What are the challenges of coworking?
I have run a coworking space for the last six years in central London, so I feel qualified to answer this question. It is a question that every single freelancer, small business owner, entrepreneur and potential member of a coworking space will ask and will want answered.
Most consumers, when looking online to gain understanding and knowledge before making a purchase, search most often for problems: what can go wrong and negative reviews versus what can go right, benefits and positive reviews. We will see 100 reviews on Amazon, 95 are 4 or 5 stars and yet we will read the five 1 or 2 star reviews first.
We want to know what could go wrong, it’s how we are conditioned as humans. Yet, in nearly every industry, business owners want to shy away from addressing problems openly. Like an ostrich, we bury our heads in the sand, particularly online, waiting for a chance to deal with problems, if they come up, face to face.
I know as a business owner and part of the coworking industry that coworking has problems and that I have problems that come up with my members and space. Not talking about them does not make them go away.
Coworking is not for everyone and, as a user, we are not right for every coworking space.
What are the top problems of coworking?
These are not in any particular order of importance and the entire list does not apply to every space, but these are the ones that are most often talked about among users. I’ve learned this from speaking to users, reading articles and being active on forums.
Of course, like every product or service in any industry, what you pay, location and your own preferences will impact this. It is subjective—too hot for me, might not be hot enough for you. I’m only doing emails so the internet is fine, but you’re uploading huge files or streaming stuff, so you might want it faster, and so on.
If you are paying £300 a desk in central London for space, but you expect to have a 5 star, luxurious environment more akin to a private club, then you are the problem with the wrong expectations. So before you start, you need to be realistic about expectations.
Many coworking spaces can be noisy and distracting, especially the larger and more tech-focused/trendy ones. The ‘in’ crowd can be noisy and, if they are not laid out in a thoughtful way, then they can be quite chaotic and disruptive. Again, it is up to the community and the space owner as to how this is managed.
If the culture is one of respecting each other’s space and the need to be able to focus, then this should not be an issue. However, other people’s conversations, Skype calls and having to listen to yet another ‘funny’ YouTube clip can impact heavily on one’s ability to concentrate and be productive.
The amount of space between desks, or where the communal/event space is located versus the desk space can have an impact on this.
Events are a popular way for coworking spaces to add value, to market their space to potential new customers and to generate revenue. However, if they are not managed properly, events can be disruptive and a nuisance to users of the space.
You could be faced with events being run when you are trying to work. Large ones can be especially painful, with lots of people coming to the space, an extra burden on services, furniture being moved and, as a number of the attendees are from outside, they can be less respectful.
As essential as water and electricity, the internet is the lifeblood of everyone in business. Like a business or a home, coworking spaces do have internet and Wi-Fi issues. Some spaces try to cut costs here and that can mean a challenge with connectivity. Also, it is not just the internet capacity, but the Wi-Fi and the internal comms equipment and network that play a big part in the usability. This is definitely very specific to each space and one that is essential to check out before investing in a membership.
Along with the internet, coffee is a staple of any coworking space. Great Wi-Fi and great coffee are a winning combination. Some coworking spaces will offer free drinks/coffee, but then cut corners and provide cheap and sometimes undrinkable coffee, or the coffee machine is complicated, or it is a filtered one where a big pot of brown sludge stays lukewarm all day.
Some spaces will have in-house cafes. However, they can be over-subscribed by outside trade and can become an expensive add-on to the cost of using the space. They can also create noise and distraction.
Smelly food can be an issue and some spaces do not have enough separation between kitchen/eating area and desks. The culture of respecting each other is a big factor in this.
Any communal space has this issue. Even on a train/plane/bus, some people want it hotter or colder etc. There is never an ideal temperature, however, some spaces are air-conditioned and that can be too much for some, others are more old fashioned and can be too warm/cold for some too. This is very much an expectation thing. If you want a perfectly climate controlled space, with almost your own controls on temperature but have a budget of £100 a month, then in most cities you are going to be disappointed.
This is a problem that is related to the space owner and the other users. Again, respectful behaviour will lead to users being better at cleaning up after themselves and, again, the more you pay for a desk will impact the level and regularity of cleaning. Many coworking space owners will again save money/cut corners by not spending on cleaning.
There needs to be a level of realistic expectation by the user. If you are paying £100 a desk, then it won’t be cleaned as often as a space in the same city where you pay £500 a desk. Coworking is always talking about community and here is a big area where everyone who wants a community needs to take accountability and be respectful of each other.
Many coworking spaces do not offer flexibility, often insisting upon monthly commitments straight away or not allowing users to adjust their commitments. Flexibility also applies to the open hours of the space.
This can be a big area of challenge and can lead to disputes among users over bookings and use of the space. It will depend on the size of the space and the types of users who are there. Again, like all things, respectful behaviour will help this be less of a problem. So people will choose to hog the meeting space and then it is up to the operator to be firm and fair towards all.
Our Challenges (and What We’ve Done About Them)
We have had our challenges, and any coworking space or, indeed, any business that tells you differently is not being honest. Are we perfect? Well, no, but perfection is not attainable and it is about always striving to be even better, listening and learning.
For example, the internet four years back was a challenge due to taking a lean start-up cost-saving approach and managing in the early days with less than the best in provision. We decided that this had to be fixed, so we installed a dedicated 100 Mbps fibre connection. However, we then realised, that, like most things tech related, life is never quite that simple. So we then spent money on servers to manage the traffic and the best WiFi kit too. We now have great internet.
Another more recent issue has been meeting room bookings. We’ve tried a few systems that have worked but not as well as they could. Now we have signed up to a coworking space management tool that is about to go live. This was in reaction to listening to the members. It is an ongoing journey of learning and of adapting. As coworking communities are fluid, always changing, you have to be flexible and adaptable as a space owner, as well.
Out of the rest of the challenges on the list, I guess most coworking spaces face all of these problems at some point and we have had to face some of them too on occasion. It is how you deal with them that counts. Responding quickly—listening and then taking action where possible—is the way that has solved most of these challenges when they have come up at the hub.
Beyond the internet and certain other basic things, problems are subjective. People need, when purchasing any product or service, to have realistic expectations. If you want beautifully sculptured space, chilled to your exact temperature and tailored to your every need, then you will have to pay highly for that.
I would strongly recommend anyone who is thinking of using a particular coworking space try the space first.