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Doing Business, Making Friends. How a collaborative environment emerges in coworking spaces

Sandoval Lopez, Claudia Veronica

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I examine the emergence and evolution of new social formations in a coworking space over the course of three years. I evaluate the interactions of a group of co-located self-employed individuals, freelancers, and start-up workers in the cultural and creative industries (CCIs). To my knowledge, no other scholars have undertaken a longitudinal study of the evolution of social relations in coworking spaces.

Coworking spaces convene diverse and often complementary knowledge bases, facilitating coworkers’ creative processes (Merkel 2017; Schmidt et al. 2014) and collaborations. These spaces also support community-based approaches to work organization and social opportunities for their users, most of whom labor outside the organizational structures of firms.

How do collaborative environments emerge in coworking spaces? I analyze the case of Department 16, the first center for the CCIs in Heidelberg, a second tier city in southwest Germany. I focus on two types of relationships and their dynamics to better understand the genesis of collaborative environments. The first relationship is collaborative, which I call “Working Together,” and comprises three types of links: business/commercial, arts/culture, and community. The second focuses on social practices (or what I call “Making Friends”) and includes four frequent, informal conversation types: conversations about work, exchanges of ideas, conversations about private matters, and those about other topics.

I use a relational approach that combines intensive ethnographic work, interviews, and social network analysis to describe the interactions and characteristics that build coworking spaces. I explore and theorize the mechanisms of networks’ origins. I reflect on the emergence of evolutionary social processes and understand evolution to be the recombination, permutation, and transformation of existing social formations.

I find that collaborative and social relationships flourish in coworking spaces and that exchanging ideas is critical to the emergence of a collaborative working space.

First, coworkers develop what I call an “omnivore” strategy for collaboration. This strategy has three stages: Initially, coworkers pursue all possible collaborations to promote a sense of community. Then, group solidarity consolidates close relationships among certain peers and encourages conformity (via social pressure) to community values at the coworking space. Finally, coworkers can gain social recognition and increase their social status in the space and visibility to other local partners through collaborations.

I also find that work-related conversations and exchanges of ideas characterize interactions during the center’s first stage, whereas private conversations are the center’s social backbone in the final phase. Furthermore, when coworkers join the center affects their future socialization strategies. Beta-phase tenants, who self-identify as “pioneers,” engage in more conversations in all three stages.

Finally, collaboration correlates highly with exchanges of ideas in Stage 1 but work-related conversations in Stage 3. In Stage 1, the coworking space emerges as a community and organization for the exchange of ideas. To access more resources in the coworking space (e.g., information and help), actors increase their centrality in the network. Coworkers exchange ideas to build their social networks, which in turn creates feedback loops and produces work referrals. Networking mixes two strategies: communality, or participating in discussions about ideas and future collaborations, and sociality, which creates weak ties through work referrals in professional networks. Coworkers interact with others who do not share their economic success, and qualitative analysis suggests that coworkers use status games and social solidarity strategies at different periods during the development of the coworking space.

Due to budgetary constraints, Department 16 lacked a community manager. Instead, the management agency unofficially asked coworkers to perform management activities, like organizing community projects, supporting networking and coaching events, and managing marketing and public relations. Therefore, this case study may not be directly generalizable to more conventional coworking spaces. However, it presents an opportunity to observe coworking spaces’ social dynamics without the community manager figure.

This research has four practical implications. First, this investigation confirms the value of coworking spaces for fostering creativity, networking, innovation, and new business opportunities. However, financial and logistical constraints hamper innovative processes and business development. Second, this research addresses the social dynamics of a growing group of economic actors: independent, self-employed workers and freelancers. I shed light on the structure and content of their interactions in a coworking space. Third, my analysis examines some advantages and disadvantages of specialized coworking spaces. On the one hand, coworkers demand communities of peers with whom they can exchange ideas and discuss common work-related problems. On the other hand, the most active networkers are situated between CCI branches and sectors. Fourth, building a sense of community in a coworking space requires effort. If managers are unable or unwilling to nurture an appropriate environment and create networking opportunities, users should take the initiative to make changes to their work environment. Coworkers’ engagement not only fosters a sense of community and strengthens shared values but also catalyzes new business opportunities.

Item Type: Dissertation
Supervisor: Glückler, Prof. Dr. Johannes
Place of Publication: Heidelberg
Date of thesis defense: 24 June 2021
Date Deposited: 21 Jul 2021 07:46
Date: 2021
Faculties / Institutes: Fakultät für Chemie und Geowissenschaften > Institute of Geography
Subjects: 300 Social sciences
330 Economics
Controlled Keywords: social network analysis, creative industries, qualitative analysis, exchange of ideas, collaboration networks, social networks, coworking spaces, relational sociology, economic geography
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