“Ping-pong is not a value add”: COVID-19 has killed co-working. Does anyone care?

Joan Westenberg

Joan Westenberg. Source: supplied.

I honestly believe that the co-working model is over.

I know why we started it. I know why we loved it. I worked inside it, running comms at Fishburners, at the time Australia’s largest homegrown co-working org. The appeal was the sense of community, the shared mission and the shared values, and it felt as though we were creating clubhouses where we could come together and build together and dream together.

The problem is, the idea was always bullshit. From the get-go, it was bullshit. It was asking folks who had nothing in common beyond wanting to produce those disparate dreams, wanting a desk and a place to do it. But it never added up. It never made real, honest sense.

And it’s something I think a lot of folks are going to realise as we come out of lockdown and re-enter the world after the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic. The companies that have survived, the startups who have made it through, the freelancers and creatives who have been able to pay their bills, have been able to do it from the comfort and safety of their homes, without sacrificing cashflow on an additional rental payment that was only buying them a shelf in a fridge and a crammed in desk anyway.

Sure, it might not have been the most comfortable. But for anyone chasing ramen profitability and not buying into the cultural bullshit of co-working as a stylistic choice, for anyone who tracks their money in a damn spreadsheet and can see where it’s going, it will have been eye opening.

Let me show you the math.

If you’re an early stage startup considering a co-working space, ask yourself: What’s the ROI of paying $500+ pm for a desk and a vague promise of “community” to make your staff commute to a fixed location – vs letting them work at home and pumping that $500 each into marketing? What is the purpose of that expense?

It’s simple math. Even if you just dumped it into AdWords, you’ll get more out of it than having your people breathe the same oxygen for 8 hours a day while still communicating via Slack anyway. That’s what people do in a co-working space. That’s what people do in any shared space. They work remotely in person. We don’t have cultural values or systems in place anymore that demand that we do more than look at a laptop screen.

Ping-pong is not a value add.

Do you have any idea how many hours are wasted in a co-working space by folks playing ping-pong? If I added up the value of those hours in hours worked it would be a staggering number on its own. If I added up the value of those hours in missed time with their families and loved ones, missed time on their own passions and hobbies, missed time on the things that truly matter, it would be even more devastating.

It makes no sense to weight some esoteric notion of in-person bonding above the sheer productivity of giving folks outcomes and letting them produce them however they see fit, without making them haul ass into a building full of distractions.

Yeah, culture matters. But culture isn’t in-person interactions. Culture is respect.

You can build culture for free without paying for it. Culture is better achieved by encouraging your team to show each other respect, and enabling respectful communication ad interactions on a regular basis, than it is by some weird ass idea about breathing the same air. If you can’t build culture without having everyone in the same building, I honestly believe it’s because you’re not fucking trying hard enough, and you think it can just magically develop on its own without you mindfully creating it, and motherfucker, you are wrong.

There’s more cultural value in having all the members of your team able to play on the same field, whether or not they’re parents, no matter their accessibility challenges, than in bringing together a bunch of people who are all able to share an office space, who will inevitably look and act pretty similarly as they blend into a critical mass in the way that groups do.

Having an office has literally zero defensible benefits and every drawback. Even if that office is a co-working space. Quick conversations that intrude on workflow have more disruptive negatives than collaborative positives.

I have only ever written two angel cheques. Small amounts, dipping my toe in, with zero return yet. I’ll talk about that another time. But there’s no way I would write one for any company planning to burn through my money renting a fixed desk somewhere. It’s pissing it away.

NOW READ: “It just happened so quickly”: How COVID-19 caused this co-working space to close its doors for good

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