Dr. Janet Merkel: The Notion Of Coworking And Its Value

The Coworking Symposium 2021 is kicking off on the 15th of April, the second digital unconference. And of course, the symposium will be delivering non-biased and data-driven talks.

One of the Coworking Symposium guests will be Dr. Janet Merkel. She is a Guest Professor for Urban and Regional Economics at University of Kassel in Kassel Hessen Germany.  She has a background in Urban Sociology, aside from that she is known for her research work about Coworking spaces together with academic papers about cultural production, development of culture in creative industries and cities.

In a recent podcast with her, she talks about her research about the coworking industry, its notions and the value it has for freelancers. 

The Coworking Notion. 

Naturally, we asked her what the learnings from her research were.  Does coworking give that notion wherein it is seen as a place of privilege, one where posh kids go on to be the next Mark Zuckerberg as most people often say? To be fair, some coworking spaces may give that impression, so did it ever come up in her research?

Janet says that coworking is a way of working with people. Working alongside each other in a shared setting that can be in a specific place called coworking space. She adds that there are other ways to do that. There have been numerous highly commercialized places that claim to be coworking spaces and a mixture of small spaces. Coworking spaces can be globally operational like WeWork is. 

She also factors in that working with different types of coworkers is what makes the experience in each coworking space unique.  Janet also comments on the core theme values of coworking as being as diverse and inclusive as a community can be. 

She adds that people want to go to a coworking space in the hopes of learning something and to be able to work in collaboration with others that want to be as professional as they can be. A way to help each other out. When we talk about coworking, these kinds of coworking spaces that are largely diverse, inclusive, and entrepreneurial that speak more to people who want to set up a startup.

Informal Learning in A Coworking Space.

Another value of working in a coworking space is learning other skills just by being in a collaborative environment. Dr. Janet calls this informal learning. 

This is a type of learning you do just by chatting with your neighbour at a shared desk, or catching up over coffee. Or being in a coworking space that offers a specialization in line with yours. And then there’s the other side of learning, where coworking operators/managers often host and start organizing workshops around specific themes that might be of interest to the different kinds of coworkers and their professional backgrounds that are in this space.

And that is one of the most invaluable benefits of joining a coworking community.  

The Concept of Community.

What does the coworking community mean? What is the significance of the term “community” to coworking?

Dr. Janet delves into this by pointing out that people usually mean two things when talking about community in a coworking space.  

One — a shared Interest. It can refer to people sharing the same work situation or facing the same challenges in their daily work life. Two – a form of social belonging. That feeling of being a part of something which they basically miss in their daily work life. An identity is not created via an organization. Something that coworkers associate with coworking. They miss that sense of belonging.

And by gaining that familiarity within a coworking community, it is then when people start engaging and helping the community to grow and keep it alive. This is the perspective from the people that use a coworking space, Janet explains.

Workspaces outside City Centres.

With the pandemic going on, what did Dr. Janet find interesting in coworking spaces outside the city centres?

Well, one thing is that it’s been growing quite a lot in the last couple of years, so that’s very interesting that people sort of start going away from those inner city cores.  Also, it becomes more and more well-known with a wider population so that it doesn’t have this connection with the inner city, but also with those agglomeration economies within the cities.

Coworking and Covid

Dr. Janet observes that coworking and collaborative workspaces were hit in the heart when Covid happened, because those spaces thrived on the social benefit of proximity. 

However, in order to cope with the economic challenges of the situation, coworking spaces have to take out physical proximity and serendipitous encounters – as she puts it, and act quickly to find ways to adapt.

Many adapted, changed their layout, introduced distancing routes to still be able to offer their services, but under those types of rules. Another point that she said that makes them hopeful — within the research community, the coworking industry emerged when the economic crisis of 2007 happened,

“The reason here was that many people lost their jobs during the  economic crisis and started becoming freelancers. Or thinking about setting up a self-employed business. And that was one of the first big waves basically of coworking that we saw and how many aspects of this crisis has turned out and how it enabled more people to work from home.”

Coworking Trends and Speculations.

As a researcher, we asked Dr. Janet about emerging coworking trends and what her speculations are regarding the growing community, and she leaves us with this:

“We will probably see a rise in those types of spaces. And I’m very much interested in what their role will be in those neighbourhoods beyond just providing a workspace for those people, but also maybe the spatial patterns of people, whether it’s freelance workers or whether it’s those employees who sit at home in their home office. And to see how they start using the neighbourhood way more for doing particular types of work.”

Coworking Symposium 2021

We gathered one of the most interesting groups of people in the coworking industry to provide data-driven talks for the Coworking Symposium 2021, which will take place  on the 15th of April at 9:00 AM, Central European Time.  It’s for a few hours. And our guests are people, researchers like Janet who have spent years finding out about the future of work, collaborative workspaces, shared workspaces, neighbourhood workspaces or the freelance/gig economy. 

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