Reflections on co-working

We’ve just spent a few days co-working in London, the first edition of Sea Salt co-working and it’s prompted me to reflect on what co-working means to me.

How have I experienced co-working? How do I define it? I work with more and more people who have spent their work lives in various types of offices, people who are used to being time bound, to working with schedules. My work history, for the most part, has been outside of offices. After having the experience of office work, I spent the rest of my career actively avoiding them, eschewing schedules for a more natural work rhythm, like sleeping or eating, it is a part of my day without being imposed on me. I work when I wake up. Sometimes work wakes me up, or I might work all night. Alone or with others, on or offline.

I’ve remote worked more than I have worked in offices. Long before my ‘official’ nomad status, I worked in a nomadic fashion, roaming from coffee shop to library, walking all over the city, first Vancouver, then Nelson, then other cities, searching for the perfect combination of comfort, productivity and price.

Co-working has been part of the way I work over the course of my career. I term it co-working now, but in the moment it was just how we could get things done. My mom and I worked together in our own consultancy. She was good at gathering people together to work. She would often suggest we get together and work on a certain part of a project or proposal. Working together in person and online became the solution if something needed to get done. We would spend the day or the morning together, either at a table or on either sides of an open Skype line, and work in each other’s presence, asking a question here, getting feedback there. It was a good way to get something started as well, or if either of us needed inspiration or felt ‘stuck’ with something. We would strategize, put our heads together, both on one computer or each on our laptops and do the thing that needed to be done. At the end of such a morning or a day, I had a feeling of accomplishment, and relief! It particularly helped me when I didn’t feel inspired or wasn’t sure how to approach a problem. Working synchronously, either on person or online, gave us the opportunity to connect at a time when I was, for the most part, working on asynchronous project work.

When I met Julian (@SeaSaltLearning) it was easy to co-work. There was no discussion about how we would do it, we didn’t have a meeting about it. We just did it, perhaps because we had a similar understanding of what ‘it’ was. Whenever we get a chance to attend a conference or training session together, there is co-working time. We got a chance to go to Amsterdam for a weekend and co-work there. To me, it is an aspect of remote working, a variant. A natural variation on the same theme.

When you search ‘how to co-work’, a lot of co-working spaces come up. I don’t see much about what to do when you get there. Each will have a different way of operating, hosting workshops and networking events, putting people together, either to meet or work independently. What about teams who co-work together?

It never occurred to me that I would need, or want to, explain it, being such an intrinsic part of the way I work. It is like explaining how to eat. However, like eating, it is done differently in different cultures, as I recently found in China. Sometimes you do need to explain the things that seem not to need explanation. Examine and reflect on the things that just ‘are’ in order to make them visible, possible to be worked on together. Evolve.

When is co-working not co-working? When it’s a meeting.

There are many articles on tips for running a successful meeting. The key word being ‘running’. A good meeting is about structure, setting an agenda, making sure everyone contributes. The thing about meetings is that, while they are meant to be productive, they are more often an opportunity for people to talk about a task, or to be on display, impressing coworkers with Venn diagrams and exhortations to look at the big picture.

That’s what we’re used to, our work lives are dotted with meetings. This isn’t to say all meetings are useless. They have their place in my work arsenal. Co-working is another, a different animal.

When co-working is led, when it is scheduled, there are barriers placed around it. One thing I learned early on in my career: I can’t ‘turn on’ my creativity or productivity. The way I work became an exploration of the conditions that would be most conducive to it. That is why I left the ‘office life’: I was expected to be productive at certain times, around other people’s schedules. I couldn’t see the point in it, why stay in an office all day when I’m most productive early in the morning and I’m next to useless in the afternoons? When there is a schedule around co-working, when there are constraints, it becomes difficult. It is about working in other people’s presence but it isn’t a meeting. It has a productive focus. Meetings take on a secondary place and that way become part of an organic process. Talking about work happens more informally, during ‘down time’, like over lunch or on a walk.

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Meeting: when the Venn diagram comes out!

In co-working, there are shifting configurations. While my experience is limited to coworking in smaller groups, the principle could remain. Two people  working over here, working on a specific task together. A few over there. Other people working independently. One might suggest changing location. A few might decide to go work in  a cafe, or a pub. It is okay to move around, in fact it is encouraged: a change of environment is conducive to refreshing perspective, fosters productivity. I can feel when a location is ‘going stale’, usually after a few hours. I start to feel it creep into my bones, my brain slows down. It is time to move.

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Signs of co-working: Pulling out the laptop and putting heads together.

In a group that is co-working you might hear:

‘I need another 30 minutes and then do you want to work on this task?’
‘Would you like to take an hour to work this out?’
‘I want to move soon, maybe grab a coffee, anyone want to come?’

‘Who knows about this thing I’m working on?’

People self-organize, and don’t require organizing.
People are responsible for their tasks, and don’t need to be told what to do.
There is no permission to ask for or give.

The day will constantly shift and change. There are no time limits, no designated work areas, no schedule. It requires individuals to be responsible for themselves, to listen to their bodies, to be proactive and communicative, collaborative.

 

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