What does the future of coworking look like?

Coworking Europe 2016: The big trends and observations following this year’s conference in Brussels

This year’s Coworking Europe conference in Brussels brought together over 450 people from across the world in what can no longer be referred to as a nascent industry, with a number of founders boasting over five, and in some cases over ten, years’ experience.

There were a number of things that leapt out from the conference, I want to focus on a handful of them:

Our COO Mandy Weston heading in for the first day

Evolution

Given that the more mature centres are getting on a bit, it’s interesting to see three main trends emerging in the industry.

The first trend is centres needing to get bigger and bigger, either as a network of centres, or a larger footprint. This might seem obvious, as the benefit of the fine margins pay off with scale, but it goes against the original purpose for a lot of coworking space founders – to bring together a likeminded group of people for mutual benefit. It’s much harder to manage that network and ensure it is truly collaborative as it grows and priorities for approving members’ applications shift.

Which links nicely into the second trend, founders of spaces diversifying into software and product. There were a number of spaces that had identified other market opportunities in coworking through exposure to their audience, such as one which helped to drive leads into the community for a referral kickback - creating a service supermarket; coworking visas, where you pay a subscription to use any centre across the world within the network; desk finders, which show you local coworking spaces for a cut of the fee; and community platforms, focused on improving the management of, and communication with the network of users. These platforms, designed by people who live and breathe the challenges, save time, share lessons, and can potential increase income or decrease costs, but are reliant on the coworking community continuing to grow, which is a safe bet if this year’s Deskmag findings are to be believed.

Founder of Coworking Europe, Jean-Yves Huwart, introducing the unconference

And the third major trend is the VC backed new entrants coming into the space, such as Tribes, and WeWork. These have not been well received by a community of people who have put their hearts and souls into creating centres for their respective communities over the last few years, only to have a centre open up around the corner that has had up to €2m invested in its fit out, come and kick the market at its knees. These centres, seemingly, are rarely profitable, and are often aimed at other markets, sold to VCs on the basis that the world of work is changing, and that these hip new spaces are where it’s at. They might appeal more to major corporates building flexible working into their perks for staff, but understanding the power of a fragile and carefully crafted community is a different challenge altogether.

Coworking spaces need to behave as start-ups themselves, evolving to survive the changing marketplace

For centres that are committed to the long game, there are other areas of diversification, such as accelerator services, hosted events, corporate sponsorship, and live/work. More and more centres and operators see live/work, the idea of you being able to pick up your life and continue it in another city due to the power of digital connectivity, as being an area of significant growth, but others seem to see digital nomads as an overly romantic dream that is further skewering the understanding of what coworking is.

Pretty much the only thing that everyone agreed on was that we can’t agree what coworking means. It means something different to everyone, and it is very rarely something that people ever aimed to create. So many attendees, like the guys at 91springboard, created their thing, only to realise that what they had done is created a coworking community. It was the same for us, I never called ICE coworking until I went to my first Coworking EU in Barcelona 2013, met other founders and realised they were my people.

Carsten Foerstch of Deskmag sharing the findings of this year’s survey

Deskmag research shows that next year we are projected to exceed 1m coworkers, with growth slowing, but still over 60% growth in the market forecast for this time next year. Since my first coworking conference in Barcelona, over 8,000 centres have opened, more than three times the global total that existed back then.

Research has found that there are now over 800,000 people working across more than 11,000 spaces across the world

In fact, since ICE opened, 9,250+ new centres have opened across the world. That’s more than six every day!

Some other highlights from the findings include the stat that over 70% of members have collaborated with other members within the last 12 months, with an average of four collaborations. This totally stacks up with research of our own this summer that found that over 90% of ICE members have commercial collaborative agreements with at least two other members. So coworking spaces are a good place to grow your business in a tangible sense as well as all the community aspects.

The final point I want to pick out from the research is that only 41% of members come in every day, and only 71% come in more than three days per week, but this is up from 51% three years ago. Spaces are flexible enough to dip in and out of, not a big commitment.

The experience made me feel like we, and our communities through us, are part of a very exciting global movement, which strives to create a more inclusive, fair, and transparent modern economy than that which we have inherited. That got me thinking…

If coworking focused campuses continue to grow and thrive, and begin to host these kinds of conferences on a more regular basis, could they create new experiences altogether? When I talk about these conferences, I want you to forget the idea of a dreaded corporate conference that you may have endured in the past, but instead imagine this global collective of activists sharing their experiences of the modern world.

Sophia and Stephanie from Milan hosting a session on community building

Imagine going from country to country, city to city, campus to campus, meeting international audiences and learning about a diverse range of industries and future opportunities every other week. These lectures are stimulating, insightful, considerate, and spoken by passionate changemakers – what better way to learn?


And the most important lesson from the conference? It’s coworking. Definitely, definitely not co-working or CoWorking.