The word may sound wrong, but Penang had better get used to the idea of “unconferences”. The fourth annual edition of Coworking Unconference (CU) Asia, the largest gathering of coworking space operators, entrepreneurs, accelerators and startups in the Asia Pacific region, was held on February 7-11 and took place across four locations in George Town. It attracted more than 320 people from 35 countries, including Australia, China, Italy, Indonesia, Kuwait, Mauritius, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, the UK, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The five-day event aimed to bring the focus back to the fundamentals of coworking: the coworkers. “We are not just providing space; we provide meaningful human connections. At a time when loneliness rises, professional dissatisfaction grows and the political system is getting meaner, we are creating a place for people to come together, to feel human and to be productive,” explains Steve Munroe, the founder of Coworking Alliance of Asia Pacific (CAAP). “We do CU Asia to feel connected and to look at the person sitting next to you and say, ‘These are the people I want to spend my time with.’”
As the industry grows, it is understandable to get caught up in discussions about complementary business models, strategic partnerships, sponsorship arrangements and better programmes. According to Deskmag Global Coworking Survey 2018, 48% of coworking spaces in Asia are profitable – more than the global percentage – and they are faster planned and built than anywhere else in the world. (It takes four and a half months to open a coworking space in Asia.)
But just as coworking is entering its explosive growth stage globally, it is critical to keep in mind the reason for its collective success: creating spaces for communities to gather and thrive.
Building the Community
Remote Year Malaysia’s general manager, Mohd Reezan, discusses strategies to build and sustain coworking communities: “All coworking space operators have to contend with the transient nature of digital nomads coming and going on a regular basis. But we’d still like for them to be part of our community. So how do we do that? Step One includes organically embracing them into our fold – we don’t force it on them. To break the ice, our operators would bring these nomads around, introduce them to everyone in the space – this creates the first interlocking relationship between the transients and those who have been with us longer.
“Step Two is getting to know them better. We try to find out their wants and needs, and why they are here. Once we’ve understood the nature of their visit, we would try to pair them with those working on similar projects in the space to create synergy. We do this so regularly that we’ve literally created new startups from these connections. We have a 90% repeat customer conversion rate; these digital nomads come back because we give them reasons to do so.”
The 2018 edition of Coworking Unconference (CU) Asia drew more than 320 people from 35 different countries to Penang.
The “stickiness factor” is another strategy: “I personally believe that food is the answer to creating the ‘stickiness’ in member-to-member connection building. Interestingly enough, it has proven to be successful – not only for our Remote Year programme, but for the digital nomads that visit our space as well. We help curate their desire to experience the wonders of Malaysian cuisine – this simultaneously facilitates the crossing of cultural borders.”
But what if these coworkers are not socially inclined? “You need to know the right time to step in. Our coworking operators know when each group of people are going to do lunch and we make sure that before that, we come in with the food or we invite them out for lunch. No one actually says no because they’re already hungry. It’s all about knowing when best to interrupt them so that focus isn’t taken away from their work, and it’s effective because it helps otherwise total strangers to interact.”
Coworking spaces are also about connectivity: “We are emulating the 7/11 concept, in that our coworking space is a one-stop shop for all. We’ve got legal support, financial support, audit support… The list goes on. But beyond this is the set of events my coworking space can provide free to other coworking spaces that want to work with us. At the end of the day, because every coworking space starts to have a similar set of events, the coworking communities will become well and truly connected. So your community of 50 people is able to blend in with my community, and together, we can combine with other communities to become one large coworking community with 1,000 skill sets and 1,000 ways of helping to grow and sustain each other’s business. And from there, you can actually attend to each and everybody’s needs, transient or otherwise, because that’s the ultimate sticky factor.”
Creating Coworking Collectives
Ashley Proctor, the executive director of 312 Main (Vancouver), has over a decade worth of experience opening and operating coworking spaces in Canada and the US. One of the original voices of the coworking movement, Proctor has been building collaborative communities since 2003. She shares her thoughts on the advantages of fostering collaboration between coworking spaces: “People join coworking spaces to benefit from the association. They want to share best practices and access to resources, to learn from each other to increase productivity, and to increase their network and reach. Essentially, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
“Coworking space operators can also benefit from this collaboration for the same reasons our members do. To take this into a tangible example, I formed the Coworking Toronto and Coworking Ontario collectives. Toronto was the first city in which I started my coworking spaces. There are about 100 different coworking spaces in downtown Toronto, and more than half of them are now part of the collective. But what are we actually doing together?
“We team up to spread the word and educate people about coworking, and share our best practices. This strengthens our unique communities and proves that traditional competitors are also able to collaborate in this market.”
Proctor explains that one of the best features of the collective is that all coworking spaces in the inner city are represented by one website: “When people search for coworking spaces in Toronto, they now find all of us and not just one of us. It’s a huge benefit that we have the top search result for coworking in Toronto.”
The website also allows for potential members to single out genuine community-focused coworking spaces from real estate and corporate players. “We’re able to pool our marketing resources to create joint marketing campaigns as well. This way, we get more bang for the buck. We collaborate through social media and press releases. We have one media contact for all coworking interviews and that helps boost our representation as a collective.”
She also introduced the Coworking Health Insurance Plan (COHIP) to offer health and dental coverage to independent artists, entrepreneurs and small businesses in Toronto. “In 2013 I decided to offer COHIP to all coworking spaces in Ontario via the Coworking Ontario collective. There was much demand for benefits from the independent workforce, and I’ve been working to expand COHIP ever since.” (As of April 2016, COHIP is available to all members of collaborative workspaces across Canada.1)
Segregation by ethnicity and race is a thing of the past; we organised ourselves that way to cultivate a sense of belonging, to feel safe. But the world today is a very different place. Now we are free to belong to a community of our choosing – one that helps us thrive as individuals..
“Since coworking is relatively new in South-East Asia, I think space operators can benefit greatly from working together. They need all the same things – they need to educate the population and the government, and they also need to educate their potential members about the advantages of joining a coworking community. It’s a very easy task to start out with, and in the future, when the movement has gained enough traction, this can lead to the formation of collectives as well.
“Another plus point for collaborating is that there is room for a lot of differences in opinions and in models. The Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance (SCSA) is one example. Some of the spaces working together are maker spaces (3-D printers and laser cutters), hacker spaces and artist studios. There are also traditional coworking spaces and government-affiliated accelerators and incubators. These are all very different models, but what they do share in common is that community spirit.”
The Third Community
“Technology equals freedom in two ways: access to unlimited information and the ability to work remotely,” says Laís de Oliveira, a community architect at HackingCommunities.com.
Technology is also redefining the concept of community. “Segregation by ethnicity and race is a thing of the past; we organised ourselves that way to cultivate a sense of belonging, to feel safe. But the world today is a very different place. Now we are free to belong to a community of our choosing – one that helps us thrive as individuals.
Local organiser PAPER + TOAST (pictured alongside the Hub in Ubud team) worked hard to bring CU Asia 2018 to Penang.
“Coworking spaces appeal to people beyond the confines of race, ethnicity and religion to form very diverse coworking communities. I’m Brazilian and have been living in Malaysia for four years now. I have no one from my country here. But I found Malaysia very welcoming because I met people who I connected with on the basis of shared interests and lifestyle preferences. I discovered that the values that are true to me are also true to the Malaysians I befriended.
“I identify myself first and foremost as a coworker and an entrepreneur – if I meet someone at this event, it is very likely that I’ll feel like I belong regardless of where I come from. Coworking spaces have created a third community independent of those formed by our families and societies. I believe diversity is the new currency.”
In 2015 McKinsey Research conducted a study on more than 350 large public companies in North America, Latin America and the UK. The consultants discovered that those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to produce better returns than their local peers. Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were even more likely to do better.2
“The world is plagued by serious problems that we need to find solutions for – and fast,” says de Oliveira. “Coworking spaces are highly valued because, unlike management styles of the old where the boss will sit at the head of the table and everything he says goes, these open spaces encourage discussions and conflicts for people to bounce ideas off each other and to come up with viable answers to address global problems. Coworking spaces are the future.”
Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.