“What Does ‘Co’ Mean in Coworking?”: Early Reflections on Fieldwork

By Thomas James Lodato

Before I officially began researching coworking spaces, I had already had exposure to what coworking spaces were. I had been to a few coworking spaces as part of research on issue-oriented hackathons. One space was near Gramercy Park on Park Avenue in Manhattan, another space was in Downtown Atlanta on Peachtree Street, and yet another was in Brooklyn, housed within an old pharmaceutical research building. At the time of that research, I did not pay much attention to these spaces as coworking spaces, but focused more on how these locations compared to other sites for hackathons. At the time, I noted that these spaces were set up with plenty of power plugs and a strong WiFi signal, as well as endless coffee, all of which were vital for hackathons to run smoothly. In these early instances, coworking spaces were a background for the activities I observed and participated in. In my current research, however, these environments have come to the foreground.

In very general terms, coworking spaces refer to a large category of short-term, privately-operated facilities that subdivide leased or owned space into smaller units. These facilities offer month-to-month memberships as well as day passes. The cost of entry is relatively low, and it priced to entice small and medium businesses, freelance and contract workers, remote employees, and other people operating with low overhead and in need of work space. While the activity of coworking often implies hot desking (non-exclusive desks or work areas that are occupied as needed), coworking spaces as an industry refer to a broader category of short-term sub-parceled office/work space. As such, coworking spaces frequently offer graduated memberships that include devoted desks and semi-private or private offices. Beyond space, members receive basic amenities with their membership, such as WiFi, printing services, coffee, and conference rooms, and can purchase additional amenities, such as mailboxes and storage. Where space and office amenities are the visible material of paid entry, coworking spaces offer many immaterial perks too.

coworking space in atlanta GA
Coworking Space in Atlanta, GA

Many spaces highlight that working in a diverse environment leads to new thinking and new opportunities. Membership, advocates and advertisements argue, buys one access to a community of like-minded people. This community is often expressed as the reason to join a coworking space. Some spaces have internal software applications to match members in search of investment, gigs, or colleagues, as well as offer a variety of programming, from Happy Hours to subject-matter panels, to encourage sociability. From these efforts, coworking spaces claim a collective identity (i.e. a community) through the many diverse workers housed within.

What initially interested me about coworking spaces was less that these were a global phenomenon (a recent survey reports there are close to 8,000 spaces worldwide with more than to 500,000 cumulative members) and more that the term coworking—particularly the co part of coworking—was confusing given what I did know. Clearly coworking in the context of coworking spaces does not refer to some traditional notion of a ‘co-worker.’ While other people may not get quite as confused or confounded by terms as I do, I have found confusion of this nature to be very productive.

Early on in my research, I scrawled a question on the board in my office “What does “co” mean exactly?” This question remained there, slowly gathering a cloud of words punctuated with question marks: Colocated? Collaborative? Cooperative? Collective? Communal? While “what does ‘co’ mean in coworking?” is not an answerable research question, it none-the-less marked the beginning of my research into this phenomenon.

The obvious answer was and is that co is just an English prefix, co- (kəʊ), that means:

    1. with : together : joint : jointly <coexist>
    2. in or to the same degree <coextensive>
    3. a:  one that is associated in an action with another :  fellow :  partner <coauthor>
      b:  having a usually lesser share in duty or responsibility :  alternate :  deputy <copilot>

Definition 3a seems the most fitting. Coworking spaces are spaces where people are “associated in an action with another,” i.e. as co(-)workers, engaged in working together with others, i.e. coworking.  While this might suffice to explain the name, such a definition seems to be but a gesture. Most people in coworking spaces do not work together as much as alongside one another, or, as Clay Spinuzzi (2012) coined, work alone together.

As the general description highlights, coworking spaces are not traditional office spaces. Typically the term ‘co-worker’ refers to people who work for the same company. To refer to someone as a co-worker indicates an association through a shared working arrangement, often mediated by a company or organization. In other words, coworker is often synonymous with colleague. However, very few of the people working in coworking spaces work for the same company, and so this traditional use of the term coworker is akin to referring to someone who shares a wall in a duplex as a roommate. While co-worker qua colleague might alternately mean working for or with a shared goal (i.e. collegiality), the working arrangements of coworking spaces offer very little of a shared goal beyond the general goal of, say, doing work and then going home. Instead, the term co-worker in these instances seems to indicate people working alongside one another, that is, colocated workers. However, co(located)working is a bad fit for other reasons.

Coworking spaces are more than the structural or infrastructural relationship amongst people in space. Coworking spaces have some sense of community (what Spinuzzi attributes, in passing, the co to in his article). From the outset of this research, I have been fascinated by mottoes and taglines for these spaces. For example, on the homepage for WeWork, a global chain of coworking spaces, is the tagline “Create Your Life’s Work.” This tagline refers to WeWork’s other common adage “Do What You Love,” embossed on their membership cards and flickering as a screensaver on the various monitors in their spaces. While these two platitudes are particular, other spaces (in fact, every space) has some form of this sentiment — work for yourself and strive to be better. Beyond being inspirational or aspirational, these mottoes and taglines of coworking spaces point to the ideological components of membership, that is, shared cultural norms. In the now months of active fieldwork, I have heard very little about the WiFi connectivity and a great deal about the social life of coworkers and the values of coworking. More than the paid transaction, true membership to coworking seems to be a cultural affiliation. This cultural membership is most apparent in mottoes like that of WeWork and quasi-transcendental comments like “coworking needs to be experienced to be understood,” a sentiment that frequents a popular coworking podcast. Referring to coworking spaces as simply colocated working overlooks coworking spaces as ideological spaces, and ignores the felt reality of those in these spaces producing and reproducing the culture they created (and happen to pay for).

posters in coworking office space in Athens GA
Posters in a Coworking Office Space in Athens, GA

As these snippets of early research illustrate, understanding coworking spaces is more complicated than answering what co means in a grammatical sense. Maybe this is most represented by my own shift in spelling the word co-working to coworking. While I certainly would rather type without a hyphen (it is fewer key strokes in a very long writing project), the change is not stylistic or practical. Instead, in surveying coworking sites, I found that coworking (no hyphen) is the preferred spelling. (There is even a site devoted to correcting the misspelling: http://doescoworkinghaveahyphen.com)  As such, this spelling is an internal assertion that coworking is not a portmanteau, but something unique in-and-of itself.

For the time being and as I continue doing fieldwork, I need to add coworking with no hyphen to my computer’s dictionary.



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