How did we get here?
How did we progress from those little grey cubicles you see in old-time movies to the coworking offices of today?
Well, the history of coworking is an interesting one with a few oddities along the way. But it’s not just a matter of historical quaintness that makes open office history interesting. We can also learn a lot about the continuing value of open office environments by going back and looking at why we moved in this direction in the first place.
So, let’s have a look!
It’s definitely possible to trace coworking history well back beyond the modern concept associated with the term. But there is no way of saying exactly when coworking space history begins. This is because the basic principles that form the modern concept seem to be as old as history itself.
At its heart, the concept of coworking is about workers undertaking different pursuits and coming together to work in a mutually supportive environment.
Scanning back through history, we can see a number of situations that more or less match this description. Good examples are some of the early scholastic institutions, such as the Library of Alexandria, a place where thinkers came to one place to work on their own individual projects while sharing a common store of knowledge. The Library was established in the third century BC, so we’re talking some very ancient history.
But, coming forward in time, we also find a number of coworking environments in the form of communal workshops. These were physical places where groups of craftsmen would come together to perform their individual work, while also learning from one another.
A good example of this is the concept of the ‘bottega’ of Renaissance Florence, places where master artists, journeymen, and novices would come together to practice their craft. There’s an individuality to the work, but also a sense of community.
Just as in ancient times, there are many modern institutions that are philosophically similar to coworking office spaces. We start to see these places develop in the twentieth century in particular.
For example, modern universities are places where people come together under one roof to carry out their own research. Likewise, public libraries have provided a location, particularly since the invention of the internet, where people can carry out their own businesses. Even modern cafes look like coworking spaces if you visit them at the right times—professionals pursuing their own work objectives in a more or less communal environment.
Ultimately, as these examples show, coworking offices are less about the buildings themselves than the philosophy of communal working for which they stand.
The term ‘coworking’ was coined, with its current meaning, by the entrepreneur Brad Neuberg in 2005. But Neuberg’s first coworking space was a far cry from the beautiful modern office spaces we conjure in our heads when we think about the term today.
Neuberg claims he rented a space in San Francisco for two days each week for $300. Amazingly, Neuberg advertised the idea on Craigslist and he was very surprised when no one turned up during the first month. So, he started advertising more heavily and going around to cafes (those other coworking spaces) to get people interested.
People started coming. And then people kept coming.
In the years that followed Neuberg’s original innovation, coworking grew exponentially throughout America and the rest of the world. One of the main ways that this happened is that coworking has been spread as a virtual concept through online traffic.
In 2006, Chris Messina (the guy that came up with the Twitter hashtag) launched something called the Coworking Wiki, a site that allowed workers to connect with one another on a regional basis to set up their own coworking spaces.
By this point, things are taking off. Coworking goes global and dedicated coworking venues are being set up worldwide.
It’s interesting to note that at Neuberg’s first coworking site he brought in the fold-up tables each day for people to use. Well, the cutting edge designs of modern coworking spaces in beautiful high-rise CBD buildings are not really on the same page.
But it’s important to note that there are more similarities between Neuberg’s plastic tables and these modern office spaces than meet the eye. The change in the actual coworking buildings hides a constancy in the underlying concept: an enduring appreciation for the value of humans working together in a common space.
A number of factors have made coworking explode as a phenomenon in the last 15 years, particularly in Australia
On the one hand, the rise of startups has been immense, both globally and locally. Since most startups need to get off the ground with minimal overheads, entering into coworking spaces has become a more viable option for many young businesses.
Just as startups are becoming more popular, so too are many Australian workers turning towards freelance work. Australia now has more than one million independent contractors (10% of all workers), a fact which Sydney University researchers have not surprisingly connected with the explosion of coworking.
At the same time, the state of the Australian real estate—including commercial real estate—market has made it very difficult for even established firms to go and take out traditional office leases. Coworking spaces provide a more flexible and economical alternative for businesses looking to stay lean and dynamic in a competitive commercial landscape.
These cultural and commercial factors have made Australia the perfect place for coworking to take off.
Now you’ve got the full rundown of the history of coworking through the millennia. But it’s probably worthwhile noting that what we view as coworking now is most likely not a finished product.
Given coworking’s focus on reinventing workplace organisation, there’s every chance it will continue to revolutionise work in the years to come.
Do you feel like being a part of that change?