The ambience of collaboration in coworking environments

Marko Orel (University of Economics, Prague, Czech Republic)
María del Mar Alonso Almeida (Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, Madrid, Spain)

Journal of Corporate Real Estate

ISSN: 1463-001X

Article publication date: 17 July 2019

Issue publication date: 15 November 2019

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to take an explanatory role and analyse the development of workspace ambiences in coworking spaces which optimise the chance of interactivity between individual users and leading towards cooperation. The paper thus offers a discussion on how the ambience that is tailored to a particular coworking space enhances the possibility of collaboration between two or more users of a selected workspace.

Design/methodology/approach

Ethnographically guided observations of six coworking spaces and qualitative interviews with their managers were used to gain an understanding of the workspace ambiences in coworking spaces. As direct measurement of the frequency of collaboration would be logistically profound, this paper rather explores the conditions for spontaneous or moderated interactivity between workspace users, which may be regulated by the creation of an optimal coworking space ambience.

Findings

The following paper defines the coworking space ambience as the look and the feel of a work environment which can arouse certain moods towards a particular place and its users. Coworking spaces may impose various approaches that not only attract potential workspace users and form initial ties between them but also produce a certain ambience that leads to collaborative action between users. The factors of spatial design need to be adapted, and engagement strategies need to be constructed to maximise the preferential output. The research behind the following paper concludes that the factors of spatial comfortability are an essential predisposition for workspace users to engage in cooperation with each other. Various mechanisms are needed to customise these engagements into cooperative action.

Originality/value

While the outcomes of sharing these environments have been periodically explored, no attempts have been made to investigate how coworking ambience is being created and implemented to optimise collaborative efforts of individuals who are sharing the workspace. For that reason, the audience of this paper should not only be limited to academics but may also be suitable for managers and office-space operators seeking to understand dynamics of collaboration within new types of shared office spaces.

Keywords

Citation

Orel, M. and Alonso Almeida, M.d.M. (2019), "The ambience of collaboration in coworking environments", Journal of Corporate Real Estate, Vol. 21 No. 4, pp. 273-289. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCRE-12-2018-0050

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

The rise of the dislocated work

Economic recession, technological advancements and correlated socio-demographic changes of the past decade have brought innovation, creativity and paradigm shift and changed the landscape of the global markets, thereby carving the fundamental shifts in the way we work (Beck, 2014; Angelidou, 2015; Merkel, 2015; Susskind and Susskind, 2015; Urbano and Aparicio, 2016). The McKinsey report on changes to work and the rise of gig economy reported in 2016 that 20-30 per cent of the working-age population in Europe and the USA engage in some form of independent work as free agents, casual earners and digital entrepreneurs (Manyika et al., 2016). Independent forms of work are rapidly expanding and evolving around peer marketplaces based on digital platforms such as Fiverr, TaskRabbit and Amazon Mechanical Turk (Ingrao, 2018).

Highly skilled individuals are offered a facilitated connection with clients to complete timeframe-limited work orders on an irregular gig basis using mostly their laptops in the isolation of their homes or local cafés, thus forming crowd-work or work-on-demand (De Stefano, 2015). In spite of this landscape, the gig or on-demand economy often bears a negative connotation of business interests, driving a race to the bottom on worker compensation, which further shifts the burden of economic risk onto independent workers (Kuhn, 2016). To this end, workers may face uncertainty and insecurity in the job economy (Friedman, 2014).

Various forms of alternative work arrangements such as telework, for example, can also be considered as an independent work form, and categorised into three counterparts based on the factor of flexibility:

  • flexibility in where work is accomplished;

  • flexibility in the employment relationship; and

  • flexibility in the scheduling work (Spreitzer et al., 2017).

Recent technological achievements started to allow skilled workers to perform work tasks and operations from anywhere and anytime as long as they can communicate and transfer data via the World Wide Web, thus forming a global new working class of digital entrepreneurs. As these workers are dependent on being always connected between themselves and databases, they may sometimes be addressed as e-workers (Harpaz, 2002), information workers (Florida, 2014), lattepreneurs (Dunstan, 2015) or more illustratively as iPros (Nye and Jenkins, 2016).

This new world of work detaches independent professionals from the typical organisational workspace while changing work practices and accelerating nomadicity (Büscher, 2014). Individuals who use their homes as offices are often challenged by increased work–family-related conflicts (Byron, 2005), social isolation and the lack of socialisation with other workers (Bartel et al., 2012), difficulties regarding managing and maintaining accountability, loss of identity (Appel-Meulenbroek et al., 2011) and the loss of productivity (Hill et al., 2003). In addition, social relations correlate to the physical health of workers and their general well-being (Abbey et al., 1985). As a result, workers tend to seek social surroundings different from home environments and standardised workspaces.

While these so-called third spaces such as cafés or libraries can be seen as environments for social gatherings (Oldenburg, 1989), they often lack an active community of like-minded individuals, or supportive dynamic mechanisms, which result in a spontaneous or mediated sociability and an applied culture with which they could identify (Spinuzzi, 2012). These expectations have sparked the emergence of new collaboration-oriented workspaces, which can be used on an independent or shared basis.

Towards exploring the ambience of collaboration

There are implications that ambience, sometimes also referred to as the workspace atmosphere, represents a cornerstone for collaborative activity and resource exchange between individual users of shared office spaces (Rus and Orel, 2015; Brown, 2017). Previous studies have reported positive effects resulting from learning among coworking users (Bouncken and Reuschl, 2016), the positive relationship of social support to satisfaction with own performance (Gerdenitsch et al., 2016) the perceived productivity (Merkel, 2015), positive outcomes on daily lifestyle (Ross and Ressia, 2015), increased innovation (Surman, 2013) and creativity (Farina et al., 2018) amongst coworking space users because of their collaborative activity. The following paper shifts focus to understanding the role of the workspace ambience that can be defined based on every social action that individuals have with the selected workspace.

With coworking environments marking the growth of 200 per cent over the past five years, including a projection of five million coworking users by 2022, industry stakeholders and real-estate experts are exploring new approaches towards office flexibility (Amador, 2018). Research on this topic is essential because coworking became a global phenomenon around 2010 and continues to be salient in recent years. Coworking is no longer a concept limited to individuals and SMEs, as larger corporations are also gradually embracing this trend. Enterprises such as Microsoft, Verizon and IBM are trying out coworking spaces to promote innovation, raise productivity and optimise cross-team work (Sargent et al., 2018). As a result, more real-estate developers are looking into the trend and scattering for resources to analyse coworking ecosystems (Jamal, 2018).

The purpose of this paper, thus, is to analyse the development of workspace ambiences, which optimise the chance of interactivity between individual users and leading towards cooperation. The manuscript will provide a discussion on how the ambience that is tailored to a particular coworking space enhances the possibility of collaboration between two or more users of a selected workspace. The following chapter is dedicated to systematic literature review, while the subsequent chapter focuses on qualitative methodologies that have been used to tackle the raised questions, with the last chapter concluding the discussion, proposing the future research and sharing recommendations for practice.

Understanding the perspectives of collaborative workspaces

As the topic of coworking environments has matured, and the size of available literature has significantly grown in the past years, we anticipate significant development in topic knowledge. As momentarily discussed in this paper’s introduction, collaborative workplaces such as coworking spaces have only recently become environments of localised socialisation and spontaneous sociability, transforming spaces into centres of urban life (Rus and Orel, 2015). The rapid rise and popularisation of these modern shared office spaces can be found in high demand for an optimal working environment that encourages interpersonal interactions and collaborations between its users.

Modern workspaces are often seen as centres of innovation (Ross and Ressia, 2015) and creativity (Farina et al., 2018), as well as human resource talent pools (Kubátová, 2016). Coworking spaces not only increase popularity amongst highly skilled digital entrepreneurs but are also places where managers from the corporate world tend to scan for fresh talent and environment traits which accelerate the communication flow (Williams and LaBrie, 2015), foster knowledge transfer (von Krogh and Geilinger, 2014), boost interaction and spark innovative processes between employees (Laing and Bacevice, 2013; Hills and Levy, 2014).

It seems that Dilbert Paradox should be at least partially considered to understand the recent increased attention for coworking and related models. We are referring to the typical corporate tendency where managerial decisions are focused on headhunting and talent acquisition instead of personal talent development, which includes a rethink and redesign of the entire work environment (Richman, 2014). More and more corporate teams are being sent to selected workspaces, where they tend to blend in with independent workers and their networks (Leclercq-Vandelannoitte and Isaac, 2016).

Coworking spaces are still predominantly used by individual workers, but the trend tends to shift in the next years (Sargent et al., 2018). While corporate collaborative workspace environments are addressed as proworkings or corpoworkings and focus on providing shared offices for corporate teams (Bréchignac et al., 2017), coworking spaces focus on independent individuals who seek optimised work environments which would allow them to establish relationships with like-minded individuals, form collaborations and enter various networks (Merkel, 2015). Because of their diversity and orientation towards collaboration, this research tends to focus on independently operated coworking spaces with the focus on users who work on an individual basis.

Fostering cooperation between workspace users

Encouraging cooperation and sharing of resources amongst individual users is one of the core purposes of coworking spaces (Spinuzzi, 2012; Bilandzic et al., 2013; Rus and Orel, 2015; Bianchi et al., 2018). The facilitation and moderation mechanisms and a human resource management inside a shared workspace are the key to a successful formation of new collaborations needed for individuals to achieve work goals. Independent workers are mainly dependent on joining networks for giving and receiving relevant information and resources (Chesbrough, 2003), fulfilling their working process and increasing the chances of its success. These considerations are especially important for those who are affected by negative trends of alienation and isolation caused by the gig economy and on-demand digital platforms (Kenney and Zysman, 2016). Organisations running coworking spaces can thus be seen as knowledge-creating organisations (Parrino, 2015).

These environments, therefore, not only foster knowledge exchange in the localised emerging communities of independent workers but can also be linked to the creation of the innovation dynamics. Access to human, and social capital, as well as knowledge bases, allows individuals to join networks and transfers of knowledge and experience, which in turn leads to new informational and financial sources (Holsapple and Whinston, 1987; Sparrow, 1998; Argote et al., 2003; Ipe, 2003). Trust, as a predicting factor of the probability of individuals acting in a certain way and the expectation of their actions to be good-natured, can be understood as the basis for relationship-building between coworking space users. Moreover, cooperation between individuals can only occur in situations where mutual trust is high. Trust, therefore, has to be established and nourished before negative outside factors such as opportunism. We need to note that relationship of control, knowledge and trust may also be characterised by tensions and contradictions within a network (Sydow and Windeler, 2003).

Social networks comprising stronger and weaker social bonds between users are characterised by informal interpersonal communication and the exchange of information. The intensity of social bonds enables the existence and further development, i.e. the expansion and contraction of social networks. The strategic development of supportive interactions is, therefore, necessary to create strong bonds. A high frequency of these interactions is essential for the users to identify with the coworking community. Applying the instrumental activity of mobilising, planning and linking individuals together is crucial to enable them to promote their work and ideas and to enable a shared cognitive sense-making. This is especially necessary in times of turmoil and uncertainty (Oliver and Montgomery, 2008) that can be linked with the instability of independent workers dependent on crowd-work (Friedman, 2014).

Coworking spaces are commonly designed with a high level of ergonomic adaptation to a workspace user’s health and productivity that can be linked to the exhibition of positive behaviour towards other users (Green, 2014). There are implications that one of the core mechanisms that needs to be established within coworking space to achieve high frequency of collaborations and supportive interactions is the identification with both coworking community and coworking space itself (Butcher, 2013; Garrett et al., 2017; Waters-Lynch and Potts, 2017; Spinuzzi et al., 2019). It is not entirely clear if mediation mechanisms facilitate identification and how they enhance collaboration between individual coworking space users. There is also a question of cross-cultural competency and the multicultural differentiation of workspace, and their impact of workspace culture that promotes values of collaboration, the sharing of resources and mutual knowledge between on-demand digital workers, dislocated workers and footloose entrepreneurs.

Yet, there is evidence that suggests that one of the core mechanisms might be establishing positive ambience within the selected coworking space (Balakrishnan et al., 2016; Gregg and Lodato, 2018). Coworking spaces may impose various approaches that not only attract potential workspace users and form initial ties between them but also produce a certain ambience that could resemble an organisational climate to some extent. By this, individuals who are not connected with work relations, but are still using the same workspace, can generate a sensation of perceiving their daily work environment as a co-workplace (Johnson, 2003).

Significant research on how to construct a positive ambience in coworking spaces and how mediating user interactivity affects collaboration has yet to be made. Lumley (2014) investigates how coworking facilities encourage user interaction and subsequent collaboration that can be seen as beneficial for both facilities and their users. Merkel (2015) explored coworking from the perspective of a community based and organizational approach that reveal the role of mediation practices in creating a collaborative atmosphere within the workspace. Gerdenitsch et al. (2016) share findings that social interactions between coworking space users can result in social support that is positively related to performance satisfaction, and concludes that the mobilisation of social support seems necessary for collaborative orientated coworking spaces. Finally, Brown’s (2017) research on coworking calls for better understanding of mediation roles within coworking environments.

Although results published by these papers have made a significant impact and contribution towards understanding the internal processes that lead towards the interaction between users, more exploratory research would be needed to identify and outline the elements that result in a specific workspace ambience within coworking environments.

Research design

Identifying research questions and focus

To deepen our understanding of the topic, we propose two main research questions. Firstly, what are the spatial elements of collaborative ambience in coworking spaces? It is known that the removal of spatial barriers within the workplace, such as walls, makes it easier for its users to meet directly, face-to-face (Jakonen et al., 2017). The placement of functional furniture can stimulate or restrict the interaction between individuals embedded in a particular work environment (Becker and Steele, 1990; Appel-Meulenbroek et al., 2011). As spatial layout and characteristics of coworking spaces attract more and more attention in the industry (Gaskell, 2018), it is crucial to jointly research the subject of coworking space ambience and explore the diversity of spatial mechanisms that foster collaboration amongst coworking space users. Thus, static and non-mediated mechanisms that are incorporated into these flexible workspaces must be observed and analysed. This question, therefore, explores the various uses of spatial elements for enhancing collaborative actions and contribute towards the positive ambience within coworking spaces.

Secondly, what are the needed mediated mechanisms to increase interactivity and enhance collaborative action within coworking spaces? Open-plan coworking spaces can often be viewed as workplaces saturated with several disturbing elements, affecting the performance of individual’s working process, although this varies from user to user and their personal preferences (Vassie and Richardson, 2017). As the frequency of communication can be seen as a cornerstone of interactivity, encouraging interaction with spatial elements increases the possibility of cooperation between them (Gutwin et al., 2008). The second question, therefore, explores what may be these mediated mechanisms and how they are operated.

Qualitative research approach

As workspace ambience affects interactivity between individuals and increases or decreases their efficiency, morale, productivity and well-being, the qualitative observations have appeared as an obvious choice to collect the data. This methodological approach has permitted to gain insight into positioning and the effect of spatial elements on an individual’s preparedness to establish contact with other workspace users. Moreover, selecting this approach enabled us to identify and understand the presence of mediated mechanisms and their role in increasing interactivity and enhancing collaborative action within coworking spaces.

The data collection has started with the ethnographic approach in six European coworking spaces in Latvia (Riga), Germany (Leipzig and Berlin) and Czech Republic (Prague) over the period between 2015 and 2017 as a part of ongoing longitudinal qualitative research of different collaborative workspaces. Coworking spaces have been independently run and selected on the predisposition of their spatial diversification. While franchise coworking spaces tend to follow the same design and similar spatial configurations (Huang, 2019), independently established and operated workspaces differ based on furniture, workspace layout and prevailing colour schemes (Spreitzer et al., 2015). They tend to be more diverse and focus on independent professionals instead of teams (Gerdenitsch et al., 2016). Selected coworking spaces have been positioned within similar cultural environments with a like user base predominantly represented by self-employed individuals. Moreover, the observed coworking spaces have been similar in size with less than 1,000 m2. They have been located within the limits of the city centre of selected cities and had an open workspace with adjustable desks and non-territorial sitting areas.

The average time spent on observation within one space has been estimated at 35 h per space during which one of the authors has taken the role of the observer as a participant, examining spatial elements of workspaces and applied mechanisms that accelerate the interaction between users. The observer’s role has been revealed to the majority of users who used the selected coworking space daily, but not all users. However, because of ethics controls and a duty of care for sensitive information, an agreement has been reached for anonymity of the workplaces, replaced by a geographic identifier. Observations which took place in all coworking spaces can be noted as observations with an expanded focus, as the predetermined set of factors were selected before observation. We have limited ourselves to the descriptive study without influencing or intervening processes in any way. Thus, these observations can be viewed as people ethnography, as we are studying the setting and describing theoretical implications through the use of vignettes. By that, we explored the organised routines of behaviour taking place in selected settings (Fine, 2003).

Observations have focused on two components of selected workspaces affecting the chance of users establishing interaction that could lead to collaborative activities:

  • the visual and spatial characteristic of observed workspaces (layout of the space, commonly used functional elements, designed features that affect individuals); and

  • the mediation mechanisms that have been operated by workspaces managers (existence of tools that accelerate the interaction, their effectiveness, responsiveness of individuals).

Our starting predisposition was that the visual appearance with workspace layout and its comfort level could positively influence users, while coworking mediation mechanisms can support making users’ behaviours habitual. Visual management enables the creation of an environment that enhances selected behavioural patterns by presenting key data and information through the use of compelling sensory messages. It allows the organisation behind the workspace to keep individuals focused on its mission and goals by providing a mechanism for continuous improvements through system alignment (Liff, 2012). Thus, we were observing not only how these shared workspaces are designed with achieving collaborative action in mind but also how they can be seen as highly adaptable and customisable units in providing needed comfortability.

Following observations, the unstructured interviews have been done with the operators of six observed coworking spaces. Several assumptions have been formed based on conducted observations, with the interviews being conducted at the end of each observation period. Three lead interview questions have been proposed to the coworking space managers:

Q1.

How would you asses the importance of curated ambience within your coworking space?

Q2.

What are the essential spatial elements that foster collaboration between the users of your coworking space?

Q3.

How do you perceive your role when it comes to managing the relations with the community of your coworking space?

Interviews have lasted 12 min on average. The transcriptions have been analysed using the thematic analysis to examine the patterns within the data. Thematic coding allowed the researchers to link the common themes to the findings from ethnographic observations of selected coworking spaces. With the findings being cross-examined, this approach has proven to be rich and detailed and has allowed interpretation of assumptions that have been linked to the two research questions. There were, however, few associated downsides of this approach with several limits that will need to be taken into account for the future exploration of the topic. These are addressed in the concluding discussion of the paper.

Results and discussion

The use of spatial elements of collaborative ambience

Owing to the nature of their shared usage, coworking premises anticipate the use of an open, physically uncluttered environment, and the establishment of the open-plan workspace. Open workplaces are repeatedly mentioned in the context of promoting spontaneous communication and user interaction, resulting in more creative workflow and workplace satisfaction. Based on observed workspaces, we need to note that all six of them were modular and allowed a flexible adaptation to the current needs and wishes of the users. This allowed multifaceted flexibility of the selected spaces and their adaptability into multifunctional spatial units. In all observed cases, it appeared that interaction, and hence communication between workers within the same environment, is less likely to commence if it is delimited in such a way as to make it more difficult for a spontaneous encounter with others. From this perspective, questions about the shape, the position and, above all, the distance of the spatial elements of coworking space appeared from the very beginning of our study.

From the very beginning, it has been observed that four out of six coworking spaces did not offer the possibility of individual worktable use but instead desks that could be used on a flexible basis, thus enabling user’s circulation between workstations. It has been observed that the flexible use of worktables allows individuals to choose the preferred day setting to carry out their work tasks. On the other hand, this systematic approach enabled coworking space to promote flexible use of their workspaces and enhance the flow of users within. The interviewees of all observed workspaces reported that the positioning of furniture significantly contributed to the accelerated flow of individuals in space, and the openness and flexible adaptation of spaces contributed to more frequent communication between users. Selected coworking spaces can, therefore, be viewed as serendipity accelerators promoting spontaneous interactions and, consequently, the establishment of potential cooperation.

Worktables in all observed spaces have not been made for individualised use but were generally larger and could accommodate at least two or more users. This allows the implementation of proximity factory, as there is a higher chance that users will sit together. If we take into consideration the Allen curve whereby an exponential drop in communication and interactivity between individuals occurs as the distance increases (Allen, 1984), we can assume that short distance between coworking space users positively affects the chance of interaction. Operators of four out of six workspaces reported that although co-using worktables may have different impacts on individual users, sharing of the premises generally results in users having casual talks and engaging in spontaneous interactions. Given the flexible furniture and intended openness of the workspace, the same four interviewees reported that the factors of visual and acoustic privacy of users should not be neglected, as it may affect the willingness of users to engage into interactions.

The same interviewees expressed that their coworking spaces can tackle this issue by using modular furniture elements which allow privacy or spatial intervention in the form of closed meeting rooms. It may also be physically separated from the rest of the space, serving as both audibly and visually isolated units. In the case of our research, five out of six coworking premises established an organisational culture to which users relate and have formed value sets based on openness, community before individualism, accessibility, sustainability, cooperation and trust. The implementation of the latter enables users to communicate with each other, exchange information and resources freely and minimise the concern of theft for material items such as laptops and smartphones, which are typically freely left in the space.

As we already noted, other spatial factors are essential to achieve the satisfaction of users and increase the chance of cooperative interaction between them. We have briefly observed how the brightness of workspace, temperature range, air quality and the presence of greenery affect users of selected coworking spaces. All six interviewees confirmed our assumption that the positioning of worktables near windows with direct exposure to daylight plays a crucial form factor when it comes to the prolonged usage of their coworking spaces. It has been observed that changing the lighting conditions affects the individual’s perception of the work environment and his comfort. Interviews have revealed that well-lit and generally bright parts of selected coworking spaces have higher chances to secure user’s satisfaction and the willingness to interact with others.

All six observed workspaces were colourful with differently stylised walls and furniture. Four interviewees implicated that a wide range of colours not only makes workspaces seem livelier but can also adapt to the diverse preferences of users.

The temperature of the observed coworking spaces also seemed to impose a great challenge for the comfortability of users. While interviewed coworking space managers set their optimal ranges, we cannot generalise their preference to all the users, as different individuals may have different inclinations towards their comfortable temperature span. Preferential deviation of some can lead to dissatisfaction with other users and their behaviour, which can be reflected in the context of not being open to interactivity, as they would be under optimised comfort levels.

Five of six interviewees perceived office plants as a positive and necessary step towards improving the workspace condition, impacting the motivation and productivity of users, as well as improving the general well-being and satisfaction. It should be borne in mind that the addition of various plants can lead to adverse effects, as some users of the workplace have a sensitivity to allergens causing negative reactions such as itching, dry throat or uveitis. It has been noted by all interviewees that generally, the high concentration of plants positively affects user’s comfortability and likeness of a selected workspace.

The sound image of workspace has been one of the key building blocks of the ambient nature of observed coworking environments. The individual’s audible perceptions appeared equivalent to their visual perceptions. Open workspaces are commonly the subject to a wide range of internal and external sound effects. Five of the observed coworking spaces have controlled noise in a variety of ways, varying from the use of sound scenes by playing music or selected sound samples, adjusting work culture in certain parts of the open space by creating quiet areas and the use of modular furniture. Furthermore, three interviewees noted the importance of regulating and restricting free communication only in parts of coworking premises, where this was necessary, while generally leaving the communication flow unobstructed. They indicated that the acoustic backdrop by playing music is much more optimal to tackle the social noise and leave conversations – that are either spontaneous or moderated – unhindered.

Three interviewees emphasised that the choice of the current music background within a coworking space should be participatory selected and made flexible, which means that each user can give his musical suggestion and thereby influence the final choice. If the individual choice was to be rejected from the preferred average – that is, if most users were closer to rhythmically slower music with dominant tones which evoke a positive feeling for example – then the individual must adjust to the choice of the majority, and personal preference may otherwise be achieved by using headphones. While we have observed that headphones provide greater privacy and offer sound insulation, they can, in the context of open office space, also be viewed as an element that slows down the possibility of commencing spontaneous communication.

As we observed spatial determinants that sculpt coworking environments into optimal workplaces for interactivity, we marked the importance of the human factor. Moreover, all six interviewees agreed that while spatially optimised and user-friendly workplaces can accelerate the form factor of interactivity between users, their role is still essential in steering relationships towards relevant outputs that result from collaborative action.

Mediation mechanisms for enhancing collaboration

There are several components for carving workspace ambience and can be defined based on every contact that individuals have with the selected workspace. As observed with all the cases, mechanisms that enhance interactivity can either be incorporated into a workspace as spatial elements or implemented and operated by managerial staff. The goal of these mechanisms has appeared to establish organisational and social support for workspace users, which according to previous research findings determines the degree of their identification with a coworking space and its users through perceived contribution, care for their personal and work development, well-being and comfortability.

To reach ideal conditions for fostering collaborative activity, the observed workplaces needed to generate a highly adaptive ambience which nourishes the processes of mutual production and exchange between two or more individual users. As observed through our ethnographic study, this is achievable by encouraging the emergence of interpersonal relationships, based on specific interactions between workspace users made possible by developed value systems that are accepted and confirmed by coworking space users. Thereby, the state and reaction of users before contacting and entering into the processes of interpersonal communication can be predictable and more manageable to mediate towards collaborative action.

Coworking spaces can place contact points within their workplaces designed to promote informal and spontaneous interaction between users. While carefully tailored workspace and functional furniture can be shared in a way that is co-used by different users throughout the course of the day to create optimal conditions for interactivity between workspace users, various sets of mechanism are brought in by mediation managers to knit relationships between them and establish habitual behaviour that ideally leads to cooperative action (Fassi et al., 2018). Not only in the physical openness of the coworking environments where the interaction tendency may be higher than that of enclosed spaces but also the mediation of interactions between users may lead to the formulation of interpersonal relations. We have observed that encouraging close encounters and the interaction between workspace users lead to the founding of a community.

It has been observed that a mediator or community manager must apply different techniques of modernised integration and establishing interpersonal trust among the members of the community to ensure optimal working and habitat conditions of the workspace. The latter enables them to achieve high awareness for sensing community affiliation to promote the development of informal and supportive interpersonal interactions. These interactions can be understood as a set of microprocesses in selected social networks that are utterly important for facilitating new coordination between previously disconnected or connected individuals. Based on our observations, we can establish a link with the so-called tertius iungens that represent the strategic orientation in an individual who overtakes the role of mediator and can establish a relationship between peers to achieve an optimal outcome beneficial to both sides (Obstfeld, 2005).

In relation to the spatial dynamics of coworking spaces, the community manager is the one who identifies the needs for comfort, the tendency towards belonging and the requirements of individuals’ self-regulation. On the other hand, the new and existing members of the community have a certain preferential frame towards space (room temperature, light, etc.) that needs to be adapted to provide an optimum working environment. In addition, users have different interests after joining the coworking community. Interviewees have shared the opinion that the community manager must recognise the individual requirements and tendency of the individual after self-regulation, reflected in his participative role both within the community and the coworking space.

It has been noted by interviewees that specific protective mechanisms are often established in coworking spaces. They have reported that the existence of trust between users of their workspaces depends on the stability of the selected network. Confidence is stronger within stable and well-interlinked networks where relations between users are oriented towards a definite starting point. In the event of the devastation of these (i.e. in the event of opportunism as a negative external influence), a sudden and unplanned collapse of network trust may occur. Therefore, the coworking space community must be adequately protected from adverse impacts.

Concluding discussion

From the initial point of contact between a first-time user with the space manager, colourful environments, and functional furniture, to even background sounds, we emancipated that the coworking space ambience can be divided into two segments that foster collaborative activities amongst users:

  • spatial elements that characterize each coworking space; and

  • mediation mechanisms that are operated and executed by coworking space managers.

Because coworking spaces strive to optimise working conditions and achieve interactivity that is expected to steer individuals towards collaboration, they are commonly designed and constructed to highly adapt to the needs of a human body and other physiological properties of an individual (Liegl, 2014). We assumed that spatial and mediation mechanisms enhance the possibility of interaction between them and that a positive ambience is needed to trigger the collaboration. The purpose of proposing the two questions has been to explore various approaches and content that generate and affect the coworking space ambience that actively contributes towards the collaborative behaviour of individual users.

We subsequently define the coworking space ambience as the look and the feel of a work environment which can arouse certain moods in a particular place and its users. This includes both the appearance of workplaces and comfortability factors. While the first set of factors can modulate emancipated interactivity, the second set increases efficiency and productivity and boosts users’ moral – important for behavioural willingness not only to secure continuous use of selected workspace but for also for preparedness to establish contact with other workspace users.

We argue that the factor of spatial comfortability is an essential predisposition for workspace users to engage in cooperation with each other. Various mechanisms are needed to customise these engagements into cooperative action. As direct measurement of the frequency of collaboration would be logistically overwhelming, this paper, in lieu, explores the conditions for either spontaneous or moderated interactivity which may be regulated by the creation of an optimal coworking space. As analysed, carefully designed and planned coworking spaces are essential for the creation of a workspace ambience favouring collaboration between users. Also, all the form factors of the spatial design must be adapted to accord with the majority’s preference framework, while simultaneously using a mediation mechanism to construct engagement strategies.

Limitations

While increased concern exists that the sole use of a qualitative approach may result in several drawbacks, this has shown to be an effective way to get the data for providing explorative and generative insight into the researched topic. There are, however, several limitations that we are obliged to attend at this point.

While the qualitative approach has enabled us to construct a detailed image on how ambience is formed within coworking spaces, and how it enables individuals to build a positive perception of the environment that simultaneously optimises one’s willingness to interact with other workspace users, we were unable to test our assumptions entirely. We were also unable to quantify the frequency of interactions that took place between individuals as observations focused on the visual effectiveness of spatial mediation mechanism.

Moreover, perspectives and opinions that have been shared by the coworking space operators can be seen as subjective. With this subjectivity and a relatively small sample of observed coworking spaces, we need to emphasise the importance of expanding the sample to additional workplaces. The coworking space industry is rapidly expanding and changing at a fast pace, so continuation and further exploration of the topic would be needed.

Implications and suggestions for future research

Ethnographic approach and a rather diversified sample of six different coworking spaces allowed us to observe various spatial components that affect collaborative activities between workspace users. Yet, our approach has led us to descriptive analysis and routed us away from concretising our findings. We have for example noted that coworking spaces are built around diversely coloured workspaces to establish a pleasant, lively environment, but we have failed to address what the beneficiary aspects on user’s mood, satisfaction and performance of different colour patterns are. Similarly, we could further explore what are the preferences of air quality and temperature scales. Nonetheless, this would demand a different approach as each of these determinants should be explored with high detail.

In spite of that, real-world cases and ethnographic observations allow us to understand how coworking spaces achieve spatial comfortability at least to some extent. It could be wrongly expected that the spatial design is the sole feature to enhance interactivity between users. Interviewed coworking space operators jointly confirm our assumptions – mediation mechanisms are essential to knit both formal and informal relationships. Moreover, as we were able to describe those, several other challenges arose.

We discovered that although all coworking spaces followed similar spatial patterns when it came to workspace design, their managers approach differently to their users. Some of them preferred to use a direct approach when establishing connections between two or more users, while others seemed keen to use mechanisms that triggered spontaneous interactions.

What are, therefore, the most effective mediation mechanisms that foster trust as a building block of relationships between coworking space users? How to combine these spontaneous with mediated mechanisms in order to achieve the most optimal output? It would be necessary to use a combined qualitative and quantitative approach to research these questions. While qualitative interviews with a larger sample of regular coworking space users would explore how different interaction mechanisms are perceived, a well-structured questioner would reveal the number of actional relations that have been knit as a result of these tools.

Recommendations for practice

The paper may also be found as befitting for managers, advisors and workspace operators who thrive from understanding the dynamics of collaboration in this new form of shared office spaces. It is necessary to understand that the flexibility of operating coworking spaces enables versatility in users’ choices towards completing their work processes. To construct an ambience that will be orientated towards the collaboration of workspace users, it is needful to construct spatial elements and plan mediation activities.

Key takeaways for managers and coworking space operators are:

  • It has been observed that diversity in worksurfaces not only results in user’s satisfaction but also encourages them towards informal and unintended interaction. The assortment of worksurfaces positively influences the flow of human resources in the space, as the individual has a more comprehensive selection of the micro-location of the work performance (McGregor, 2000). Operators are thus advised to provide their users a diverse sitting area and focus on shared desks rather than individualised work stations.

  • In the case of open-plan coworking space, modular furniture elements allow spatial intervention and reconfiguration of the workplace to adapt to users and their expectations. It has been noted that flexibility as a core element of establishing a positive ambience may result in collaboration between coworking space users.

  • Access to natural light positively affects the general satisfaction of workspace users. The flexible work stations should have sufficient brightness throughout the day (and night).

  • To achieve the optimal soundscape, noise can be controlled in a variety of ways. From the use of different sound scenes by playing background music to establishing silent and quiet areas within the workspace.

  • Encouraging close encounters and the interaction between workspace users lead to the founding of a community.

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Corresponding author

Marko Orel can be contacted at: marko.orel@vse.cz