Feature Story

The Future of Work: Say Goodbye to Your Cubicle

by Kristi Essick

Companies are embracing "co-working" spaces to spark new ideas and innovations for their businesses.

Your days at the office may be numbered. Ever since the 1990s, when a handful of intrepid employees with a landline, modem and desktop began "telecommuting," the number of employees working from home has been on the rise. Now, with the ubiquity of high-speed Internet access, secure cloud-based applications and near-constant connectivity via smartphones, a new trend in remote work has emerged: Co-working.

Co-working spaces are flexible offices that allow people to rent a desk on a monthly, weekly or daily basis, offering access to a range of office equipment and services.  About 48 percent of the regular users of co-working spaces -- which run the gamut from a bare bones center with Wi-Fi, printers and a coffee machine, to full-fledged offices offering meeting rooms, career development seminars and networking events – are independent contractors. The figure comes from the Second Annual Global Co-Working Survey co-written by German media company Deskmag and Lafayette, Calif.-based Emergent Research, a research and consulting firm focused on the "future of work."

That means over half of the regular users of co-working spaces are employees, with 9 percent of regular users in the U.S. and 7 percent worldwide working for companies with over 100 employees, according to Steve King, partner at Emergent Research. "Small businesses and startups have really taken to the co-working concept, outsourcing the office if you will, but even larger companies are starting to use these remote workspaces," says King.

Disqus: Do you regularly work remotely? If so, where do you work?

Companies spend on average $12,000 to $30,000 per employee on real estate, so reducing office overhead is a key driver in the adoption of co-working – but it brings other benefits to companies, as well.

"Letting people work remotely saves money, but also delivers other less tangible benefits, such as increased employee productivity and satisfaction, and access to a class of creative people who prefer flexible working," says King.  What's more, many companies are finding that co-working leads to "accelerated serendipity," he says. Employees who use co-working spaces meet and interact with people across industries and disciplines. They learn from one another, form partnerships and work collaboratively – a boon for any company looking to drive innovation.

And the co-working concept isn't just catching on in tech hotspots like San Francisco and New York. Spain, Italy, Germany, South Korea, Singapore and the Netherlands are leaders in co-working, with collaborative work spaces popping up across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and even Africa, according to The Second Annual Global Co-Working Survey. In fact, more than half of co-working spaces worldwide are located outside the U.S., where the number of spaces is also growing more rapidly. Co-working is popular across sectors – from technology to industrial, design, health care, automotive and beyond. Governments, always eager to save costs, are also getting in on the act.

In the Netherlands, the government got behind a public co-working initiative. Sponsored by the Double U Smart Work Foundation, the government partnered with Cisco to open over 100 secure co-working spaces for public sector employees across the country, and created a mobile app to let people find the nearest one. Since the Smart Work Centers were launched, the government has reduced the number of office buildings from 200 to 120. Based on the success of the Dutch program, the South Korean government recently worked with Cisco to launch a program that aims to open 500 Smart Work Centers by 2015.

Some companies aren't just using external co-working centers, but are creating their own. In Germany, chemical company BASF opened several co-working spaces in Berlin, inviting not just their own employees to use them on a drop-in basis, but allowing partners and customers to use them, too. Proctor & Gamble created a co-working space in San Diego, Calif., for its global healthcare team. Employees can drop in to work there, but Johnson & Johnson also incubates startups and invites independent workers in the health care sector to use the space. In these kinds of company-sponsored co-working spaces, the idea is to boost cross-team collaboration, reduce fixed office space expenditures, and increase the flow of new ideas from both within and outside the company. Grid 70 in Grand Rapids, Mich., was created especially with that last goal in mind. Created by furniture company Steelcase and three of its largest partners, the co-working space aims to create a cross-pollination of ideas among creative teams, and increase the number of joint projects.

Two startups, LooseCubes and LiquidSpace, have created business models around the co-working wave. These two companies let people search for available co-working spots using a mobile or online app, so they can find a drop-in center no matter where they are.

Co-working spaces are just the latest wrinkle in the move toward a more fluid work society, where more and more people will work remotely. By 2020, independent workers will be the majority of the U.S. workforce, and even employees will work remotely much of the time, according to research firm MBO Partners. Whether these nomads work in an official co-working center, plug in at a hotel lobby or a café, or drop by their company's own collaborative workspace, this more flexible approach to work is here to stay.

 "Co-working as a style of work is where the entire global economy is headed," adds Emergent Research's King. "We won't just see shared office space, but also shared industrial and manufacturing facilities, research centers, kitchens, and bio labs, because the best way to innovate is to encourage cross-functional collaboration – and it doesn't hurt that sharing space saves money."

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