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Coworking – Face to Face Matters More Than Ever
Part 5 of 6

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One of the observations made at the CUAsia conference which I found particularly telling was that coworking spaces don’t compete with serviced or shared offices for freelancers and early-startups, but with “working at home in your underwear for free” (paraphrasing Alex Hillman, co-founder of Indy Hall, speaking at the CUAsia conference, February 2016).

Although the ability to choose where to work is highly valued, frequently we choose places that avoid the isolation of working independently. What attracts people who can work anywhere (even at home in their underwear!) to coworking hubs, is the presence of other people.  Coworking businesses believe their value is increasingly created through the serendipitous interactions and business networks facilitated through face to face connections in the physical environment.

It’s about potential, the possibility that a connection may be made with another member that sparks an idea, creates a customer or solves a problem.


Another critical business benefit of coworking is access to a diverse mix of member perspectives and skills, whether in an industry-based or open membership environment.  The power of collocation of different but related businesses for generating new ideas, advanced by Granovetter’s theory of the “strength of weak ties“, supports the economic case for innovation through industry agglomeration and the intersections of communication networks.  We perceive value in sharing space with a community of like-minded people: “human aggregation, friction, and the interaction of our minds are vital aspects of work, especially in the creative industries.”

The importance of physical proximity in facilitating communication has been well-documented, most famously by Professor Allen of MIT who demonstrated that the frequency of both face to face and electronic communication drops exponentially as the distance between co-workers increases.  Workplace design supports communication by facilitating proximity though planning, path-finding, and visibility, with evidence suggesting people interact ten-times more with people on their floor than in another building (Becker, Simms, and Schoss, “Interaction, Identity and Collocation”, Cornell University IWSP, 2002).

Westpac’s new office at Barangaroo in Sydney is the second vertical campus created by the Bank because it strongly believes collocation is critical to the success of its people. The agile workplace was officially designed to accommodate 6,000 people, but the quality and variety of its employee-designed spaces – including cafes, the ‘library’ and ‘breakout villages’ – have become a mecca for their colleagues based in other Westpac buildings.

What does this mean for CRE Leaders?

Coworking environments are successful and growing exponentially because they create “a sustainable ecosystem for connection, collaboration and networked value creation.” Organisations would be wise to focus more of their resources on spaces designed to encourage interpersonal interactions of all kinds, especially places to brainstorm, network, and share knowledge.

CRE leaders should focus on delivering core places that ignite the critical behaviours, discussions and intersections that happen when people physically come together.


By improving access within neighbourhoods to places to pause, chat, experiment and share ideas comfortably and without undue scrutiny, companies are more likely to imitate the innovation culture of coworking hubs.

Don’t forget to continue the conversation in the Comments below!

In the next and final article in this series, I’ll discuss why accessibility and agility are more important than traditional “control” concepts.

This article was originally published by Caroline M. Burns, PhD, on April 2, 2017 at the series by Dr. Caroline M. Burns on Coworking and the Future of Work

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