I love coworking spaces, but I find many owners have a lot to learn. This open letter to all coworking spaces outlines some of the mistakes, problems and issues they have, and how I think they could be solved, making a better coworking business and a better place to work for nomads and entrepreneurs.
Using a coworking space is part of everyday life for digital nomads and location independent entrepreneurs, and its a business trend that is growing – there are over 10,000 spaces and its estimated this number will triple by 2020.
The problem is that many coworking spaces aren’t run by the very people who use them – and things don’t feel like they are improving.
I buy the best laptop so I can work fast, I buy a laptop stand so its the perfect height, an ergonomic mouse and keyboard, I buy the best backpack and expensive travel clothes, I leave my home country seeking weather and locations I like better, I spend my days the way I want, drink coffee I like, eat what I love and I go to work at a coworking space. And that’s where my near-perfect lifestyle starts to crumble a little…
“Oh, the chairs don’t support my back. Why am I too hot? What the hell is this coffee? Whats up with the internet? Where’s the staff? Oh my god, what is that guy cooking? Jeez, has someone removed their shoes? What do you mean I have to move desks as you’re running an event? If I overhear any more of that girls conversation I’m gonna… Is the internet down, again?”
Sometimes it feels like a lot of coworking space owners and staff simply don’t give a shit – you’re just a commodity. And that makes sense. Not every restaurant is Michelin starred, not every business has amazing customer service. I get that.
A coworking business seems to be a hip thing to start right now, a potential money spinner and an easy business idea if you don’t want to drive an Uber or the licence for your popup food/cocktail truck has been refused. Starting a coworking space is the the internet cafe of our times for someone with a building, an “idea” and a yearn to make a buck. Some people just start a business to make money, they don’t care unless the bills aren’t being paid. I get that.
Running a business is hard, finding good staff is hard, finding a premises is hard, dealing with business problems everyday is hard – and many coworking space owners may have the best intentions when starting up. I get that.
But… I still want them to be better! I love coworking spaces, I’m not going to stop using them, and if this post helps improve coworking experiences in any way then I’m willing to take some crap from it. It may appear to be a bit of a rant, but I hope that if it makes just one coworking space a little better, then it’s worth it.
These are genuine constructive criticisms and insights from someone who has spent a helluva a lot of hours in coworking spaces.
They are called commandments as there was 10 of them, and if you follow them, you’ll get salvation. Lol, just kidding. And I’m definitely not saying I’m Jesus. Although if I am, that would totally be the type of humble thing I would say.
Yes, I probably should lower my expectations (I genuinely try to have zero expectations).
Yes, I understand you think this is moaning (moaning doesn’t offer solutions, but I am).
No, I have never run a coworking space (but I was going to open a coworking space in Koh Samui until the location became unavailable; I was 20 minutes from signing a lease in Chiang Mai to run a space; and I’ve ran at least 3 other successful bricks and mortar businesses, so I’ve put some work in at least). Hopefully coworking spaces can take the good from the article.
The 10 Commandments of Good Coworking Spaces
1) Get feedback from your customers
I’m writing this post publicly as almost no coworking spaces ask for feedback or have a mechanism for feedback.
Let your customers tell you what is good and bad. Let people vent. Let people report issues. Let people send you praise.
You are probably saying “We have a host that talks to our users” – let me do a Kanye and stop you for a minute – a host is not a solution. Every coworker at your space doesn’t want to be a dick and start “moaning” to the host in person, so chances are they won’t say anything.
A coworking space is also filled with people who work on computers full time – IRL feedback is probably not their forte.
Well your answer is probably “We have a Slack channel” – but people don’t complain publicly (except people like me), they don’t want to rock the boat and “be that guy“.
So use other ways to get feedback instead of having a poor in-between solution. One person complaining or suggesting something means that there is probably a problem, and the easier it is to get multiple viewpoints the better your business strategies will be.
“I’m the owner and I’m always around” – OK, well, coworking space owners seem to fall in to two categories;
Owners that you never see – they are just never there, or they want to be in the background and not be identified, leaving a host or receptionist to be the face. For this type of owner, clearly feedback is near impossible to give as you never know who the owner is.
The other type of coworking space owner is always there, is part of everything, and becomes your friend. They’ve put their soul in to the business, which is why giving feedback to them is ridiculously hard to do. Anything you say is pretty much deemed as a personal attack. They are too close to the business.
The best form of feedback is anonymous feedback. With a Typeform or Google Docs, you could set this up in a few minutes. “Whats’s your feedback? Include your email or name if you want a response.” Easy. Free. Can be done in 10 minutes.
Set it up via a bit.ly custom link for something easy to remember, write the address on the wall, put it in your email footers, done.
A generic feedback form that goes to the owner or manager is something that your coworking space needs. Today. From getting reports on poor internet, power cuts, dirty toilets, complaints about staff, or other users’ stinky feet, to the fridge not having x drink in it, business-changing ideas, event ideas, or for people to say “We love you guys“.
2) Comfortable ergonomic seats
This seems so obvious that I feel like an idiot writing it, but I regularly go in to spaces where they think small stools, wooden benches or stackable chairs make for good coworking.
If you are sitting in a seat on and off for 8 or 9 hours per day for 5 days per week, at the very least the chair needs some padding.
The seats should also have back support unless you want to foster a future crippled society of hunchbacks.
For proper posture and comfort there should be arm rests, and the seat should be height adjustable.
The seats should be able to fit under the desk (so you may need something actually created as an office desk, not a repurposed table).
Thailand seems to love style over comfort – they love a futuristic plastic lump for a chair, or beautiful wooden seats – that offer zero back support, and hurt your butt after an hour or so. Design over function.
A lot of the western world has caught on to the fact that bad posture = unhealthy employees = less work. There is UK HSE guidelines and US OSHA rules for any company were people work on computers, and employers can be sued.
Bad posture is a killer and effects the mind and body. Do your customers the favour of a lifetime and invest in decent chairs.
3) Decent clean desks with a power supply at every one
A desk is such a simple thing, and yet most coworking spaces seem to mess this up. Often because they go for style, or affordability, over function.
You need a proper desk to put the working in to coworking.
Every desk should:
- Be free from obstruction for a users legs
- Be completely level
- Not wobble when in use
- Not echo or amplify sounds when in use (1″ thick generally OK)
- Be separated from other desks, or stable enough so knocks by others don’t interrupt you
- Be able to fit the chair with it underneath the desk
- Be clean and polished, not sticky or grungy
- Have at least 2-3 power sockets per desk/seat
I am amazed when I go in to a coworking space and every desk doesn’t have a power socket, or there is one 6-way adaptor to cover 8 seats. Oh, and if you have international visitors, why not have a few spare power adaptors they can use in case they forget theirs?
If you insist on buying tables instead of desks for your coworking space, or making tables (shudder), don’t spend loads of money on buying or making the “perfect desks” – as you will 100% get it wrong – so expect to keep spending money on them until you learn how to do it properly. Or just buy desks that are designed for working the first place.
Getting the correct desks is hard. I’m not saying its easy, but as this is the essence of your business, I hope desks aren’t just an afterthought.
4) Brilliant internet connections
Customers come to coworking spaces to work, and I would say an overwhelming majority need reliable access to the internet.
If you only have one internet connection, you have all your eggs in one basket. If anything happens to it, everyone cannot work, and you have failed as a business owner. You are the same as a restaurant with no food to sell.
Your coworking space should have two independent internet connections, as a minimum. Make sure they are not from the same company, and are not from a virtual operator who leases the line from the other company you use.
While you’re at it, make sure your Wi-Fi is strong everywhere inside and surrounding the building (people work in nooks and corners, and may step out for Skype calls).
Make sure your Wi-Fi is secure. It 100% should not be an open network. Make it encrypted – WPA2 or WPA2-enterprise. Have a captive portal login system instead of shared password, this will help ensure bandwidth is going to those who need it and not old members who are outside having a coffee. Make sure the portal login has a 2-3 day login cookie/lease time, so regular members don’t get hassled with logging in everyday.
Make sure you are using routers/wi-fi spots with the AC wireless standard – its blisteringly fast and has a lot less interference. N standard is just about acceptable, B or G is unforgivable. Your routers also need to be decent, if you are using routers from the internet company, stop right now. Spend some money on a network engineer to come and install some Ubiquity routers.
With everyone on Macbooks where batteries last for 6-8 hours, and for special coworking bonus points, your internet connection / network should be on a UPS/battery backup or powered by generator so that power interruptions doesn’t mean a wasted day for everyone.
5) Keep everything clean
A lot of people judge a restaurant by the cleanliness of its kitchen – I judge coworking spaces by the cleanliness of the toilets and communal facilities.
With any group situation comes a lot of psychological problems – if something is dirty and a mess, people will add more mess and be disrespectful. If something is clean and tidy, people are respectful and more likely to leave it that way.
So every day your bathroom, kitchen and communal areas should be spotless. Spend money to make them look good. If the toilet seat is hanging off, this says you don’t respect your customers, and people will treat your toilet like crap.
Desks need to be wiped down. Food should not be eaten at communal desks, no-one wants to sit in food detritus a few hours later. Leftover mugs and cups need to be collected.
Items left in the sink need to be washed up. Sure, you can put up yet another sign saying “please wash up your stuff” or send a round robin email – but every day chances are a few people won’t have time or will forget. Don’t just leave that stuff in the sink. Deal with the problem by just cleaning up.
At the same time, if you expect people to wash up after themselves, make sure you supply a clean dish scrubber and washing-up liquid, a decent sized drying rack and a way for them to dry their hands afterwards.
Who wants to wash up their stuff and then go back to their computer with wet hands. No-one.
Provide paper towels, and definitely not a sodden old tea towel that stinks.
If you have a communal dishwasher, empty it every morning, dry the items, and prepare it for the days use of dirty items. Damn, this is like home economics 101.
One of your staff should be checking the toilets every hour or few hours. No-one should have to “wade” in to a cubicle.
Kitchen areas should be wiped down or looked over the same.
Have a cleaner who pays a visit a few times per day and checks for mess and restocks items.
If I can walk in to any pub or restaurant and their toilet is clean and fully stocked with paper and towels, the coworking space I’m paying for can definitely do it.
The bathroom should have as a minimum:
- toilets that flush
- taps that work properly
- hand soap
- a way to dry hands.
A way to dry hands does not include a grotty stinky old towel that is sodden after 2 people use it.
Get a hand dryer, or buy paper towels.
If you are worried about the environment, worry more about the health and wellbeing of your customers before that. If you’re shaking your head now and saying that your bathrooms towel is clean – OK, go and lick it. I dare you. Thought so, go and sort it out.
You should have enough toilets that people don’t have to wait and any one toilet is not in constant use – maybe 1 toilet per 15 seats in your space.
6) Providing a place to be quiet and a place to talk
Some people like to work in a noisy room, some people don’t care, some people want silence. Some people need to make calls, some need privacy for their call, some are happy to talk at their desk. Your job running a coworking space is to manage these wants.
Most coworking spaces opt for “everyone be pretty silent”. A lot less construct the space so people can chat if they want. Where you setup your space plays a massive part of this – and some of your “good intentions” quickly disappear with rising rent costs and paying per square foot.
I think a perfect working space would be three areas:
- Quiet work – heads down workers who want to get stuff done, headphones on or whatever, library style.
- Mixed work – where people can make noise freely, good for groups, for collaborations, for coworkers who want to talk, for those who take/make a lot of calls all day.
- Private rooms – for confidentiality, these could be small little booths for one person Skype calls, 2-3 room person huddle rooms, or something slightly bigger (and if you have a group room, have a Skype group calling device available). (I rarely see large boardrooms being utilised properly, so don’t bother having one)
Defining these areas allows people to make a choice of where they want to be. I see people who get a lot of Skype calls per day constantly running out the room so as to not make noise, thats not productive.
Some owners may say “I don’t want to kill collaboration” – when I am sitting at my desk trying to work, I don’t want someone talking to me. I’m trying to focus. Talk to me over lunch, or at a community event, or if I’m sitting in the mixed area.
If I’m going to collaborate with someone, we can move to the mixed area to work together where talking is not going to disturb people.
In 3+ years of using coworking spaces, ideas that have come from the desk area = zero ; ideas that have come from community events or over lunch = hundreds.
If you don’t have a mixed area, or somewhere to take calls, aim for 1x Skype booth per 10 seats in your space.
Yes, more Skype booths than toilets.
A hallway or garden or street is not somewhere I want to take a business call. I want it at my desk, or at worst, at a temporary desk aka Skype room. The rooms need to have noise proofing, so they don’t make it sound like I’m sitting in a toilet, and the noise doesn’t disturb others – outside the booth or in the booth next door.
Each booth needs air flow. No point in doing a video call with someone if you are sweating like you’re doing a marathon after 20 minutes.
7) A consistent environment
The environmental controls of an office needs to be controlled and consistent. Simple as that.
Some places put in some heaters, or AC units, and chuck the controls on the desks. It’s a free-for-all.
I can’t think of something more dividing between a group of coworkers.
Air conditioning or heating should be in the hands of the owner/manager and consistently set. Consistently. Make your coworking space consistently around room temperature. 16-22 degrees C (depending on the outside temperature).
Some will always want it warmer, some will always want it cooler.
In cooler climates, unless you like sweaty people stinking the place up, its better for others to make themselves warmer with a jumper or scarf – unless you like a nudist coworking space where some people strip off as it’s too hot. You decide.
At the other end of the spectrum if the office is too cold due to weather conditions outside, everyones going to be grumpy.
Set consistently around room temperature (70°F / 21°C) is always going to work pretty well as people can plan and think ahead.
Some coworking spaces in exotic places have an awesome outside space. It is amazing to work outside, but there still needs to be air flow. Make sure there are fans to consistently cover the outside space – think about the angles so they cover the entire space. Don’t use fans that are mobile, as they will be moved and not returned, so workers will get hot.
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The sun, windows and working do not mix. It can be hot as hell. Think about where desks are – if they are by a window, consider tinting the windows, putting up blinds, or putting an awning over the window outside.
When a temperature is consistent, people can plan. “It sometimes gets a bit cold there, so I’ll take a jumper“. If the temperature is up and down and all over the place, no-one can plan, everyone is unhappy.
8) Build community around your space
This is so basic, but is overlooked by maybe 50% of the coworking spaces I’ve been too.
What is coworking? Lets look at the definition:
“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.”
So the working side is only one part of it – you need to have people talking and collaborating so they share ideas and knowledge.
If you’re a coworking space, start running events for your members to encourage this. Today!
Lunches, drinks, dinner, mingle sessions, hackathons, wine tasting, pitching practice, weekly meet-ups with presenters, weekend trips, running groups, yoga classes; anything to get people interacting away from their computers.
Some of the events might not work, some will take perseverance. But stick with it.
Promotion of the events are as important as running them. Users thinking about visiting your space want to see stuff that is going on before they attend – I know people who only attend coworking spaces who run events – so promote them on your websites blog, Facebook page, etc and make sure to document events you do with photos and post them in those places.
Please remember, events are not supposed to disturb the members who are working, unless very rarely or for something major. If you’re forcing workers to move or change tables every week, for events where members are not even attending in great numbers, you need to re-think your strategy.
9) A good introduction and induction process
I recently went to a coworking space that really set in my mind how important this is.
I couldn’t get in the building, then couldn’t get in to the space, then couldn’t identify who worked there, stumbled upon a person who just pointed at a sign for us to sign up online, pointed at another sign for the wifi password.
That was the introduction to the space, and later I discovered, also the induction!
No emails, no welcome pack, no show around. Wow!
If you’re a coworking space, when was the last time you looked at your induction process? Some things to think about:
- Update your website and Facebook with opening times + staffed (signup) times.
- Update your website with what a user needs to bring to join – passport, cash or credit card, etc.
- If you have building access issues, have some signs up letting users know what to do. Repeat the info online.
- If you don’t have an easily visible reception desk, have a sign letting people know what to do. Repeat the info online.
- Staff should wear t-shirts or a name badge or lanyard to identify themselves as workers.
- Or have a photo introduction board of staff near entrance with what they do “Hi I’m X, speak to me about X anytime”
- Give each new member a full show around, so they know exactly where they can go, what they can use, what is private, what is public, what can be used for calls, whats OK, and whats not OK.
- Create an induction process document that all staff can follow for new members.
- Create a guidebook for customers telling them about the space, reinforcing the show around and letting them know rules and etiquette. This repeats the induction process info, complete with more details.
- Use email automation to help organise your members – Day 1, send them the guide book; Day 2, ask if they need any help; Day 7, ask them for feedback; Day 28, remind them to renew. Use something like ConvertKit.
- If customers ask about local facilities, create another guide about the local area – where to eat, drink, sleep, hire cars/bikes, get a mac repaired, whatever is important to your customers. If you’re a local, you can rattle this stuff off and theres no need to spend time answering these questions again and again. Put this on your website, and save visitors more time in advance.
The induction and introduction phase of new members is vital. It sets up the entire expectation and experience for the space for the customer, so if its crappy, chances are people will have a bad opinion going forward – do you really want that?
10) Promote good posture and ergonomics
Good posture is critically important to promote, and by ignoring it, you are consciously inflicting pain on your customers.
Have monitors for rent. Have monitor risers or books (go to a charity shop, or hire a local wood shop to make them for a few dollars each). Have external keyboards for rent. Sell roost stands or its alternative. Actually not even for rent, just have them available.
If you want to rent them, OK, but don’t get silly. I’ve seen places want £10 per day to rent a monitor thats worth £50. That is just taking the piss.
A fair way to work out the rental price is price of item over working days (260 per year) divided by usage rate (lets say rented on 50% of days); this way the items are paid for after 1 year (and still have resale value), so the equation is:
Price of item / (260 working days per year / 50% usage rate) = Daily Rent
- A high end Samsung monitor = purchase for £300 – rent for £2.50 per day
- Basic ASUS monitor = purchase for £100 – rent for 75p per day
- External Keyboard = buy for £20 – rent for 20p per day
Yep, 20p seems so low, you say to yourself, why don’t we just make them free? So indeed, why don’t you do that and help your customers not be cripples in 30 years time.
Secure your place in Coworking Eternity: Bonus Points
11) Save me from print nightmares
I’m sitting at a coworking space where I want to print 1 thing. 1 fucking sheet of paper.
And yet I’ve spent over an hour sorting this out – three staff are involved, I have a keycard that now has credit for 50 prints on it (for the price equivalent of £1.80) (I just want to print 1 thing), I have a printed, hand-signed receipt for this credit, I have to install 3 drivers, and now some kind of login software, which won’t work on the latest Mac.
Based on my last years earnings, this wasted hour just cost me over $250. 1 piece of printed paper = $250 dollars. I could buy my own laser printer for that.
How is this enabling my business? How is this enabling me to do work?
So here is the message to coworking spaces:
MAKE PRINTING FUCKING EASY.
NO, I don’t want to email the file to a receptionist who then prints it out.
NO, I don’t want to put the file on a USB drive and then give it to you.
NO, I don’t want to install proprietary software on my computer just to print one thing.
I want to open a document, and press Print and that’s it. That’s how easy it should be, and can be, with things called FORESIGHT and GIVING A SHIT.
I can hear owners now… “I don’t want people abusing the printer” – what do you think people want to print? A fucking book? They normally want to print a meeting agenda, a boarding pass, a few page document.
Printing is not as popular as in the 80s or 90s, so if a customer wants to print something, they really want to print something.
If you’re bothered, put a fucking tip jar next to the printer. “2 free prints per day, the rest is X for X“. Problem solved.
All of the printers I’ve ever owned were work horses. HP laser printer work horses. Buy for a few hundred quid or less, a toner drum does 50,000 prints and costs next to nothing, it works forever. Each print literally costs fractions of pennies.
If the coworking space you go to has an inkjet or bubble jet or whatever the fuck technology print manufacturers are pushing on idiots nowadays, STOP GOING. It tells you they have no fucking idea what they are doing.
If you are paying a bunch of cash just to walk in the building at a coworking space, why is a space then trying to charge me micro-payments and give me hassle for 1 sheet of printed paper? It’s ridiculous.
12) Save me time, make me money
So I’ve just paid $250 for a sheet of printed paper. Let’s continue this theme.
I remember once I went to a coworking space, no cafes nearby, and the only way to make a coffee was to use a bizarre coffee making device that took 20 minutes to make a single cup of coffee. 20 minutes. That cup of coffee just cost me $80 in time. Was it Kopi Luwak? Was it balls – although it did taste like shit.
My point is – if your coworking space isn’t efficient, you’re costing me far more money than just the monthly membership fee.
I don’t want to travel 2 floors to get water, walk 15 minutes to get a coffee, wait for 10 minutes to boil a kettle, or wait to use the toilet. So organise your space better, buy equipment suitable for the tasks at hand, and utilise your staff properly. Make it easy for me to work. Use stuff that delivers time efficiencies. Don’t buy a kettle that only holds 2 cups of water and takes 10 minutes to boil.
Use your staff to help me use my time efficiently – get them to walk around the space with drinking water and top up peoples glasses, ask if anyone wants a coffee every hour, organise lunches, offer VA services. These are really simple things to do, and far better use of your staffs time than them sitting on Facebook.
13) Make people eat away from the working area
If you insist on allowing eating in your coworking space, please at least restrict cooking and eating to certain areas. And this includes putting the microwave far far away.
I don’t want to smell someones leftover dinner or the pot noodle they are making themselves. And I definitely don’t want to hear them eat it. Or chat to their friends or watch YouTube on full blast while eating.
If there is a place to make food away from working, then hopefully people will also eat it away from their desks. Again the smell, but damn, listening to people eat is ridiculously annoying.
I think I suffer from misophonia – eating sounds make me go loopy. And I am not alone!
If you serve food, insist people eat it away from workers. If I want to eat in a restaurant, I can do that on every street, and it will be damn more cheaper than paying for your coworking space. Restaurants have ambience noise for this very reason, your space probably doesn’t.
14) Decent drinks and good coffee
I would say that in the coworking spaces I go to, most people drink coffee. They drink a couple of coffees per day.
If people don’t drink them often, when they do, they like a good coffee.
NOBODY likes Nescafe instant shit.
So why do most coworking spaces think this is acceptable?
Shit tea bags + shit coffee + some dutty fake milk creamer thing + a £4 kettle from Tesco. Living la vida loco.
Want something different? Tough.
Want something without caffeine? Tough.
Want real milk? Tough.
Want a soft drink? Thats available via donation box.
Want a coffee pod? Thats available via donation box.
Want a soda? Thats available via donation box.
I’m paying hundreds of pounds per month for access to the space, but you didn’t factor in that some people might occasionally want a soft drink or a decent drink? And now I have to pay an extra 20p?
I mean how many people are going to drink 5 x cokes per day? 10 x cokes? No-one. Do you think we’re all crazed kids who can’t wait to gulp 7-Up and Fanta and answer our fucking emails?
The very very few spaces I have been too where soft drinks and quality coffee was free, no-one took advantage, no-one took the piss, the business bottom-line wasn’t destroyed by generosity. It was just a really fucking good coworking space.
Just likes Moses, I’m gonna stand on my hill and recap the 10 Commandments of Good Coworking Spaces:
- Get feedback from your customers
- Comfortable ergonomic seats
- Decent clean desks with a power supply at every one
- Brilliant internet connections
- Keep everything clean
- Providing a place to be quiet and a place to talk
- A consistent environment
- Build community around your space
- A good introduction and induction process
- Promote good posture and ergonomics
And if you wanna make a total bad-ass coworking space, deal with these ones too:
- Save me from print nightmares
- Save me time, make me money
- Different places to eat, away from working area
- Decent drinks and good coffee
If you do that, you’re going to be on your way to coworking success. Mix this with some solid advice from Levels.io about how to make more money by adding value (not by adding shit coffee) and you might just survive the great coworking purge that is sure to come when WeWork devils take the souls of independents.