Shared working spaces have boomed in recent years. But while the idea is that they could foster collaboration and creative innovation through shared ideas between start-ups, a recent exploration of a handful of case studies suggests over longer periods, the opposite could be happening.
Haefliger and his colleague Ghassan Yacoub, a professor of innovation and strategy at the IESEG School of Management, investigated the collaborations emerging in coworking space in one of the largest dedicated hubs in Europe, Level 39. They built a case study around the seven financial tech start-ups using this space, through interviews, archival material and observations.
"Despite the emergence of coworking spaces as new work practices, little is known about the formation of collaboration and specifically the emergence of collaborative practices given these open and flexible workspaces to meet and interact with employees of other organizations," the pair wrote in their paper.
A sense of community and openness are processes well known to encourage productivity, collaboration and in turn, innovation. So it seems contradictory that the team found over time, working in this shared environment instead appeared to hinder the collaborative practices between the firms that might seed innovation.
Initially the shared spaces did help instigate fraternizing between the start-ups, with informal and planned interactions including events, workshops, and talks in the common areas (communal kitchen, lounge, and breakout areas), all of which facilitated the first steps of a collaborative practice.
But when those activities continued they also interfered with the collaborations, with attempts to organize the space for events seen as distracting.
Of the seven start-ups, three ended up leaving the coworking space, saying the benefits of collaborative spaces did not last and constant changes as more companies were added were disruptive.
"Perhaps it is becoming too big for everybody to benefit equally," a representative from one firm speculated.
"I think there are too many companies there and the main lounge area is overpopulated with drop-in members rather than as a casual place for the permanent companies there to get together and talk and get to know each other," another group explained.
With a goal of the coworking company to scale-up, the perspective of its users valuing qualities based around limited growth could be seen as a conflict.
Haefliger and Yacoub found that for the collaborations to continue sustainably they needed to be actively managed, but that there is a ticky balance between encouraging innovation and stifling it.
"It is the responsibility of the host of the space and those that use it to make it a setting that can see booming partnerships and a hotbed of next generation ideas," explains Haefliger.
This is of course just one example of the coworking experiments now happening around the world, based on seven financial technology firms. Other industries, like creatives or non-profits, may find the coworking process differs for them, the researchers point out, but their findings could provide a useful comparison for future research.
This research was published in Organization.