Lessons from the New Workplace on Building Community and Collaboration
Neil Carlson, co-founder and ersatz concierge at Brooklyn Creative League. (Photo by JW Photography)

Neil Carlson, co-founder and ersatz concierge at Brooklyn Creative League.

(Photo by JW Photography)

It was a minor victory just to get the entire family to the stadium. Family-focused activities are not the first choice for our teen and tween these days. Yet they signed on to watch the Brooklyn Cyclones, our local minor league team, play when my co-working space, Brooklyn Creative League got a block of tickets and invited members and their families for an annual summer event. 

If nothing else, it would be a nice, cool summer evening on Coney Island and a chance to meet up with some of my fellow co-workers.

There is a strict no kids policy at BCL so it was my first opportunity to meet the children of members. Turns out BCL’s co-founders, Erin Carney and Neil Carlson, have a daughter who goes to the same middle school as mine. Said daughter was duly warned about a certain 7th grade science teacher.

Those co-working connections provide lots of good intel.

Erin and Neil’s daughter was playing in the stands with Hannah, daughter of Cliff, who I knew only from our online community. Cliff helped me out on a recent project on the energy business, an industry I had absolutely no background in, since he’s been traveling the world since 1994 providing investment advice on renewable energy in emerging markets.

Cliff wasn’t the only member I connected with via our online community. Richard, who works a few offices down from me, had a friend at AP who was on the energy beat. And Eileen, who I knew from lunchtime chats, referred me to her brother-in-law, who happened to be president of the U.S. division of the world’s largest wind power firm.

Oh, and Saquib, the guy I met at the coffee bar one afternoon? Veteran reporter for an oil and gas magazine.

That’s right. We share all kinds of intel.

I should also add that my BCL connections all materialized into very productive interviews, which wasn’t the case with all the sources I gathered, including those from my high profile b-school alumni network.

Yet collaborating with my fellow members was not my first priority when I joined BCL three years ago.

Looking for a more productive and professional alternative to my home office and the Brooklyn Public Library, I went in search of co-working space.

I wanted a space where I would have sufficient privacy to work alone, but where I would be surrounded with colleagues with similar work habits. Of course, it would be great to have someone to bounce some ideas off of on occasion, something I missed working solo, or maybe even work on a project together.

As I shopped around for co-working spaces, I quickly sensed that each had their own vibe. Many cater to the tech community and look and feel very much like what you would expect a startup office to be -– loft-style office, lots of couches, people in shorts, maybe a game table.

Others clearly had a buttoned-down, corporate vibe with nary a sound (lots of carpeting). Though I enjoyed some impressive views from high floor windows, I don’t think I saw anyone actually interacting with each other.

Then there were the offices that, in addition to having lots of nice work spaces within each location, also had an endless supply of beer. That collegiate vibe? Not for me.

I had been to BCL for some events shortly after its opening around 2009. And when I went back a couple years ago, it just felt right. I couldn’t put it into words, but the vibe suited me.

Months later, I overhead someone describe BCL as a space for grownups. Yes! That was it!

No wonder Crain's New York Business called it an incubator for parents.

As I got to know my fellow members, turns out quite a few of us were displaced by children. Some lost our home office when it had to be converted to a child's bedroom; others simply needed to get away from the many distractions that children and home bring.

I also liked how the BCL team nurtured a sense of community, without forcing it in any way. Something like the dorm RA who knows not everyone is into the same level of partying.

The sense of community is one of the reasons people thrive in co-working spaces, according to an article in the Harvard Business Journal. (Ironically, I actually met one of the authors, Pete Bacevice while doing a trial run at a co-working space! Working one table over from him, I learned he was an expert in higher education design; precisely the topic I was researching. He was gracious enough to let me interview him.)

At BCL, our Wednesday salad day is an institution, but there are also monthly breakfasts, weekly Friday happy hours and the occasional evening workshop which for me, has led to several collaborative projects.

Wednesday Salad Days are an institution at Brooklyn Creative League. (photo Dave Pappas)

Wednesday Salad Days are an institution at Brooklyn Creative League. (photo Dave Pappas)

So it’s no surprise that larger corporations are looking at co-working spaces for lessons on how to build innovation (I recently wrote about that in a research paper for Knoll). Moving some of their people off-site and into a co-working space is an increasingly popular corporate strategy to foster new thinking.  

Co-working spaces nurture community with programming and tools to create strong relationships and encourage serendipitous encounters.

Why?

It’s the chance meetings and interactions between knowledge workers that improve performance, the studies found. And workspaces that inspire engagement also increase individual productivity.

Researchers also found that that concept of a community manager also makes co-working space thrive. In many cases, this includes both in person and online community, much like we have at BCL. For example, I have written to Neil on several occasions to get the name and contact information of someone I met at lunch. (Maybe I asked one time too many because they have recently instituted nametag salad day!).

Another way is to design plenty of lounges, meeting rooms and gathering spaces to connect, as well as private spaces for heads down work. BCL added exactly those additional options in their recent expansion. Workplace strategists know that providing a variety of workspaces is the key to engaged and productive workers.

Co-working spaces provide programming to connect members and build community and collaboration. (photo by JW Photography)

Co-working spaces provide programming to connect members and build community and collaboration.

(photo by JW Photography)

Some other insights about why people thrive in a co-working space:

  • They have more job control. No one makes us show up at work (exception would be the small businesses and nonprofits that have offices and employees at co-working spaces). We decide our hours and choice of workspace.
  • They maintain structure. Researchers found that co-working communities create a sense of structure and discipline that motivates members. Is anyone else surprised that they spend less time on Facebook when their neighbor can see their screen?
  • They feel part of a community. Even if we do have a home office, we choose to work in a communal space for the human connections. As one respondent said:  Come for the space. Stay for the community. As humans, we crave social interaction. Even as we work on individual projects, we still want the feeling of community and being part of something bigger according to Allwork.

Just knowing there is the potential for interactions helps build connection, researchers believe, since even co-workers with few interactions still felt a strong sense of community identity.

  • They see their work as meaningful. One thing co-working spaces DON’T have is office politics. Or competition. Or infighting. Sigh. Relief. We are a population based on individuals from varied companies and projects, so there is nothing to fight about (except maybe the last piece of cake that James brings every Wednesday). People can be their authentic selves, and don’t have to worry about their work persona.

Researchers feel meaning may also come from working in a culture where it is the norm to help each other out. We come from many different industries and functions. We each have unique skill sets and our own diverse networks. So there are plenty of opportunities to reach out, and helping each other comes as naturally as sharing that amazing cheese that Neil buys for salad day. (It’s called delice-de-bourgogne and is available at Murray’s and Union Market. I know because I emailed him to find out and, like the great community manager he is, he got right back to me.)

JW Photography

JW Photography

For me, the best type of connection is often the unexpected one.

I knew within a few minutes of talking with Cliff about his international ventures that he was someone my high schooler should meet. So I waved him over from his seat and by the end of the conversation, my kiddo had an offer for an internship. Just like that. Because I’m sure he learned a lot in his AP World History class and all. But to have an immersive, real-life learning experience with colleagues in Poland and Africa and Brooklyn? Priceless. Thanks Cliff.

Thanks BCL. Thanks Brooklyn Cyclones. Oh, and let’s scratch those hot dogs. Make it a salad.


Untethered is a curated collection of news, trends and thoughts about remote working enabled by technology by Carolyn Cirillo, an LA-born, Brooklyn-based design writer, researcher and marketing strategist.  Follow Untethered with Bloglovin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comment