Why People Thrive in Shared Spaces

What makes shared spaces so effective? And are there lessons for more traditional offices?

To find out, we researched interviews from several shared space founders and community managers, and surveyed several hundred workers from dozens of shared spaces around the U.S. A regression analysis following our research revealed three substantial predictors of thriving:

People who use shared spaces find their work meaningful. Freelancers are able to choose projects they care about, for example — the people found in our research reported finding meaning in the fact that they could bring their whole selves to work. They’re able to do this in a few ways.

First, unlike a traditional office, shared spaces consist of members who work for a range of different companies, and also on different projects. Because there is little direct competition or internal politics, they don’t feel they have to put on a different front to fit in. Working amongst people who are doing different kinds of work made freelancer’s feel that their own work identity was stronger.

Second, meaning may also come from working in a culture where it is the norm to help each other out, and there are many opportunities to do so; the variety of workers in the space means that co-workers have unique skill sets that they can provide to other community members.

Lastly, meaning may also be derived from a more concrete source: The social mission inherent in the Coworking Manifesto, an online document signed by members of more than 1,700 working spaces. It clearly expresses the values that the shared space movement seeks to, including community, collaboration, learning, and sustainability.

Research showed freelancers found they had more job control when working in a shared space. Shared spaces are normally accessible 24/7. People can decide whether to put in a long day when they have a deadline or want to show progress, or can decide to take a long break in the middle of the day if they like. They can choose whether they want to work in a quiet space, or in a more collaborative space with shared tables where interaction is encouraged. They can even decide to work from home without consequences.


While co-workers value this independence, we also learned that they equally value some form of structure in their professional lives. Too much independence can actually cripple productivity because people lack routines. Co-workers reported that having a community to work in helps them create structures and discipline that motivates them.

Connections with others are a big reason why people pay to work in a shared space, as opposed to working from home, for free or renting an ordinary office. Each shared space has its own vibe, and the managers of each space go to great lengths to create a unique experience that meets the needs of their particular members.  WeWork, which recorded a valuation of $5 billion last December, emphasizes how it “seek[s] to create a place you join as an individual, ‘me’, but where you become part of a greater ‘we.’”

Shared space seekers/freelancers are able to choose when and how to interact with others or even not interact if they choose. And while our research found that some people interact with fellow co-workers much less than others, they still felt a strong sense of identity within the community. We believe this comes from co-workers knowing they have a choice to interact with others if they want or need to.

So what are the implications for traditional companies? Even though the shared space movement has its origins among freelancers, entrepreneurs, and the tech industry, it’s increasingly significant for a wider range of people and organisations. In fact, co-working can become a part of your company’s strategy, and it can help your employees and your business thrive. An increasing number of companies are incorporating co-working into their business strategies in two ways.

Number one, they’re being used as an alternative place for people to work. Michael Kenny, Managing Partner of San Diego-based Co-Merge, said, “In the past year and a half, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the use of the space by enterprise employees. We have seen teams come in to use various on-demand meeting rooms. We have users from global companies of size ranging from several hundred to several thousand employees who use the space not only to allow their distributed workers to get productive work done, but also to attract employees who demand flexible workplace and work time.”


Number two, the lessons of shared spaces can be applied to corporate offices. Just as it’s important to encourage flexibility and support your mobile employees, there is an equally important reality of creating the right kind of work environment inside your own walls. But this doesn’t just mean creating open plan layouts or adding a coffee bar. Many companies are increasingly adopting the best planning practice of providing a variety of desk seats and also seats in shared areas used for either collaborative work or quiet work, depending on the person’s needs/requirements.

Companies are also trying to enable more connections, helping people to interact and build community beyond work meetings. Shared spaces are one place to look for guidance, as they regularly offer networking events, training programs and social events. Some companies are going even, further, however, Rich Sheridan and James Goebel, founders of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recently expanded their office space by 7,000 square feet so that so that start-ups and early stage entrepreneurs can work alongside Menlo programmers to spur community and innovation.

Our research suggests that the combination of a well-designed work environment and an enjoyable work experience are part of the reason people who co-work demonstrate higher levels of thriving than their office-based counterparts. But what matters the most for high levels of thriving is that people who co-work have substantial independence and can be themselves at work. If you choose to incorporate shared space into your company the result could be employees will feel more committed to your organisation, and are more likely to bring their best energy and ideas to the office each day.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2015 issue (p.28, 30) of Harvard Business Review.

Source: Harvard Business Review, by Gretchen Spreitzer, Peter Bacevice & Lyndon Garrett


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