This time last year, PCMag interviewed Pauline Roussel and Dimitar Inchev, co-founders of Coworkies, an online job forum, advice site community builder, and all-round knowledge base on the land of the free agent. In April 2019, the pair were working on their book, Around the World in 250 Coworking Spaces, and had just returned to Berlin from New York City. Now, in May 2020, like the rest of us, they’re grounded and working from home.
But they’re not just kicking back watching TV series reruns from the couch (*coughs*). They’ve been busy organizing Hack Coworking Online, which takes place May 28-30 (remotely, of course). We exchanged emails recently with Coworkies’ CEO Roussel to find out more.
Hello from Hollywood! All the co-working spaces here closed when California’s “Safer at Home” ordinance hit on March 17. When did it all kick in for you both in Berlin?
PR: Greetings from Berlin! The situation started to slowly become critical around the beginning of March here. Unlike other European countries, like France or Spain, where the rules have been very strict, Germany took a different approach to the lockdown, based on trust. Of course, like everywhere in the world, concert venues, shopping malls, and restaurants had to shut their doors. But for coworking spaces, at least in Berlin, because each place has different rules, it was never an obligation to shut down. Many did it, but they rather closed their doors to the public or external visitors. For existing members, many spaces in the city have provided a certain time frame during the day where members could access their office if needed, following, of course, all the safety measures the government has released.
Pauline Roussel and Dimitar Inchev at home in Berlin
What’s the biggest challenge facing coworking spaces now?
The fact that coworking spaces can’t operate their physical spaces has actually brought forth an interesting question: “How do I keep adding value to my members?” In times like today, where many freelancers lost clients and many companies had to postpone projects, what everyone needs is to be connected to others with whom they can collaborate.
How has Coworkies been able to help them address this question?
For Coworkies, it’s actually a great opportunity, as we can really work with coworking spaces and help them support their members in paying their rent by giving them the platform they need to find and share work opportunities of various sorts.
Hack Coworking Online event in London, 2019
Which brings us to Hack Coworking Online. Tell us how the original Hack Coworking event started in 2019 (IRL).
This event series started in 2019, in London, where we hosted our first edition in a coworking space called HubHub, and the idea behind it is to bring together coworking spaces users, from occasional users to “I go to a coworking space every day” kind of users to discuss and build new ideas, and develop new products that can enhance the overall experience one has in a coworking space both physically and digitally.
What’s the focus, in a practical sense?
In order to drive the conversation somewhere relevant, we focus on three tracks (Cities, Spaces, and People), which we chose based on what we saw traveling the world of coworking spaces and visiting more than 400 of them.
After launching in London the idea was to go global, right?
Yes, after a successful first edition in London, where we had 18 teams presenting projects, we decided to take the event around the world with us and were supposed to do it this year in Japan and New York.
Coworkies CEO Pauline Roussel
But then COVID-19 came along.
When COVID-19 hit, we had to adapt our plans and decided to shift to an online format. Instead of focusing on one particular region, we decided to make it a global conversation. In the span of five days, we had spaces from India, Canada, United Kingdom, Japan, Portugal, Albania, Argentina, Bulgaria, and a few other countries signing up. We love this diversity because it will bring so many different perspectives into the discussion.
What are you hoping to achieve with the remote event online?
As we always say: “coworking is the same dish that everyone cooks differently,” so we want the coworking hackathon to be a moment where everyone gathers to exchange ideas, evaluate what’s viable for their situation, and go adapt it for their space.
Developing a playbook for coworking post lockdown?
More than a step-by-step playbook, we want to have a pool of ideas that people can tap into. Social distancing is becoming a thing, [but] we need to keep in mind we are humans and social interactions are the cornerstone of our communities. The initial idea of the hackathon is still valid. We need member-driven innovation for coworking spaces. Not solutions that are put top-down for coworkers. Spaces need to find the best way together with their members to restart their workspaces in the new reality. Hearing what coworkers think and what ideas they have is essential for coworking spaces to restart. And we hope we can establish this communication channel with Hack Coworking Online, building cross pollination of ideas between spaces and members from across the world.
Have you heard from any of our friends in Korea and Japan about contact-tracing apps and/or temperature sensors to see who’s sick and needs to go back to quarantine?
We took the opportunity of the outbreak to really reconnect with spaces from all around the world and see how they adapt. We had a few conversations with Japanese spaces, and they will remain in lockdown until the end of May. A few spaces are open to their members only. They didn’t mention anything about contact-tracing apps, but temperature check is a must. They do it everywhere. We’ve seen some interesting initiatives going on there, like a coworking space which used an open-source template of face masks and face shields and 3D printed them for their members and for the medical staff of their cities.
Do you think coworking spaces will take a page from the playbook of grocery stores when re-opening? Will we be following route stickers on the floor to maintain better flow, reducing density by expanding opening hours, and sanitizing everything?
Many spaces are already doing it. And in some places it is mandatory by law, like in Italy, for example. A coworking space from Rome, called Millepiani, shared with us via a Zoom call that they are reopening next week and by law they have to get a sanitizing company to clean the space. Which adds quite a burden on their financials, a thing to consider.
Guess it all depends on the size of the coworking spaces.
Yes. If your community is five to 20 people, presumably it has quite good communication between members, [and] those communities should come together and decide on what’s best for everyone. Maybe scheduled space use is something that can be implemented as introductory measures, before things can go to their normal state.
How do you think social distancing will affect team building? I know culture often denotes one’s approach to personal space, but I’m guessing there’ll be no hugging in the hallways or even high-fives to celebrate the win when we all return.
First things first. We should learn not to suppress our emotions as this crisis is adding a huge emotional burden to our approach to life. If everyone is good with high-fives, give high-fives, then wash your hands.
Is it more about the spaces themselves developing trust through action and awareness?
The presumption is that your workspace would be a safe place to interact with others. How that trust is established will be up to the spaces. Operators should start with guidelines and scenarios on how to act as individuals and as a community to make everyone feel safe. People need to trust each other that everyone acts in the safest way possible way when outside of the space.
And if spaces are soulless, or without leadership, just a place where people used to rent space, rather than ‘belong,’ there’s no way to build trust.
Right. Trust within the community will become a decisive factor if a coworking space can sustain as a business or not.
What about the effect on sharing generally? No deep bowls of candy on reception? Everyone putting their names on the Soylent supply and wearing gloves to handle food items?
From what we’ve read it’s better to wash hands than to wear gloves. Some people put on the gloves and stay with them all day. Visually, gloves speak “I am taking precarious measures to stay safe,” but on the other hand if we look at it realistically it says “I keep myself safe but I touch everything with those gloves.” Washing hands often is better. Again, depending on the size of a community we can expect different ways of dealing with it.
Speaking from experience, surviving as a freelancer without community and gathering places is tough. Have coworking spaces with a clear brand handled the transition to digital communities better than others?
Each and every coworking space has adapted differently to the situation. The Wing for instance has indeed shifted to online using their already-developed app to produce content, mainly events, for their members. What’s great about them is that they’ve opened up their events to anyone for free, which means I could attend one of their talks/webinars although I am not a member.
The Wing in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
What else have you seen that works to maintain remote connectivity?
It’s interesting to see how fast coworking spaces have adapted. From offering virtual coworking all day, morning coffee check-ins, wine down evening, yoga sessions, or Pictionary night, they’ve all offered a way for their members to keep connected to the community they belong to. We even had a coworking space part of Coworkies who celebrated its nine-year anniversary all online with their community!
As CEO, how has your role changed since the crisis hit? I bet you never thought you’d be compiling a guide to infectious diseases when you started this business.
It’s a great question and my role did evolve. Like anyone in the team, I had to adapt and be where our community needed me the most. As our community is composed of both coworking spaces and coworking members, we’ve launched different features and resources to support them during those times such as Gigs (coworking space members), which allows anyone part of our community to post either a project they need help with, and need to hire other freelancers for, or post their portfolio and availability so other members of our community can reach out if they look for the skills they have.
So much of your role is encouraging cohesiveness between those who actually manage spaces too.
Yes, and for our coworking spaces managers, we’ve created The Community of Community Managers, a closed group where we invited community managers from various coworking spaces to a safe space where we discuss weekly ways of doing community management without a physical space. The response has been great and we’ve been sharing so many interesting ways of engaging with members in any context.
Random observation: I saw on your site that ‘new-school work communities’ is the latest phrase. Are we parking ‘co-working’?
For us coworking is an activity not a space per se. It’s a place where people work next to each other on different or common projects. We’ve been repeating this since we started, so “New-school work communities” can be a shared space or a virtual group on Slack. In Japan we have a friend who started an online coworking community for coworking communities. People from different spaces can gather and work together online.
Finally, you were both working on ‘Around the World in 250 Coworking Spaces’ when we last spoke. How are the pre-order numbers looking?
The book is coming together quite nicely although it has also been impacted by COVID-19 as the remote parts of our team had to travel back to their home countries and our printhouse is still closed. But we are grateful for the support we’ve received and the pre-orders we’ve had. We also felt that the book needs to be aligned with its time, which is also why we will include a chapter about COVID-19 in it and share how spaces adapted, what initiatives were born out of it and who knows, maybe we’ll also feature the outcome of Hack Coworking Online!
For more information on Hack Coworking Online, and to sign up, click here. Tickets for the 3-day event start at 20 Euros for a team or 5 Euros for individuals.