coworking in Cheltenham, UK. We see coworking as a great way to reap the benefits of collaborative working, but in a very different way to conventional delivery teams. This talk aims to highlight this idea, and, at the same time, explain a little about coworking for those who may not have come across the idea.
Firstly, not everyone likes collaborating …
but I think that most people would agree that it is a good thing. The Agile software development movement places a great deal of emphasis on collaborative working, getting rid of inefficient contractual arrangements between customers and technical people, and even between different functional areas within technical departments. Just getting people to sit down and thrash a problem out together is seen as the norm, rather than the exception.
However, the technological world that we live in is increasingly enabling individuals to be far more independent. It goes without saying that the way we work has changed. Face to face meetings used to be a necessity, but now we can communicate through a variety of tools. We live in an information and computing age. We now have information age jobs, e.g. web working and telecommuting, and the decline in lifetime job security has shifted the balance to self-employment.
While attending the conference in Berlin last week, I arranged 5 training courses, published and promoted a job vacancy on various forms of media, received 4 applications and negotiated a contract for a new office, all from a 2″x6″ phone.
This kind of thing drives the dream for the autonomous, mobile worker:
But very often the reality is far different. Almost every independent worker will encounter three big drawbacks: isolation, lack of productivity, and distractions. An American Express study found that telecommuters can be 30-40% more productive than office bound colleagues, but eventually productivity suffers without face to face communication. Working by yourself can be simply lonely. You also need good self-discipline to ignore distractions, particularly if you have children.
So, collaboration is a good thing, but there is a growing drive for autonomous working. We want to work with others, but maintain our independence and flexibility. How do we marry these things?
Coworking is one answer, with its rallying cry of “work independently, but not alone”.
What is coworking? wiki,coworking.org has a good definition:
“The idea is simple: independent professionals and those with workplace flexibility work better together than they do alone. Coworking spaces are about community-building and sustainability. Participants agree to uphold the values set forth by the movement’s founders, as well as interact and share with one another. We are about creating better places to work and as a result, a better way to work”
Coworking can take many forms. It could be as simple as independent workers hotdesking in a coffee shop. Betahaus (betahaus.com) in Berlin has a great ground floor cafe, where you can just turn up, connect to the free wifi and work as long as you like. You can even visit the mezzanine ‘library’.
However, many coworking spaces have evolved into far grander things. Betahaus has a number of floors in addition to the coffee shop, hiring out desks for independents and small startups, on a variety of membership plans. In addition, they run a wide variety of activities for the coworking community, including woodworking classes in their workshop and the weekly Beta Breakfast, where local startups present their ideas to the community.
However, the underlying values are the same for all coworking spaces:
Collaboration: There is a wealth of knowledge that you get working among a diverse group of people with different skill sets, backgrounds and experiences.
Community: Being surrounded by like-minded, driven and creative people provides an environment of innovation and positive mutual support. It is more than sharing an office space. It is a feeling of belonging.
Sustainability: Renewable materials, recycling, conserving fuel by biking in. Go local campaign. Motion sensor lighting, recycled paper and baskets, etc etc.
Openness: A high trust environment where ideas can be shared freely and honestly is key to successful coworking.
Accessibility: Low costs and easy access make coworking an affordable option for all types of independent worker.
The Agile software development movement shares similar values and this was still strongly asserted at the Agile Testing Days conference we were attending in Potsdam. On the Agile Manifesto website (agilemanifesto.org), Jim Highsmith records how the manifesto came about and notes that:
At the core, I believe Agile Methodologists are really about “mushy” stuff, about delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about “people as our most important asset” but actually “acts” as if people were the most important”
But, how does this all work out in practice though? How do people collaborate with no commercial relationship between them? And can it be successful?
One good example and a Betahaus success story was Martin Elwert of Coffee Circle. (For more details of his story see: http://www.deskmag.com/en/business-advice-for-first-time-entrepreneurs-from-three-companies-that-are-going-big-ezeep-orderbird).
In 2009 he worked on a project to create a school for orphans in Ethiopia and the experience got him thinking about entrepreneurship as a means of helping the country reduce poverty. He set up a Coffee Circle, exporting coffee from Ethiopia and channelling one euro per kilogram of beans directly into social projects in Ethiopia.
Coworking at Berlin’s Betahaus provided him with a very flexible and affordable office space when he started his business. But, coworking offered him far more than that. The space also provided easy access to programmers, designers, press relations people and entrepreneurs, who all provided input on a project that he had absolutely no experience in. Coworking provides accelerated serendipity, i.e. the random opportunities and discoveries that arise from interaction with others. He even benefited from the many journalists who came into Betahaus, who helped promote his business.
Martin’s story isn’t unique of course and there are many other coworking spaces around the world as successful as, if nor more than, Betahaus (we just picked on them because we wanted a local example to Berlin). The way we do work is changing, as is plain to see, but it is more than a technological or environmental change alone. Coworking is one of many contemporary movements, like the Agile movement, that are based on underlying values that treat business as a place for real humans not just work-producing machines. It seems that when we do this, people feel free to work together, to collaborate freely, and usually are far more effective than they could ever have been working in their own little corner.