How Coworking Spaces Affect Employees’ Professional Identities
Since the first coworking space appeared in 2005, over 14,000 have opened around the world. While the earlier generation sought to provide independent workers with resources and support that couldn’t be found at home, coffee shops, or other nomadic locations, today’s spaces have evolved into businesses that also support the needs of large organizations. Some use it to house employees located in remote locations, relieving them from the expense of a long-term lease. Other small businesses and early stage ventures that have uncertain headcount projections or business growth rates operate entirely from coworking spaces due to the spatial flexibility.
Over the past several years, we have studied how these environments impact individual workers, taking into account the amenities, branding, aesthetics, and unique cultures created from diverse people and companies working together under one roof. We have found that workers benefit from coworking spaces more than traditional offices. They experience greater levels of flexibility and thriving (defined as vitality and learning at work), a greater ability to network, as well as a stronger sense of community. However, up until now, we have not known how this impacts the businesses they work for.
In our latest study, we set out to answer this question: How do highly curated coworking cultures impact the professional identities of members and their organizations?
We wanted to know to what extent members identify with the culture of their coworking space and whether or not this impacts the extent to which they identify with their company or employer. After all, organizations invest valuable resources nurturing connectivity among employees and developing work cultures. But, in a coworking space that houses multiple organizations, there are several messages, norms, and values, competing for members’ attention.
About the Research
Between 2017 and 2018, we collaborated with WeWork to survey over 1,000 of their new individual members in the United States. Seventy-one percent worked full-time for companies that are either located in a WeWork office or use WeWork for remote individuals and teams. The remaining 29% included business owners, contractors, sole proprietors, and part-time workers. Through a survey, we asked members to indicate their level of agreement with statements like “I have a lot in common with others at WeWork” and “I have a lot in common with others in my organization” to determine how much they identify with WeWork versus their organizations. Identity was defined as the extent to which one feels emotionally, psychologically, and subjectively bound to an employer (or any other platform they work for) and was measured on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest association and 5 being the highest.
We found that members strongly identify with their work organizations, with the majority scoring over 4 points, even after working in the WeWork office for a long period of time. In general, members identify less so with WeWork, with the majority scoring more than 1 point lower on the same 5-point scale. This difference in identity scores intrigued us and led us to explore why.
At the end of our study, we asked members to describe how WeWork affects their professional identity. Some respondents replied neutrally, “It’s just a space.” These members derive benefits from the more practical elements of membership, such as spatial amenities or convenience of location. Other members, however, said that WeWork plays an active role in shaping their professional and organizational identities. These members had higher identity scores for both their work organizations and WeWork (though the gap between the two remained). They also experience higher levels of thriving and productivity at work.
Our findings indicate that the WeWork brand identity doesn’t dilute the identity of the organizations housed in their space. Rather, our research suggests that people experience positive outcomes when their work environment aligns with their company’s brand messaging and values. When we organized the comments that describe how WeWork positively shapes professional identity, we found three key themes. Each highlights how coworking spaces can strengthen the way workers relate to their organizations and how they believe others (customers, other employees, competitors, etc.) perceive them.
Coworking spaces give some members a sense of professionalism and credibility that traditional remote working does not. This echoes a finding from our ongoing studies: working from an actual workplace (as opposed to from a home office or coffee shop) can signal to others that you take your work seriously and that others see you as a serious worker. The workplace has become a symbol of “legitimacy.” Some respondents used this word to describe how WeWork factors into their professional identities. One small business owner from New York commented, “I identify with the other startups in the WeWork Labs.” He feels that working there makes his small company a legitimate one in the eyes of his colleagues and clients. Other respondents experience a sense of pride and confidence from working at a WeWork office in a prestigious location. More than half of our respondents indicated that the location of their WeWork office is a benefit.
Workers with company-subsidized memberships feel that their employers take their needs seriously — regardless of where they are located. As a result, these members feel that their employers value them as much as the non-remote workers at their companies. One New York-based respondent told us, “Our company headquarters in California contains 90% of our workforce. By putting us in a WeWork office instead of our own space, my team here in NYC is reminded that we’re a bit of an outpost. However, we also know that it means we are important and worth the cost they’re spending to keep us together in an office setting.” A Denver-based respondent said, “I feel like my company values me. The atmosphere and buzz gives my work a sense of importance.” We heard a number of similar comments touching on the impact coworking spaces have on employee image. This, in turn, affects how much members identify with their companies.
Coworking spaces help new businesses make a positive impression on potential clientele. A Bay Area lawyer, commented, “I [work] primarily with young tech entrepreneurs and startups. I also work with a lot of young highly-skilled workers.” The office design gives her business a professional, yet trendy, image that helps her relate to her clientele. A DC-area owner of a mature technology business said, “I’m doing a 180 and moving my staff to WeWork is part of my strategy to make them think differently. It’s part of a new identity.” This suggests that this owner thinks a new way of working proves — to both customers and employees — the company’s willingness and openness to change, which could ultimately create more visibility and help grow the business. Some employees whose companies are based out of a WeWork said that the WeWork brand affected their personal brand image. One respondent commented, “Recently the organization has sought to redefine itself and has adopted a start-up model. Being based at WeWork helps our organization to look energetic and future focused, instead of stodgy and stuck in the past.”
The results of this study reinforce a key theme from our years of research: the choice to work in a coworking space is based on both practical, financially-driven variables as well as experiential, and culturally-driven variables. At a basic level, coworking is a service that simplifies the transaction of accessing and occupying a workspace. However, it is also a social product that nurtures a sense of belongingness to its members. In addition to spaces that target a full range of member demographics, there are, for example, niché coworking spaces for women, people of color, social ventures, lawyers, architects, and fashion businesses. Because switching costs among coworking spaces are relatively low due to the lack of long-term member leases and the availability of different service providers, members can choose a space that reflects their identity and the identity they want to cultivate for their business.
Our latest findings suggest that when organizations take the time to choose a coworking space that aligns with the image they want to project — about their employees and about their business — workers will experience higher levels of thriving, and the organizations will benefit as well, causing employees to identify even more strongly with their purpose and values.
This article was written by Peter Bacevice, Gretchen Spreitzer, Hilary Hendricks and Daniel Davis and published on Harvard Business Review hbr.org.