How to Foster Inclusive Coworking Spaces

How to Foster Inclusive Coworking Spaces

Coworking is so much more than a workspace. In fact, the coworking movement strives to create such powerful places of belonging that it contributes to a fairer and more equitable society. At a recent London Coworking Assembly breakfast show, speakers Oi Leng Lui and Zoe Ellis-Moore identified a link between coworking and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which theorises that human motivation aims to reach the highest level of psychological development – a state of self-actualisation. Coworking empowers people to find their true purpose in life. But to create incredible social change, inclusive coworking spaces cannot exist without accepting, embracing, and nurturing each individual and community that it serve.

How well do you know your community?

Facilitating a safe and secure space provides the foundations of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Before conceptualising an inclusive workspace, an operator needs to identify which community it will accommodate. Director of the European Coworking Assembly, Jeannine van der Linden, explains that “it becomes far easier to ensure that the space is inclusive to all” when the community is totally understood. She advises collecting data and feedback from the community to understand their individual needs.

Oi Leng Lui is the co-founder of The Hearth – a women’s space that doesn’t label itself as coworking although women can come to the space for work. The purpose of The Hearth is to “create a safe space for women to explore their edges, speak freely and have important conversations that might not otherwise happen.” By defining which community it serves, The Hearth sets expectations and strives to meet the needs of all women who come to use that space.

Inclusivity is commonly misconceived as being inclusive of society as a whole. But serving everyone’s needs is challenging, and the danger of being all things to all people may result in the exclusion of entire social groups. Having an understanding of intersectionality can help an operator acknowledge how different social and political identities – covering but not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, and ability – intersect and interact with one another to create unique experiences of oppression and privilege. An operator can then facilitate a workspace for the identities that they wish to be inclusive of.

Inclusive workspace design is more than gender-neutral toilets 

After a coworking operator identifies which community to serve, they’ll need to make decisions about the workspace design. This goes beyond simply putting gender-neutral toilets and lots of house plants into a workspace.

Designing an accessible workspace makes sure that everyone who comes to the space can get through the front door. Providing a lift and step-free access ensures wheelchair users can move around the workspace. Being inclusive of physical accessibility is also inclusive of an ageing workforce who might otherwise not be able to come into a workspace when their mobility deteriorates. Research conducted by Ageing Better reports that 4 million workers in the UK are aged over 50 whilst only 1.5 million workers are aged between 25-49. In the future, the rising global ageing population means that an older workforce will be more common so being age-inclusive takes into account the longevity and sustainability of a workspace.

Open-plan office spaces might be a common coworking space feature, but they’re not welcoming for everyone, especially the neurodivergent community which makes up 15% of the UK population. Large and noisy environments can cause neurodivergent people to feel anxious and overwhelmed. Nook wellness pods are an excellent example of a piece of workspace furniture that’s been designed specifically for individuals with ADHD, autism, and dyslexia. Enhanced with sensory lighting and sound, the pods “influence mood, reduce challenging behaviour, and lower anxiety levels.” To create a workspace that’s for a mixed community, an operator can zone a workspace – designing one zone for neurodiverse individuals, and another zone for neurotypicals.

In a workspace that serves multiple purposes, modular or portable furniture is useful to create interchangeable environments. For example, an operator who prioritises community well-being can use movable furniture to transform a functional office by day into a wellness space by night. Taking care of mental and physical wellness dramatically increases productivity and leads to better work performance, suggests Coworking Mag. This also contributes to moving people up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Not only that but giving the community freedom of choice to move furniture around the workspace as they see fit gives them autonomy to choose what type of environment they thrive in.

Creating a place of love and belonging.

An inclusive coworking space isn’t just about workspace design, aesthetics, or functionality. It’s also inclusive of values, processes and policies that offer a place of love and belonging, acceptance and respect.

June is Pride month, and whilst many businesses are celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community, the term rainbow washing is warning people of the lack of authenticity of some that are trying to “win the business of queer allies without actually furthering equity and inclusion of individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+.” Not only is it important to support the LGBTQIA+ community this month and beyond, but it’s also essential to raise the visibility of individuals within the community, facilitate a safe and supportive environment, and give people the right conditions to flourish.

Whilst Clockwise Edinburgh Leith supports the LGBTQIA+ community all year round, it recently launched an initiative in support of a local LGBTQIA+-friendly pub that was badly damaged by homophobic activity. This neighbourliness support is not only representative of how Clockwise is inclusive of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities but is supportive of its wider community too.

Coworking can be expensive to join. In fact, London is the world’s fifth most expensive city for coworking with the average price of a coworking space in the city costing an enormous £695 on average, Hubble reports. The price to pay for coworking is often justified by its super-fast internet, high-quality equipment, and a top calendar of social events, however, an expensive coworking space can be exclusive of people who would benefit from a local workspace. When it comes to fostering inclusivity, coworking operators must be aware of workspace affordability.

Over recent years, Brixton has changed so dramatically that it’s “becoming one of London’s trendiest places to live.” But what comes with a more desirable area is increasingly high house prices which displace people who moved in years before the neighbourhood became cool. With an awareness of local socioeconomic divisions, Impact Brixton has introduced The Impact Exchange Programme – offering its workspace free of charge for several hours a week in exchange for time or skills to maintain the workspace. By upskilling local people, this brilliant initiative increases employment, boosts the local economy, and transforms the lives of its community both within and beyond the workspace.

Inclusivity isn’t a buzzword

Diversity, equity, and inclusivity in coworking are so much more than a buzzword, a tickbox, or a gesture. True inclusivity extends to providing meaningful support for marginalised groups. From designing inclusive coworking spaces to implementing inclusive and equitable processes and policies, a range of considerations is needed to ensure that every individual feels seen, heard, and valued. Inclusive coworking truly has the power to transform communities and create real social change.

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