There’s little question we’re on the verge of a “new” digital economy—some argue it’s already here—but as it continues to evolve, so too does the way the workforce actually works, including where people physically conduct their business. That last notion intrigued University of Pennsylvania sociologist David Grazian, so he embarked on a quest to better understand where people work in this new economy.
In the 1990s and 2000s, technological advances, specifically in lighter, more portable computers, pointed to a tangible future that no longer required members of a team to sit in the same room to conduct their business effectively. In theory, this was true for anyone with a desk-centered job.
“There was this implied promise that telecommuters would be able to work from the beach or the top of a mountain,” says Grazian, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and faculty director of the Urban Studies Program in the School of Arts and Sciences.
In reality, that’s not what happened. “Instead, people choose to work in spaces that are essentially stage sets designed to look like traditional white-collar workplaces,” he says. “It’s perhaps ironic that given the opportunity to work from literally anywhere, we have wound up replicating the very office environments from which digital technology was supposed to liberate us.”
With that as his baseline, Grazian wanted to learn more, so he started visiting places in New York City where people were doing this work-related space-sharing, not just coworking spaces but also cafés, bars, libraries, even hotel lobbies. In an article published in the journal Theory and Society, Grazian describes what he learned.
Even in today’s digital age, having a physical place to work still matters. Beyond that, coworking spaces are as much about being around other people as they are about having that aforementioned place to work. At the same time, they are heavily branded environments of cultural consumption that push the idea that work in the new economy is meaningful, innovative, collaborative, and fun. Finally, despite their relative novelty, coworking spaces are already beginning to differentiate themselves into segmented market niches to meet the specific needs of a diverse range of workers.
A workplace shift
Grazian began this research by asking a simple question: What happens when work gets decoupled from the physical place where it traditionally happens?
“Typically, when we ask people what they do for a living, we ask where they work. We think about work and the workplace as synonymous,” he explains. “Lawyers work in law firms. Advertising executives work in ad agencies.”
But a few years ago, Grazian started noticing a shift in that societal norm which, at least in the United States, had been true for 150 years. Increasingly over the past decade coworking spaces began popping up in major metropolitan areas around the world like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Tokyo. No place experienced the boom more than Manhattan, which now has nearly 250 coworking locations occupying more than 7.7 million square feet of commercial real estate.
During more than 400 hours of participant observation, Grazian visited almost three dozen of these spaces in various New York neighborhoods. He also spent extensive periods of time in three locations run by WeWork, a company that operates coworking spaces around the world. He soon noticed how indistinguishable each seemed from another.
“Many coworking spaces look exactly the same and suggest an idealized high-tech startup environment,” he says, “with splashy artwork on the walls, foosball and ping pong tables, cold beer on tap, and the accessibility of exercise classes and personal massages.”
Three takeaways about coworking spaces
After analyzing what he’d experienced during close to two years of ethnographic fieldwork, Grazian came away with several conclusions. “The theoretical punch is that even though we are liberated from the constraints of space in the digital age, the laws of physics dictate that we have to work somewhere,” Grazian says. “Moreover, where we work matters and not only for our productivity but for our well-being and sense of self. That’s the first takeaway.”
The “empirical punch” of the findings, as he describes it, focuses on the specific emergence of coworking environments and what they’re actually like. “Coworking spaces offer members not only practical resources like Wi-Fi and 3D printing but also more emotional rewards like the potential for sociability and the status derived from being associated with tech startup culture and creative industries,” he says.
Part of how such spaces accomplish this is through branded aesthetics and entrepreneurial ideology. Signs with catchphrases like “Thank God it’s Monday” and “Do what you love” promote the idea that work in the new economy need not be drudgery but rather meaningful and even moral. Original artwork—some of it for sale—suggests the importance of creativity and imagination. Entertainment centers full of board games, video games, and even 1980s-style arcade games remind workers to incorporate fun into their day, and happy hours and other communal events aim to make these environments seem sociable and collaborative.
“It’s all there in WeWork’s slogan, ‘We work better together,’” Grazian says. “But little collaboration among members actually takes places in coworking spaces. In fact, beyond exchanging quick pleasantries, people don’t even really talk to each other. Despite expectations, it’s not uncommon for members to isolate themselves from one another, quietly invested in their own work while wearing noise-canceling headphones.”
Grazian’s third and final takeaway is that as more coworking spaces emerge, they’re beginning to differentiate themselves from one another by market segmentation. During his fieldwork, he encountered coworking spaces branded specifically to women, racial minorities, and post-millennial “grownups” who scoff at the idea of playing ping pong and drinking beer in an office setting.
Although the Theory and Society article focuses only on Manhattan, Grazian says the findings may apply to coworking spaces located in other major cities as well. Up next, he plans to shadow digital nomads who roam the city in search of low-cost or free places to plug in their laptops during the workday, and not only telecommuters but those working in the freelance and gig economy, too.
“It’s a paradox. So many people desperately seek out places of refuge where they can simply sit and do their work in a digital age that promised to free us from the tyranny of the workplace,” he says. “It’s all part of a larger project trying to understand how people get by in the new economy.”