Earlier this month, the Cowork7x24 team headed to the colourful Penang, Malaysia to attend CU Asia 2018. I was one of the lucky ones. Given that this was my first time in Asia and at the conference, I knew a whole new world was about to open up to me. I couldn’t imagine a better occasion to learn about the Asian coworking scene and mingle with inspiring folks from all over the world.
During the Coworking Academy, I had the pleasure to deliver a talk on what motivates people to join a coworking space. Based on my research (carried out between 2013-2016), surprisingly, the first attractor for people who have never experienced coworking before was the appealing physical environment including outstanding office infrastructure (62%, N=89). Since every single coworking advocate knows coworking is all about community – where social bonds emerge, business relationships form, people support, encourage and inspire each other, exchange ideas, learn from each other – my talk spiced up the discussion a bit. Truth be told – fancy design and purpose-built layout is not everything, but certainly is a tangible element of the workspace people can see with their own eyes and will pay for. Once they are in, and can start experiencing what coworking is about, they then understand how the atmosphere and the community can support their well-being – which is crucial for productivity and success.
Ideally, when one starts a coworking space, not building/ painting/ designing/decorating/ furnishing the space is the first item on the to-do list, but community building. The question is always, “Ok, but how do I build awesome communities?” Ashley Proctor from Coworking Toronto summarised the key steps pretty well. Her talk inspired me to reflect on my own results, and think through whether my Welsh operators really did follow these steps that helped them build buzzing communities. So here are some anecdotes in an Ashley-inspired format as a proof that even though we are part of a rapidly evolving and fast-paced industry, some things will never change.
Know your market – Know your members
One of the coworking spaces I spent most of my time during the data collection is located in a less entrepreneurial area where local entrepreneurs need 1) more financial support to kick off their businesses, and 2) more opportunities to build their self-confidence and entrepreneurial skills to be successful. Having realised the situation, the founder and his team partnered with the government on entrepreneurship support programs. Entrepreneurs who move into the space receive free desks for one year, and have the opportunity to participate in various skill-building workshops and events, all dedicated to supporting personal and professional development. Result? More than half of these folks were able to run economically viable companies after the first year and upgrade to fully-paid membership.
Build a supportive team
Building a kick-ass team is essential. All the spaces I was in touch with highlighted that everyone on their team understood what for the company was all about, and could work together to fulfil their ultimate mission. Talking about community managers/ hosts/ facilitators, it is important to choose someone being passionate about creating meaningful relationships and experiences for their members. “You’ve got to get the right sort of person into that role, who is a facilitator, a coordinator, and a linker with people… who is seeing connections”.
Build your community before the space
The last interview I conducted for my research took place in a small-city coworking space. Before the coworking space became reality, a few folks were hanging out together, working from cafés and pubs occasionally. 18 months later they realised they need more. “We were working towards the project, and would try and figure out how we can help the community and how we can use our skills as artists, digitals, creatives, and everybody working in the creative sector, how can we contribute something to that, and from that came the need to work together in a physical space”.
Involve your members in all important decisions – Cultivate your community in your daily actions
Simply ask for their opinions. There was no single private area for quick calls/ skype chats in a coworking space I visited, so the operators created two booths people could use happily ever after. It is important to „listen to the natives” because they will tell you what they need. Observing, listening, talking to members is the only way to create and offer something they actually need. Another way is helping them realise how they can contribute to the space. “We coach other people on how to be involved in the operation. The goal is always to help people themselves and help people help each other”.
Don’t be afraid to curate the community
One of my favourite spaces launched a monthly trade mission to London with the aim of providing cheaper travel options, the opportunity to schedule attendees their big-city meetings on the day of the trip, and networking with like-minded folks in London coworking spaces. It turned out that people did not really plan ahead, did not scheduled any meeting and just wondered around what is happening. The operators then decided to turn these trips into learning trips: every time a gang went to London, exciting workshops and trainings were held in selected coworking spaces.
Animate your community with member events
Many many great examples. For instance, one company – specialised in coaching, facilitation and leadership development – offered a 1-day Birkman Personal Development workshop at a discounted price for the member community. Before the workshop, attendees had to complete an online TBM (The Birkman Method) questionnaire, so by the time the workshop took place, they all had their full report covering various areas such as motivation, behaviour, needs and interest. With the support of the coach, participants could understand themselves better, and so use the gained insights to their personal and professional development. More importantly, this workshop was a great community building activity and supported the formation of many friendships – I met one of my best friends on the workshop.
Invite people to experience your community
Another space I spent some time in invited students to work on their projects. The students could use the space for free, attend events, and get some first-hand entrepreneurial experience. Many of these talented ones found an internship opportunity, and stayed in the space. As highlighted by the community manager, “We just want awareness for the students… we just want them to know, when they graduate and they have an idea or plan or a project, just know that we’re here to help”.
One final thought: community building is an ongoing process – it never ends, but it gets easier over time. So enjoy the process! If you need new inspiration, keen to find out what and how others do, make sure you attend CU Asia next year in Goa, India. You won’t be disappointed!
A big thanks to team Hubud who made this event happen.