Coworking – A Biography

Remco & Jorge at ESDIP Berlin | © esdipberlin

by Sarah Kilcoyne


What is this coworking malarkey all about?

A question many of you may have asked yourselves. You see the term everywhere these days, ads popping up in your Facebook feed, friends bragging about their newly-joined coworking space and freelancer buddies – you even pass the offices in the street – large, curtainless, former shop windows displaying trendy late-night labourers toiling away opposite their iMacs.

The ‘internet’ (remember when we used to use dictionaries?) defines coworking as ‘the use of an office or other working environment by people who are self-employed or working for different employers, typically so as to share equipment, ideas, and knowledge.’ Very concise.

The infobahn is right though. Coworking is a relatively new phenomenon. If you have lived in Berlin for a few years, you will have noticed more and more of these spaces popping up in every neighbourhood, from the backstreets to former textile factories. So what’s it all about? Let’s take a brief look at the origin of coworking, and where the idea originally came from.

ESDIP Berlin, Grünberger Höfe | © esdipberlin

Popular online magazine Deskmag published an interesting article chronicling the history of coworking (Deskmag especially focus their content on coworking spaces, check out their stuff here). The earliest form of coworking began back in 1995, with the invention of ‘hackerspaces’, but most specifically C-Base, a non-profit association that was founded here in Berlin. This is definitely one of the most intriguing parts of our story.

 

“Connections with others are a big reason why people pay to work in a communal space”

 

A ‘hackerspace’ (also referred to as a ‘hacklab’ or ‘hackspace’), isn’t actually as illicit as it sounds. It is essentially a non-profit workspace where people with common interests (mainly in computer technology, science, digital art, etc.) can meet and work. The notorious C-Base, however, describe themselves as ‘the oldest crashed space station on earth’. An intriguing premise! According to the club legend, an alien spaceship crashed on the site 4.5 billion years ago. The ship’s antenna is nowadays popularly mistaken for the ‘TV Tower’, and the tendrils of the one extraterrestrial survivor’s guts are strewn in day-glo paint across the toilet ceiling. Nice.

After this devastating crash, the founding members set about recreating the ship’s decor throughout the space, which has resulted in a wonderfully wacky sci-fi themed diverse working environment.

 C-Base | © cyberpunk

These days, the space acts as a meeting place for Berlin’s hacker, digital art and open source community, hosting events such as software workshops, sci-fi theatre, video-game nights, performances, app launch parties, and much more. Even a visit to their website is worth it – unearthly disembodied sounds, mysterious buttons adorned with cryptic symbols – one feels like a space explorer from John Carpenter’s Dark Star.


Who knew that coworking had such an intriguing background?


It was to take another few years however, before the notion of ‘coworking’ would come into play. In 1999, it was an American game designer and writer named Bernard Louis DeKoven who coined the term. In this article on his website, he talks about how he inadvertently invented the word that was to reverberate throughout the freelancing community for the next 17 years, and what it meant to him at the time. It’s an interesting read – he states that ‘when I coined the term “coworking”, I was describing a phenomenon I called “working together as equals”. I was exploring how the insights I gained in designing games and facilitating play could apply to the facilitation of work’. DeKoven had observed that for the most part, people in the business world didn’t work together as equals. In a world where employees are graded, isolated, categorised and ingrained into a hierarchy that separates them by rank and salary level, they couldn’t possibly work as equals. It seemed, that what had become the standard office and working environment, was due for an upgrade.

Alex, chilling in the porch| © esdipberlin

Following this hypothesis, over the next few years various workspaces around the world made better attempts to facilitate a more pleasant working environment for their employees. From 42 West 24 in New York, to Schraubenfabrik in Vienna.

Taking these developments into consideration, it becomes clear that in the mid-late 90s, the notion of creating a more amicable and autonomous work environment was starting to spread – however, the problem was not yet resolved. Unless you lived in New York or Vienna, or wanted to spend your workday in an eerie Berlin bunker, the average freelancer or remote employee had no place to work but in their own home. While the integration of work life and home life has (some) benefits, most will agree that the lack of social interaction that comes with it can have palpable repercussions on both your mental health and productivity. In other words, not to sound too serious, it’s inevitable that you’re eventually going to feel lonely. And, the distractions that accompany home life are enough to impede your daily work flow. The phone rings; the washing needs to be put on; the postman arrives; the cat is hungry; I’ll make some tea; the cat is on my laptop; the washing has to be unloaded; the cat spilled my tea; wait, work, what, where was I?


Not a very conducive working environment.

Many stay-at-home workers began to seek public spaces for relief from the monotony. Coffee shops began to be seen as a space that could offer such relief. They’re accessible, there’s bound to be one within walking distance, they (often) have free Wifi, and you can drink a tasty beverage while soaking up a bit of atmosphere. You even get to have a conversation with another human being! A short one, granted, but human interaction nonetheless.

However, the coffee shop-working craze brought with it a new set of problems. It soon became clear, that cafes are not designed for working in. Workers would find that the noise, lack of privacy and again difficulty in concentrating weren’t promoting a very rewarding work environment. Cafe owners too, had their own issues with this new fad. Coffee-quaffing freelancers had in some places become known as ‘wifi parasites’ – managers weren’t overjoyed to see people squatting in their cafes for as long as possible, stretching that third espresso to last another hour. However in 2005, in response to these rising issues, the first ever ‘coworking cafe’ was established right here in the humble city of Berlin. St. Oberholz at Rosenthaler Platz was the first known cafe to offer free Wifi to its customers, and to actually invite people to come and work there. The freelancing world had advanced one step closer to its impending resolution.

Brad Neuberg at Spiral Muse | © esdipberlin

At the same time across the pond, the first official coworking space opened it’s doors to the public  – it was the brainchild of programmer Brad Neuberg, who created the space as an alternative to the antisocial business center and the lonely and unproductive life of the home-office. The space was situated in Spiral Muse in San Francisco, a local ‘center for well-being’. The original website still exists, and is worth a look. Check it out here.

Finally – the perfect solution! The birth of the coworking space. As primitive in design as it was, Brad Neuberg’s coworking space was an innovative, modern solution to all of the above-mentioned issues, and little did he know the extent to which his idea would escalate worldwide. He had created the ideal space for remote workers and freelancers – a community-orientated, relaxed workspace where like-minded individuals can work in private, and in peace. No more wasting time washing the dishes, no more disgruntled cafe managers throwing you the evil eye from behind the bar.

Illustrator Rafa Alvarez working at ESDIP Berlin | © esdipberlin

After word about the Spiral Muse space began to get around, the idea of coworking spread like wildfire – spaces began to pop up in every major city in the world. Old factories, shop spaces, apartments and warehouses began to be seen in a new light – enter an entrepreneur, a few desks, an internet connection and and a manifesto, and you had a new coworking space.

The coworking space became not only a place to work and focus, but also a space to share ideas – imagine a space where you have freelancers, small business owners, entrepreneurs, creatives, startups and more all working in one room – the potential for networking and collaboration is limitless. It soon became clear, that coworking was hugely beneficial both in terms of productivity, and work satisfaction. According to becomenomad.com, ‘..research shows that people who use coworking spaces are more effective due to the energy and mindset adjustment that is generated by the interaction and accountability a coworking environment creates. That means that the financial costs of using a coworking space are much lower than the financial benefits it creates.’  

ESDIP Berlin | © esdipberlin

Nowadays, coworking has evolved to the point where an individual has the freedom to choose the type of coworking space that might best suit their needs. In other words, depending on the type of work that you do, you will likely find a coworking space that caters especially for people your field. For example, here at ESDIP Berlin, we are a huge supporter of the creative industries. We advocate (not exclusively, of course) to provide space for all types of creative people; illustrators, cartoonists, designers, programmers, photographers, writers, etc. The founder of ESDIP Berlin, María Luján, hails from a very creative background – her parents founded ESDIP back in the 80s, at a time when there was no other animation or illustration school in Spain. ESDIP has evolved to becoming one of the top illustration schools in the world, and is now run by the other Lujan siblings.

Painting class at ESDIP Madrid | © esdipberlin

When ESDIP Berlin opened in 2012, it was inevitable that this creative spirit would be integrated into the coworking space. Alongside the coworking, the space now also hosts a variety of ongoing creative workshops, exhibitions, events, performances and more. While the space does emanate an artsy vibe, it is not catered only for creative types. We currently have a great mix of freelancers working here, from developers to animators, to translators and wordpress wizards. If you would like to get a feel for the type of people who work in ESDIP, you can check out our community page here.

Upstairs at ESDIP Berlin | © esdipberlin

If there’s one more thing to mention about coworking, and this is especially true of ESDIP Berlin, it’s the community aspect of the experience. The Harvard Business Review, in an article examining the hows and whys behind ‘why people thrive in coworking spaces’, had this to say:

‘..(coworkers) feel part of a community. Connections with others are a big reason why people pay to work in a communal space, as opposed to working from home for free or renting a nondescript office. Each coworking space has its own vibe, and the managers of each space go to great lengths to cultivate a unique experience that meets the needs of their respective members.’

True that HBR, true that.
 Events at ESDIP Berlin | © esdipberlin

If you’re interested in coworking with us here at ESDIP, just come by anytime within the opening hours (Mon – Fri, 9 – 19h), or drop an email to hi(at)esdipberlin.com

 

_____