It’s no secret that Europe has been on top of its coworking space game long before the US. Over a decade ago, affordable and creative shared spaces started emerging from countries such as Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. Now we’re watching them crop up all over the world.
In the beginning, coworking spaces were known as hackerspaces. Traditionally, hackerspaces were venues where people gather to share skills pertaining to computer engineering, machining, and electronic and scientific art. They’re typically open to the public, and sustain on donations from regular members or crowd-funding sources. In 1995, a group of techies in Berlin founded C-Space, one of the world’s first hackerspaces. In 2003, they collaborated with the BerlinBackBone Project to include free internet access for its community and counterparts. It was C-Space that spearheaded the coworking space movement. In 1999, New York’s first coworking space, 42West24 opened up in Flatiron. In 2002, Konnex Communities, the first ever coworking space franchise set up shop in Vienna.
This spring we watched the Netherlands take the meaning of coworking space to the next level. A pair of Dutch artists, Celine de Waal Malefigt and Jorien Kemerink, managed to fool a large group of freelancers into thinking their experimental performance exhibition was just another new, hip coworking space in Amsterdam. Initially, Malefigt and Kemerink designed the space to incorporate outrageous amenities such as swings, mini gardens and beaches, pet bunnies, and beds. They enticed freelancers with a $5/month fee, and in 2 weeks the space had over 50 members. Yet, over the period of a month, the artists slowly started to remove the glamorous and exciting elements. They painted the walls gray, moved the funky furniture into a central area, and told people that the bunny had to be removed because of allergies. Malefigt and Kemerink told workers that they were redesigning the space to reflect the members’ input and suggestions. By the end of the month, the space looked like a corporate office from the ‘80s – completely comprised of rows of numbered cubicles. They even hired an actor to virtually watch the workers from a screen above. He would bark at workers if they got up for a break, or looked like they weren’t working.
What looked like a cruel, fascist trick on the outside, was really an experiment in evaluating modern productivity. According to the artists, “Workers were actually more productive than they had been with the perks.” When the office looked more like playground, workers were more easily distracted, and spent more time socializing than working.
Is it better to have an office space that encourages relaxation and fun? Or should it reflect the mission of the space: to get work done. Hopefully Malefigt and Kemerink’s work is inspiring conversations about office design, and eventually the world will arrive at a design that incorporates both.