The Shallow Culture of Co-Working Spaces
There is free coffee in the kitchen of Grind, the co-working space I go to every day. My company pays for the privilege to breathe the same air as a bunch of strangers in an office environment, and this affords me as much artisanal coffee as I want. There are options. There are two urns that hold regular drip coffee—a non-fussy and kind option. Most people, however, opt for the pour-over method which seems too complicated for an uncaffeinated person to handle. Sometimes, in the mornings, a line of people wait patiently by the coffee station, lingering with a hand on the counter and scrolling through emails with the other. The pour-over core is very popular. There are at least three answers on their FAQ dedicated to this delicate art. It takes up a lot of space, though: You need a lot of elbow room for that long-spouted brewing kettle.
The big conference room in the middle of the space has glass walls covered in a bewildering graffiti of corporate speak: “What’s the value added proposition. Let’s be the first to market. Table this until tomorrow.” The small rooms meant for making phone calls assaults you in a similar way; I appreciate the gesture of having a private room to make a phone call, but I don’t understand why the door you close behind you is covered in phrases like, “Is everyone on mute?” and “Do we all have the dial-in?”
The chairs are ergonomic. There are outlets everywhere. If you need silence and privacy, take yourself to a “pod,” and take off your shoes and get comfortable. The bathrooms feel like the bathrooms of a very expensive gym. There’s mouthwash and, strangely enough, pump bottles of unscented Aveeno lotion everywhere there’s a sink, as if to say, “Hey, we really care about your skin, too!” Something about that touch casts a sordid light over the whole thing, as if you’re working in a pleasantly antiseptic happy endings massage parlor. The doors in the bathroom are heavy and span from floor to ceiling. Being unable to surreptitiously peek towards the floor for the telltale sign of someone’s shoes makes for awkward situations—the kind you could laugh off if it happened with someone you know. Since everyone in this place is a stranger, pushing the door open confidently to find that it’s locked (or unlocked, if the person occupying it is an idiot) makes you slink around corners in embarrassment for the rest of the day.
Everyone is nice, but no one really talks. We all move like silent worker ghosts, quietly muttering “excuse me” when we bump into each other in the kitchen. There is really nothing to talk about, anyway. For the most part, everyone in the office is a stranger.
The concept of a co-working space makes sense. If you spend your days as a freelancer mired in the heavy air of your home office, seeing no other souls and speaking out loud only to curse at your air conditioner, the desire to put on real shoes and maybe a bra and head over to an office is very real. There are small companies spread out through the space as well, an arrangement that makes sense, but feels off. I get the sense that there’s supposed to be an entrepreneurial frisson of energy that crackles through the air, working shoulder to shoulder with aquaculture venture capitalists, but really, everyone sticks to their own. It’s not unlike entering a college library during finals week. The big tables in the open office are full of serious 20-somethings brandishing MacBooks and notebooks, typing furiously into Excel docs or painstakingly tweaking slides on a deck. It’s basically like your office, but everyone is a stranger.
Working in an office isn’t perfect, but the one thing that gives it a leg up on a co-working space is that you’re all there for the same reason. Regardless of how much you wish Aaron from sales would close the door when he takes calls on speaker, you know these people. Your co-workers are your daytime family. Working in close proximity to other people, all ostensibly united for the same goal, feels right.
Recently, our company closed a location, moved a bunch of people to New York and moved a few folks to a space ten blocks away, just far enough to feel like you’re working in another state. The interaction between the renegade staff, tucked away in a glass box uptown, and the rest of the company at the same old office with the weird half cubicles and shitty layout, is non-existent.
Company culture has always struck me as a stilted phrase for the notion that every person you hire to work together should just get along. In the past, I’ve been resistant to forced “cultural” activities. I decline the company softball team sign-up sheet and duck out of after work happy hours in the conference room after a handful of chips and a quick round of the room. Please, do not make me socialize once it’s quitting time, because I would much rather go home. But, after spending a few months working in a windowless conference room that feels a little bit like a very expensive storage closet, the banal annoyance of my former office life would be a welcome change.
The optimism of the co-working open office is false. Stripping work to its bare essence strips away some of the humanity of coming into an office and speaking to people you’ve known for at least a couple of months. Reduced to a lone wolf, moving in and out of a room so big and shiny that it feels uncomfortable to cough too loudly, as an employee you start to feel less like a member of any sort of team, and more like what you actually are: a cog in a machine. There is no sense of community, no relationships to be fostered. It is just work—show up, eat a bowl of food at your desk, leave—and nothing else. The efficiency of the system is a strength but it’s also a weakness. A job is a job, something you leave behind at the office when you go home to your Netflix and your wine and your spin class and your book, but when you’re there, it’s nice to feel like you’re part of something larger. Everyone likes belonging to something. Working in a space where everyone belongs only to themselves feels wrong.
We have been told that we will move into an office space in October or in January, one where everyone can be together. “This is bad for company culture, we know,” they tell us, “but it will be over soon.”
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.