Ask any millennial who lives in a city with outrageously high rent and they’ll all likely agree: as a generation, we may be getting married later and having children further down the road, but no matter how our timelines diverge, the seemingly universal mark of adulthood is living alone. Not just being able to afford to live alone, but actually doing it; no more sneaking out to shut off the microwave three seconds before it loudly beeps when making midnight Hot Pockets, and no more sharing a bathroom or a cable bill. In cities with outrageous rent prices, such as hot millennial hubs like New York and San Francisco, living alone means gaining a tiny bit more space for almost double the money, making that milestone even more impactful.
Or, at least, it was an important milestone. Nowadays, companies like WeWork and Property Markets Group, as well as a growing number of venture capitalists, are betting big that a rising generation of millennials aren’t chomping at the bit to free themselves from the reins of cohabitation. Instead, these groups are investing heavily in co-living: adult dorms where residents can live, companies can cowork, and those who fall into both groups are able to do both. Unlike startup incubators, which are common throughout Silicon Valley and offer housing in exchange for small pieces of future companies, these new co-living spaces are intended to branch out well past Silicon Valley.
For a growing startup, the benefits can seem plentiful: coworking contracts where employees live on site often come with discounts and incentives built in; even startups that don’t have employees living on-site benefit from the broader network that comes from co-living and coworking existing side by side. Rent is often cheaper, or on par with the market, and though individual rooms are small, common areas are plenty, and most spaces are fully stocked with snacks, drinks, games, and multiple breakout areas. Community managers do a thorough job of making sure the co-living space has regular events to keep members engaged with each other, and foster the intangible benefits of living and working within one collective brain trust.
While there are a growing number of arguments for and against living in co-living spaces as an individual, how should startups that are thinking about leasing space in a co-living building proceed? Whether having employees live on-site is part of your coworking model, or your startup is just renting coworking space and employees are given the choice of staying on-site, there are a number of factors to consider before moving in, including accessibility, work-life separation, and your company’s overall goals.
Coworking communities are built to be as diverse as possible when it comes to representation, but a woke community manager isn’t enough to mitigate against all forms of diversity. While co-living spaces are trying to branch out past the technology-first startup incubator mentality that comes with coworking, they are still a hub for growing technology companies more than any other industry: largely due to their affordable and customizable space options for growing teams, and their flexible lease terms. This means that even a racially diverse coworking space can lead to tunnel vision in diversity of thought and the diversity of its network, if everyone coming to the table shares roughly the same skillset and professional background.
To counter this, do your homework, figuratively and literally. Find out what other companies are using the space; attend an open event and pay attention to how networking works. Does the space seem open and inviting? Are groups cloistered off? How often do people from different locations within the space interact with each other? All of these factors can impact the success of being in a coworking environment more than simply showing up.
At the same time, it’s critical to think about what a successful working at home environment looks like for your growing company. The best way to do this is to start by listing your coworking and co-living goals. Is networking the main goal, or having a space to be able to live and work where the administrative overhead is taken care of? How scalable and feasible is it for your company to thrive in a co-living space? All of these questions can provide useful guideposts, not just for assessing the diversity of your future space, but for other metrics as well.
Little to No Work-Life Separation
We’re the first ones to say that work-life balance as our parents imagined it is impractical and outdated. But having no clear borders between work and life in a coworking space can quickly become a swing too far in the other direction, forcing employees to feel that they always have to be on call, further pressurizing an already overstressed workforce. While there are benefits to not having rigid work-life boundaries, taking away the ability to have a space away from the office to unplug can reduce an employee’s sense of autonomy, leading to a negative work culture. For companies that don’t require employees to live on site, but offer the option, an internal power imbalance may form; managers with employees both in and out of the office must be careful to make sure live-out employees aren’t being excluded by lack of access.
For companies, the lack of work-life separation can be damaging as well. Increased stress in employees decreases the brain’s ability to handle cognitive loads, which means that employees who can’t disconnect from work and are stressed out by it are becoming less productive; a self-fulfilling stress prophecy of sorts. The lack of separation between work and personal life also leaves companies exposed to more interpersonal issues, which can affect company culture rapidly. And by keeping employees in close quarters, a company’s interactions and real world experience is being limited, which can decrease opportunities for learning and growth for employees.
Building a Diluted Community
As Dr. Gretchen Spreitzer, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business explained to Harvard Business Review, employees thrive in coworking spaces when they are part of both a “well-designed work environment and a well-curated work experience.” The latter - a well-curated work experience - is what can get particularly tricky.
While standalone coworking spaces try hard to present a uniform work experience that eliminates all the traditional pain points of maintaining an office, a co-living coworking hybrid space is inherently harder to curate a consistent work experience throughout - especially when your shared office space is someone else’s living room. While standalone coworking users all have a common goal - inspiring, easy workspaces - co-living coworking hybrids themselves have a number of different goals, based on a variety of member needs. And having various goals to meet can dilute the shared community aspects that make coworking spaces so popular.
“In reality, people need to be able to craft their work in ways that give them purpose and meaning,” writes Spreitzer in HBR. Healthy communities have shared connections that allow this sort of purpose and meaning to proliferate. While co-living spaces aren’t immediately discounted from finding shared community touch points, when large numbers of the community don’t live onsite and others do, a power imbalance can creep in from day one.
Whether a co-living space is right for your company ultimately is going to have to come down to your organization’s goals: how would they be positively impacted by living in a shared work-living space? How would they be negatively impacted? How do those markers change if your own employees were to live in? By taking time to look at the future growth of the company, and how it plans to build and scale its community feel, companies in all industries can gauge how useful the co-living model would be, especially as their organizations grow in size.
Though co-living has a number of benefits, finding a way to maintain boundaries - whether that’s in your co-living space, or in a more traditional office space - is going to be the biggest step to ensuring organizational success.