So what is coworking like? Conversations!

The Chicago Online Community Professionals (COCP) began as a handful of people meeting together to cowork. For anyone who is new to coworking, this thread is intended to serve as an introduction to how we do it. I’ll start with my thoughts and then I’d like others who have been coworking to comment here with their own impressions and perspective.

For COCP, these are the elements of our coworking days:

  • LOCATION: We gather in a place that has a table (or tables if we have a big group that day) large enough for us to comfortably set up with our laptops, usually in a room with a video monitor to facilitate sharing a screen and a white board or easel for spontaneous brainstorming or group note-taking. Next Door in Chicago provides free coworking space and we reserve a private room in advance. We’ve met in conference rooms in the offices of our members, too. Once we had a large group meet in Steelcase’s awesome facility in downtown Chicago, but that place has since been closed.
  • WORK: We respect that each of us has work we need to do during coworking days. It’s not a vacation day. So each of us tends to emails, works on deliverables and steps out to take phone calls. That’s a normal and expected part of our coworking.
  • AGENDA: We rarely have one. Sometimes there are topics we feel are important to talk about so we’ll make an agenda, but far more often we just show up and what we have learned is those non-agenda days are often the most valuable ones.
  • CONVERSATION: You may wonder what happens without an agenda and with people still doing their own work. It’s actually the conversations that are the most valuable part of our co-working days.I can’t stress this enough: Time + Proximity + Openness + Trust = Amazing Conversations.* By Amazing Conversations I mean:
    • Q&A on any topic that’s on someone’s mind, often resulting in on-the-spot training and guidance from peers or show-and-tell demonstrations
    • brainstorming ideas about how to tackle gnarly problems you’re struggling with in your community or organization or career (or life)
    • sharing our strategies & tactics for getting executives to understand the value of community and the role we play
    • critiquing the technology we work with and coming up with ideas for how it could work better
    • big, blue-sky, what-if discussions about how people work and should work together, the technology marketplace, innovations that we wish would happen, and whatever else we’re curious or passionate about that day
    • support, validation and celebration of each other’s accomplishments, including career guidance and referrals/connections with people in our networks.
  • FUN: We laugh a lot. We enjoy each other’s company. We’ve become friends, not just professional peers. We chit-chat over lunch and get to know each other better at happy hour at the end of the day (and we define for ourselves what time the day ends…).
  • VISITORS: I almost forgot about this. We started inviting people with particular expertise that we were interested in to join us in co-working, kind of like a guest speaker but without a formal presentation. Again, it’s just conversations for the most part, and we found we learned a lot from these folks that way. And to our surprise, each of our guests has said they learned much from us during the day, too. That’s when we began to become self-aware and realize maybe we’re onto something special.

* Now let me unpack the equation I made up and casually included above:

Time + Proximity + Openness + Trust = Amazing Conversations

Time, part 1 – Coworking days are 8 or so hours long, just like a normal work day, usually followed by happy hour, which on a good day lasts more than an hour. So we spend a LONG TIME together. And we cowork on a fairly regular basis, so multiply the hours from those long days times maybe 10 per year. So we are not compressing our time together into 30-minute meetings and hoping magic happens. We’re investing huge amounts of time and that’s key to the results we are seeing both individually and as a group.

Time, part 2 -Maybe that’s not the best way to explain it, though. It’s not just the amount of time, it’s the kind of time. There is a lot of “idle” time, you could call it. Even though people are doing their work, human beings’ brains do not stay truly fully focused on a task or topic. Our brains are always leaping around, being curious and distractable things. When we’re doing fairly mindless work, like dealing with email often can be, our minds wander in search of something more stimulating and engaging. So during our coworking days there is lots and lots of this kind of time, since we don’t usually have an agenda, remember.

Proximity – A key element of coworking is how physically near to each other we are. If I’m in a cube in an office and you’re in the next cube, there’s still a form of physical barrier between us. If you’re farther away, there’s more of a physical and psychological barrier to get past for us to interact. If you’re not in the same building, it’s true we can use technology to interact, but there are barriers there, too, like I have to consciously choose WHO I will interact with, since I could reach hundreds of people that way.

When we are sitting around one table, no more than a few feet from each other in the same room and we can easily make eye contact or even physically nudge the person next to us, the amount of interaction that can easily, quickly and effortlessly take place is incredibly high. Because it’s easy, it happens a lot when we cowork.

Openness – By openness I mean receptivity to interaction. At COCP co-working days it’s the opposite of a library. In the library, the expectation is that everyone will work quietly and not disturb others. We don’t travel to co-working so we can sit around and ignore each other. We do it precisely because we crave that interaction and are open to it, even if it interrupts our work. Heck, how many times do office mates interrupt your work with inane stuff you don’t care about? In our case, the odds are very high that the interruption will be on a topic you DO care about, and you likely are interested in jumping into a discussion about that instead of dealing with your email. We have the implicit expectation that we are open to interaction at any time during the day. (Of course, we are respectful if someone tells us they have to finish an email or get a project done, and those situations can arise at any time.)

Trust – It takes time, of course, to build trust, and we’ve spent the time necessary to do that. We reinforce that expectation of each other with a true-but-funny reminder, “what happens at co-working stays at co-working.” As my fellow co-worker and COCP co-founder, Keeley Sorokti, put it, “I can let my hair down.” Vendors and consultants take off their sales-ey hats, employees take off their employer’s hat, and we just relate to each other as people who care about and value each other. When you take posturing, among other things, out of the equation, conversations get real.

So, those are the elements that lead to Amazing Conversations, in my view. Anyone have thoughts about the equation, or alternative ways of looking at this? Fellow co-workers, what are your thoughts? What would you add and how would you describe what we do and the impact it’s had on you?

So if you’re an online community professional anywhere near Chicago, please consider joining our coworking days. And if you don’t live nearby, but are planning a visit, let us know and we may be able to schedule a coworking day while you’re in town.

If you just want to join us online, of course we have an online community, and we’d welcome your participation there. We’re also pretty active on Twitter at @cmgrchi.

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