Community vs. Commercialism

What I learned from this years’ Coworking Europe tour — By Melody Clemons

“What is coworking?” was a question repeated over and over again at the Coworking Europe conference last week in Brussels. It was a question that is quite relevant in an industry that is developing at a rapid rate, with the amount of new coworking spaces globally doubling from 3,500 in 2013 to 7,800 in 2015 (Deskmag global coworking survey).

So, why is the definition so subjective?

If I type the question into Google it tells me that coworking is: “the use of an office or other working environment by people who are self-employed or working for different employers, typically so as to share equipment, ideas, and knowledge.” I actually think that is a pretty good definition, well done Google. The thing is, coworking is not just about sharing a workspace anymore or building a community. It is an opportunity to make money.

It is important to note here that having a focus on profit is in no way a bad thing, and in fact it is crucial in keeping any business alive but in an industry that is starting to capture the interest of investors and property developers around the world, how do we keep commercialism out and the community in? Can the industry continue to grow, without losing its soul?

Let me give you a little background into why this is relevant to me at the moment. Currently, I (Melody Clemons) have undertaken the task of developing the coworking spaces at Factory Campus. With sights set on becoming a small city for innovation, Factory Campus is likely to be one of the biggest of it’s kind in Europe. But it wasn’t always the mega project it has become. For the last 6.5 years it was known as Coworking Space GarageBilk a 500m2 community driven, entrepreneurial ecosystem for freelancers and small startups alike. So here’s the big question: is it possible to keep the small town vibe alive as it graduates to a city?

The answer? I sure hope so. In fact, I am confident it can be done as long as “community” remains at the heart of the business model.

On the last day of the conference all attendees were given the opportunity to join a coworking tour to visit six established coworking hotspots across Brussels. As we visited each location I very often found myself focusing more on my surroundings then the tour itself. Feeling a bit like a visitor at the zoo I watched the people in their work environment, did they look comfortable & happy? Could I see myself sitting next to them also renting a desk or space there?

Betacowork Brussels

The main takeaway that I had from this was an unexpected (but actually quite obvious) one. The vibe of the space was a direct reflection of the people working there. The places where I could see myself working (as a coworker), were the ones where I could see myself getting along with the staff, people who I would like to share a coffee with, not just buy a coffee from. These are the places that will be successful at building communities around them and it is with “community” at the heart that the culture will remain. It actually shouldn’t matter how big the space is or how many services are offered as long as the people owning it and working there understand the importance of community building. When making money is your only objective you will attract consumers, when your focus is the community you attract citizens.

In the midst of commercialism, there still stands the opportunity for coworking as a culture to grow and keep the community at heart. At Factory Campus, we are excited for the challenge.

-Melody Clemons, BDM Coworking Factory Campus

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