Co-working spaces are shared workspaces and have become a striking and very visible feature of metropolitan areas. They have proliferated and are growing fast around the globe in almost every continent, embraced not only by remote workers, start-up employees and freelancers but also by larger companies.
The latest figure shows that there are 14,411 co-working spaces in the world today. The number is estimated to rise to 3.8 million by 2020 and 5.1 million by 2022 (Amador, 2018). In Australia, co-working spaces grew by 297 per cent to 309 between 2013 and 2017. The recent forecast estimates a triple growth in co-working spaces by 2030 (Cheung, 2018). According to the market report of Office Hub that runs one of the largest co-working space leasing platforms in Australia, demand from larger businesses for co-working spaces has doubled between 2017 and 2018. This signals more and more larger companies are now transitioning to co-working spaces.
Empirical evidence shows that the popularity of this new way of working is largely attributed by a sense of belonging to a community, work flexibility, serendipitous encounters with like-minded people, idea generation and sharing, business networking, and a relief from loneliness of working from home (e.g. Mariott et al, 2017). It is interesting to see that many start-ups and some large companies in Australia such as Woolworths, Accenture and LG Electronics have embraced the co-working space concept (Office Hub, 2018) because of the collaborative working environment that co-working spaces provide and the cost-effectiveness in terms of flexible leasing terms.
To develop an in-depth understanding of the popular trend of co-working, we, a research team at Edith Cowan University, started our co-working space research project about two years ago. We studied a sample of 30 co-working spaces around Australia, of which 13 are owned by universities and 17 are not. We visited and interviewed 15 operators and 30 users of the co-working spaces. In addition, some of our team members spent a number of days working in some of the co-working spaces to get first-hand experience. Our sample of co-working spaces are representative in terms of their size, industry sector and location.
According to our research, currently 11 out of 38 Australian universities are running co-working spaces. With Queensland University of Technology and University of Western Australia having two each, the total number of co-working spaces run by Australian universities is 13, which constitutes 4.2 per cent of co-working spaces in Australia. Some of them are located on-campuses such as Australian Catholic University’s Collaborate Plus and others are co-located with business incubators and accelerators outside campuses, such as Edith Cowan University’s Business & Innovation Centre. Australian university co-working spaces follow the same business model as their non-university counterparts except for the fees charged for members. They generally have a lower fee structure than non-university co-working spaces, and some of them even offer free memberships. But most of them accept only those who are associated with the universities.
In terms of the purpose and motivation of running and using co-working spaces, we find some interesting similarities and striking differences between university co-working spaces and non-university ones. For example, all the co-working spaces we study have the same agenda – creating a community for members to create and share new ideas and to collaborate and interact with each other, which may lead to new innovation. This is one of the most important reasons for many start-up founders and workers joining co-working spaces.
For university co-working spaces, our research finds that bringing entrepreneurs and start-up workers to campuses to co-work with students and staff help with experiential learning and idea generation and development, thus enriching students’ learning experience. University co-working spaces are also seen as an innovation hub for university entrepreneurship and research commercialisation, where students and researchers have access to industry insights from entrepreneurs, investors and commercialisation experts. However, the most cited reasons from users of non-university based co-working spaces are the lower costs compared with renting an office, the flexibility in access and leasing terms (i.e. casual rate, weekly, monthly and yearly), and reducing the feeling of loneliness and isolation.
Implications for universities
For universities, the co-working space trend and model has several significant implications for the future of work. First, the traditional model of teaching and learning that lecturers talk and students listen is being replaced by student-centred models such as flipped classroom in many universities. Converting some of the classrooms into co-working spaces would provide more engaging, inviting and fun spaces for teaching and learning and for students to work together on projects. Flexible space design in co-working spaces may contribute to the modernisation of campuses. Second, digital technologies are re-shaping the way courses are delivered. More and more students are now studying online. The lack of face-to-face interaction with their peers and lecturers has been a big drawback for these online students. Co-working spaces would help solve the problem. Third, universities have the tradition of assigning each academic to a fixed office or desk. That is not efficient use of university facilities as it is often the case that many offices are not occupied or empty at any given time. This underutilisation of office space on campus is not uncommon, largely due to the fact that academics are not required to attend their offices. Co-working spaces with both shared amenities and dedicated flexible spaces could improve the efficiency of university resources and equally importantly, collaboration and idea sharing between staff as seen in public co-working spaces. Forth, if universities share co-working spaces with students and staff from other universities, the potential benefits from the inter-university collaboration and cross-fertilisation would be significant.
With the increasing demand for engagement with communities and for creating social and economic impacts and the mounting pressure for resource efficiency, universities may find the co-working space concept inspiring in tackling the challenges.
Fang Zhao is a Professor of Management at the School of Business and Management of Edith Cowan University, Australia.Do you have an idea for a story?
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