Fingers fly over keyboards while heads hang heavy with concentration and Slack notifications gurgle softly in the background. These sights and sounds conjure the modern work scene, but they may no longer evoke a singular image of a physical backdrop against which this work unfolds. As the typical 9-to-5 recedes, work no longer has to happen at a cubicle desk housed inside of a multistory corporate building.
Coworking, a flexible and self-directed work style, occurs in shared spaces that a 2007 Bloomberg article described as “where the coffee shop meets the cubicle” and can act as a counter to an oppressive desk job. Removed from the conventional office setting, coworking spaces often have an aspirational quality to them.
“We needed an office, but we couldn’t find one with a good enough vibe,” Gabriel Dancause, co-founder of the GAB Café, said. “So, that’s where we asked ourselves ‘what would be your dream office?’”
The GAB Café is a coworking café located in the Mile End that Dancause and his business partner Phil Héroux launched in 2015. The buzzing space features a mix of individual seating, enclosed personal work stations, and a large table designed for group work. Indie music plays softly in the background, and light flows in from the Boulevard St. Laurent behind the large windows. Patrons have the option to pay an hourly, daily, or monthly rate for their use of the space, and they are under no obligation to purchase coffee or food. While Dancause and Héroux pitch their business as the first coworking café in Montreal, and even the universe according to their website, coworking spaces abound in the city and worldwide.
To bridge the structure and community of a traditional workplace with the freedom of freelance work, American engineer Brad Neuberg claims to have invented the first coworking space. In 2005, Neuberg coined the term while he was working out of San Francisco, and from there the concept blossomed into a global trend.
While the term ‘coworking’ may sound novel, the concept itself is not. Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher and sociologist, traces the evolution of the public sphere—a community that allows for the formation of public opinion—from its current form all the way back to the European Renaissance. According to the Habermasian model, during the Renaissance, the public sphere took the physical shape of British coffee houses or French //salons///, which are not dissimilar to the coworking spaces of today.
“There have been a few different iterations of it,” Matthew Corritore, assistant professor of Strategy & Organization in the Desautels Faculty of Management, said. “It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon. You go back to the idea that a café is an intellectual space where lots of diverse people are getting together [....] Most recently, starting in the mid-2000s, you’ve seen the emergence of thinking about a coworking space as a different type of business.”
Today, the global platform coworker.com lists over 10,000 coworking spaces in 162 countries, with 42 locations in Montreal. Local coworking spaces are concentrated primarily in the downtown and Plateau/Mile End areas and offer a wide variety of amenities to their clientele. The variation in services that coworking spaces provide is endless: The LORI Hub is an incubator that hosts female entrepreneurs, Le402 offers creative patrons 24-hour access to its photo studio, and Aire Commune is an open-air workspace. Some already-established businesses are also integrating coworking into their space: Café Parvis, for example, started offering desks, meeting rooms, and common spaces above its restaurant in Oct. 2017.
The nebulous concept of coworking leaves the door open to a diversity of styles. However, the central tenets of coworking remain the same; users primarily seek collaboration and flexibility. Physical space, therefore, does not define coworking so much as the community that the location cultivates.
“I don’t think that there’s an agreed upon definition, and part of that is that it hasn’t been studied all that much,” Corritore said. “But, part of the basic definition is in the title. They are spaces where people are coming together to do work, [... and they are people] of different industries and different occupations and working for different companies.”
Caroline Makosza, executive director of the Temps Libre Co-op, echoed the essential role that community plays in the success of a coworking space. Temps Libre runs two locations out of the Mile End: A free-of-charge space to meet and collaborate with coffee, popcorn, and events, as well as a coworking space which users pay to access. Revenue from rentals inside the office space helps to fund the community space’s operations. Makosza sees the two spaces as inherently dependent on their abilities to bring people together.
“A coworking is a workspace that is necessarily open and shared between people who do not want to work alone,” Makosza said. “They want to see people.”*
“A coworking is a workspace that is necessarily open and shared between people who do not want to work alone, they want to see people.”
The communal quality of coworking spaces encourages the diversity of services in Montreal’s shared offices. Coworking businesses serve a wealth of different communities simultaneously with different needs, leading to variations on the standard coworking model.
“There are incubators that are coworking spaces but they are also places where the designated staff will try to support the entrepreneurs as much as possible,” Makosza said. “There’s another trend that is ‘cleaner.’ It’s hyper-functional and everything in that coworking space is thought-out and all that patrons have to do is sit down at their desk [....] The staff there are dedicated to their well-being and their comfort [....] And then there are places like Temps Libre that are more grassroots [....] Temps Libre is different because its users are looking for an atmosphere and a way to have an impact on the society that they live in.”
With dozens of locations and amenities to choose from in Montreal alone, there is certainly no shortage of options for remote workers and teams. To Makosza’s eyes these diversified offerings are an advantage for both those who use coworking spaces and those who operate them.
“There aren’t really competitors,” Makosza said. “There are multiple products, and people choose.”
Due to the nature of the work that they can accommodate, coworking spaces mostly cater to young professionals whose work is autonomous and digital. Graphic design, programming, and freelance work are all lines of work that lend themselves to remote completion and therefore attract coworking customers. Dancause also remarked that the GAB Café attracts a significant volume of McGill students and faculty due to the space’s proximity to its Downtown campus.
The proliferation of these types of casual workers who can work remotely is itself symptomatic of a larger shift in the working force. Corritore studies the rise of ‘non-standard work,’ which encapsulates agreements between working parties that deviate from the traditional norm of a 9-to-5 job and can include temporary and on-call work.
“Increasingly, people are working for firms, not in the sense that they are an employee for many, many years and they’re coming to a traditional office and being a part of a traditional corporate culture,” Corritore said. “Now, we’re seeing people who are working on contract, or as freelancers, or even just the rise of remote work. So, I’m not necessarily going to be in the office five days a week; There’s some time that I’m going to spend working at home. That has opened up a space where there is now demand for people to have a place that they can go that’s not necessarily just working from home or working at a traditional office.”
Workers engaging in non-standard remote work seek a new space to work from to curb the isolation that comes with working at home. Coworking spaces try to provide their patrons with a form of involvement that will boost their productivity.
“I see [coworking] as a consequence or an outgrowth of a broader change that is happening in employment relations.”
“I see [coworking] as a consequence or an outgrowth of a broader change that is happening in employment relations,” Corritore said. “Traditionally, those types of workers [contractors and freelancers] would just go to coffeeshops, but you’re now seeing increased demand for more heightened engagement from those workers who want some semblance of an organizational culture or at least want to have a little fun at work.”
Dancause has observed the benefits of developing a group dynamic through his coworking business.
“The people who are members are members for a long time, and most of them became my friends,” he said. “You make a community out of nothing. It’s like we’re colleagues, but it’s even better because we’re not working together, so there’s no possible conflict.”
Similarly, the collaborative nature of a coworking space, especially when combined with a co-op model as is the case at Temps Libre, attracted Makosza and led to a diversion from her previous career as a librarian.
“The public space offers the opportunity to transmit what happens in the coworking space to a general audience,” she said. “Sharing knowledge is what I am interested in [....] I like this idea that people get together to organize something and that they make it evolve according to the history of the structure.”
As these coworking spaces continue to crop up, the working attitude that they epitomize becomes concerning.
“I worry about an aspect in which the corporate world is influencing the way people manage their work lives,” Dror Etzion, associate professor of Strategy and Organizations in the Desautels Faculty of Management, said. “If it’s not enough that we have our devices, and our computers, and our email with us all the time now, [...] and, [particularly for] people who work in coworking spaces, the work life impinges even more on their sense of identity or their social life.”
The coworking mentality meshes, often uncannily, with contemporary hustle culture, which promotes performative (over)achievement over a healthy work-life balance and separation. At one of its Montreal locations, WeWork, an American company that provides shared workspaces around the world, has TV screens that read “vis ta passion” (live your passion) lining the walls. In one of the multinational’s hubs in Hong Kong, billboard-like letters spell out the word ‘hustle’ above a bar.
“On Instagram, you can’t just send a picture to someone, it has to be doctored, and the lighting has to be perfect,” Etzion said. “In the same sense, you used to be able to go work and you could be next to somebody, and you could hang out by the water fountain chit chatting, but, now it feels like you might be obligated to do that. It takes on this life where now you have to curate your work life so that you are part of the fun crowd at work, and networking properly, and [...] coming to all the pizza nights. More and more of our lives are broadly things that are encompassed in the notion of work.”
Nonetheless, coworking seems to provide a service for which demand continues to grow in a technology-driven professional landscape. In late 2018, the Canadian federal government even suggested adopting coworking spaces for public servants when they could not access their regular work places. If the proportion of freelance workers continues to increase at a steady pace, they would make up just over half of the U.S workforce in eight years. While the model can play into tropes of today’s corporate world such as a blurred work-life balance, it also has the ability to promote a sense of independence and community for remote workers as they continue to grow in numbers.*Caroline Makosza’s quotes have been translated from their original French by the author.