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12 Things Startups Can Learn from Coworking Communities

by Dakota Kim

12 Things Startups Can Learn from Coworking Communities

Internal collaboration is essential to the success of any startup — and it turns out there’s a lot that emerging companies can learn about collaboration from coworking communities, which are groups of people who work in the same space but don’t necessarily share the same employer.  

Coworking community members inspire one another, hold one another accountable, and share a sense of trust, fun and creativity. They often socialize together and learn from one another in ways that go beyond the normal working relationship. 

There’s nothing automatic about the creation of community at a coworking spaces — it takes work and careful planning. Here are some tips gleaned from successful coworking spaces that startups can use:

1. Community is cultivated by members themselves, not by cheerleaders.

Alex Hillman, co-founder of Philadelphia coworking community IndyHall, encourages us to get out of the Cruise Director Mindset (“CDM”) that many community managers operate under. “CDM not only introduces a single point of failure into the system, it makes it harder for members to see themselves as users – maybe even as owners – of the system,” he says. In other words, don’t appoint a fun director at your startup. Instead, find out what your team wants, and then give them the space, tools, time and/or freedom create those activities.

2. Friendliness, mutual care and fun are cultivated with intentionality.

Remember those signs in your grade school that quoted The Golden Rule and talked about community? Take that further at your startup by stating explicitly how important kindness, fun, ethical behavior and mutual care are at work. You don’t have to put up signs, but cultivate the culture, whether that’s doing a favor by heading back to the office and grabbing that external hard drive for your coworker, organizing a potluck, or actively listening to your coworkers. 

3. Serendipity encourages creative collaboration.

A little bit of chaos can foster collaboration. A flexible seating pattern at your startup or renting out part of your space may help refresh minds and encourage otherwise unlikely collaborations.

4. Coworking spaces allow different levels of commitment from different members.

Why does everyone at your office have to put in the exact same hours? If you need seven hours of coding a day from one person, and early morning marketing breakfasts and late night marketing dinners from your business development person, why do both people have to be in the office from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day until the boss leaves? Be flexible and adjust pay if necessary.

5. The “stick” doesn’t exist in coworking.

Creativity and ingenuity can’t flourish when punishment is constantly hanging over people’s heads, especially people who are young and/or creative. Millennials don’t care that they’ve got two demerits on their HR record – they are going to peace out before you even tell them, “Three strikes and you’re out.” Coworking spaces aren’t punitive toward their members. In fact, the whole “stick versus carrot” debate doesn’t exist in coworking spaces. 

6. Yet coworking members still hold one another accountable.

Coworkers encourage one another to follow through and finish the hard work. There are no excuses. As Hillman says, “JFDI” if you want to do it. 

7. Everyone sits together.

Regardless of who does what, everyone sits together, and everyone pitches in. The structure of coworking is anti-authoritarian. What, boss man, do you want to build yourself an iron throne so your vassals know their place? Sit with everyone else like a normal person.

8. The coworking spaces that are the most transparent about finances, future plans and motives are the most successful because there is trust.

The millennial generation in particular seems to care a lot about honesty, straightforwardness and transparency. Being as open as possible about your company’s finances not only fosters trust and builds morale, it also keeps your team apprised of your thinking so they can feel keyed-in and can figure out how to contribute.

9. Consider an office pet.

It’s amazing what a boost a dog can be for an office. The Coop coworking community in Chicago has Eli, a friendly Labradoodle, for those moments when people have been jamming for 12 hours straight and W3 tells you your code contains 43 errors. Burying your piteous head in the fur of a happy Labradoodle as you moan, “Why me?” on the floor may save you from throwing your laptop in the recycling bin.

10. Be a little brag-worthy.

Everyone wants to work somewhere cool, with people who are cool. Don’t just hire people who are great at doing work — hire people who you think will actively contribute to a great culture. It’s amazing to work with people who introduce you to new ideas, fun events and interesting places (and take great Instagram photos of you two together doing these things).

Great startups and coworking spaces have great perks. I never once heard from friends at Etsy how great their health insurance was, though I’m sure it was fine. What I heard constantly was, “Oh my god, our private chef really outdid herself this week with the organic vegan pizza pockets, cashew cheese crostini, and flourless chocolate cake!” A private chef once a week might not be incredibly expensive and you can be sure your team will be tweeting about it.

Don’t hesitate to contribute great stuff to your office and make it look hip – Sandbox Suites in San Francisco features beautiful 1950’s espresso bars for its coworkers, Turnstone Campfire Tables with dry erase or notepad tops, and giant samovars for its traditional tea parties. Blankspaces in Los Angeles painted its walls bright blue to boost creativity and purchased open desks that can be collapsed to create an airy event space for 300 people.

 11. Perks, people.

Offer Perks that millennials get. You might try an in-office photobooth, perhaps rented for a couple weeks. Citibike or Car2Go memberships aren’t bad either. Even though a lot of startups already have perks like this, people are often too busy working to use them. Encourage actual usage of massage therapy, exercise rooms, gaming systems and ping pong tables.

12. Have private or semi-private spaces for blowing off steam or conducting personal business.

For many startups, work is home away from home, but sometimes that’s just one big room or house, and sometimes people need somewhere to let off steam or have a private phone call. A couple tiny empty rooms won’t cost you much, or you can purchase credit for usage of private spaces through Breather.com. If you’re feeling luxe, how about vintage phone booths? WeWork in New York has nap and meditation rooms, while Cambridge Innovation Center in Boston has an electronics bench stocked by clients using the space complete with an Oscilloscope, a GSM wireless tester, a soldering iron, and a signal generator. Sometimes you need to do something else in a separate space to get out of a creative funk.

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Coworking spaces can teach startups a lot about successfully fostering collaboration, and the ones that do it well are great models.

Dakota Kim is a freelance journalist covering the arts, style, business, food and travel. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Huffington Post, Bedford + Bowery, The Wall Street Transcript, and various in-flight magazines. Tweet her at @dakotakim1.