The “co” in “coworking” is for community

By: Jason Moriber
A Q&A with one of coworking’s spiritual leaders, Alex Hillman
The “co” in “coworking” is for community

The vision for this series is to surface and share the experiences, trends and insights of thought-leaders, trail blazers, and subject experts who either live at the cutting edge of technology and/or seek to make the world a better place. We can each learn from these experiences and potentially take the first steps towards making the innovations that matter to us.

On my walk over to speak with Alex Hillman, a trailblazing thought leader in the coworking movement, I passed multiple construction sites in various stages of completion. Alex is a hero to many in the coworking movement, an outspoken champion of community, inclusion and perseverance. We were meeting at the well regarded and groundbreaking coworking space he founded, Indy Hall.

Walking along Market Street and into Old City, the booming and clanking sound of hurried construction filled the air. Older, squat brick buildings were coming down in buckets of rubble and plaster dust, new skyward buildings were going up, steel beams lifted into place by impossibly long-armed cranes. Waist high piles of building materials teetered on the edges of the sidewalk. Everybody was yelling over the noise.

Lessons Learned

1. People who do dramatically different things often do similar things to those ends.

2. [sic]…work is less about the place and more often about the people you’re doing that work with.

Many cities, like Philadelphia, are going through an immense construction boom. I stood on a corner of Market Street at 3rd and couldn’t recall what buildings had initially stood in that space.

To Alex though, a physical, constructed space is meaningless without a networked community of earnest people to populate it. Community is at the heart of Alex’s vision. To him, the future will be community-driven, and due to mobile connectivity and the Internet, in a layered and interwoven way that is multifaceted: traditional, new and ever changing. As an example, to Alex, Indy Hall is a community - it’s not a space.

I sat with Alex in the downstairs “lounge” area. Behind us an artist was setting up a new exhibition for their storefront window. A mix of music played softly over the speaker system while coworkers grouped, chatted, separated, sat at desks and ascended the stairs to the second floor, where the kitchen is located. The couch we sat on was deep. I balanced myself on the lip in order not to sink in.

What is the future of mobile, especially when emerging generations are increasingly diverse and values-driven?

“What’s interesting to me in the theme of multiple potential futures is realizing that a community just isn’t one community. It’s actually lots of communities that are intertwined, overlapped and can occupy several places simultaneously and across time, largely because we have the ability to choose where we are at a given time. Or if circumstances take us to some place we didn’t choose, I still have the ability to access my communities thanks to the device in my pocket.”

Lessons Learned

3. Co-working is a rare ecosystem where people who don’t have to work together, but they do, in a world full of people who need to work together, but they don’t.

4. We get there by placing ourselves next to those who are different from ourselves and by asking questions instead of assuming we already know.

How do you see the future of coworking related to the concept of the community overlaps and always-on connectivity?

“One of the most interesting things about what Indy Hall has taught me is that people who do dramatically different things often do similar things to those ends.

“One of the reasons that people can be here is because of the precondition that they could be anywhere. Since Indy Hall began a decade ago, the number of industries that have mobility as their primary tool is expanding dramatically. The number of ways that people can work when the place they call work becomes more than one place or infused with choice is fascinating. For a long time work was tied to a certain place, and now because of technology and computers in our pockets and high speed internet attached to them, work is more often the people you’re doing that work with.”

So, you don’t need to work with the people you actually work with, but with the people who make you feel good to work alongside of?

“If I look forward, based on what I’ve learned now, I think this [coworking] is a rare ecosystem of people who don’t have to work together, but they do, in a world full of people who need to work together, but they don’t.

“The future that I would like to see is where people, regardless of where they’re from, have access to all the things they need to do the things they need to. It doesn’t matter what your background is or the location you came from, or what [possessions or skills] you have, it’s what you do that matters. We get to my ideal future by placing ourselves next to those who are different from ourselves and by asking questions instead of assuming we already know.”

Author’s Note: The physical space where Indy Hall resides has a deep footprint containing a collection of desks organized within two-story warehouse-like floors with a mix of art and personal items. The place is more reminiscent of shared artist studios than an office. I think that’s the point. This collection of coworkers has created the environment where they feel they can be most productive while also being in a physical space with other people. They have an understanding that the work you produce is influenced by the people around you while you are working.

What is the impact of “real” spaces on the concept of coworking and community?

“People are now working for more than one employer. One employer may give one a sense of gratification while the other employer gives a sense of infrastructure. People juggle those things to get more than what one employer will ever be able to provide. This is a becoming the reality for more people every day.

“For most people, going to a coworking space every day to do their work is a bad idea. It’s not good for them and it’s not good for their work… it requires self-awareness to know how and where your attention is and what an impact different interruption has on your work.”

What is your vision of the future of work, especially in light of the connectivity and community you describe?

“I imagine a future where collaboration is a stronger instinct where people have aptitude and skillset around what it takes to actually work together to accomplish things. We spent a long time building up all this business infrastructure to scale the business industry, but somewhere along the way we lost the ‘thing’ that made us really good.”

Speaking with Alex is like speaking with someone from the future. He is creating the future he wants to live in, now. I’ve found this to be a characteristic of many innovation minded people… they are activity engaged in the future, pulling culture and society forward. They have a special gravity that is both charming and intriguing. We ended our conversation, but I knew we could sit together for another hour or two and continue to unearth new insights and next steps on what the future will be.

As I exited the space and stepped back onto the street, the loud noise of construction filled my ears. I see the street differently now. I see people walking and talking on their phones as living in layered communities, people sitting in restaurants, people on their bikes. They are all part of multiple simultaneous communities, some temporary and some longer term. I realize that this is true for me too, for all of us.

Read more conversations from this series:

Jason Moriber is a creative communicator with a background in social and digital for CSR, tech and start-ups. He’s working within the Communications team at Verizon, charged with developing a new model for corporate and brand communications. Connect with him on Twitter @jasonmoriber or on Instagram @designinginnovation