Helsinki
  • Photo: Marja Väänänen.

Coworking spaces - creative sparks in the urban milieu

Coworking spaces shared by creative professionals and knowledge workers have become increasingly popular in Helsinki in recent years. For people who work alone, these spaces provide not only social contacts and like-minded colleagues but also the opportunity to discover professional support and networks that benefit the work.

Cities have always been hubs for all kinds of economic activity. They are sites of trade and commerce but also services and industrial work. The current transformation of working life will have an effect on the temporal and spatial dimensions of urban work.

Coworking spaces are one of the new phenomena that have emerged in this field in the 2000s. The concept describes various freely formed, shared workspaces, where people from different backgrounds engage themselves in creative, knowledge-intensive work. There are at least dozens of such workspaces in Helsinki.

From workplace to coworking space

Most of us are likely to have observed people working in cafés, windowfronts, trains and buses or other public spaces during the past few years. Many of us also work in the same way ourselves.

A special feature of working in a public place is that the work bears no particular relationship with the space. The space is a place, an environment – it is essentially an opportunity where people from different fields and professions can carry out their assignments. The work that was previously hidden in offices, buried away in the depths of organisations or confined to isolated workrooms has become a visible part of urban culture. The workplace has dissolved into places of work.

For most people, the concept of workplace refers to a physical location – a building – which is managed by a particular employer and where people work. The concept and the related infrastructure have changed enormously within a short time.

As a consequence of the IT revolution, work has spread out to virtually all places where a Wi-Fi connection can bring two people into contact. A workplace can be almost anywhere if no other tools are needed but a laptop and one’s own skills and competences.

The 'prehistory' of the phenomenon can be traced to the work of artists and other creative people: they have always travelled to work in residencies, new workspaces, countryside, cities and abroad, and they have also carried out their creative work among other people in different kinds of spaces.

The same applies to those who are occupied today with independent, self-directed and/or creative work. They have conquered new places and spaces in the urban milieu for their own work.

In addition to public spaces, work is increasingly done in specific coworking spaces. Those who occupy coworking spaces are usually not connected by the same employer. Instead, they share the workspace with other freelancers, people working on a grant, individual entrepreneurs or microenterprises.

The growing number of coworking spaces is an international trend. The birth of the coworking phenomenon in its current form can be traced to the United States in the early 2000s. It has grown rapidly especially during the economic recession with the increase in self-employment. In practice, many freelancers and individual entrepreneurs cannot afford their own office premises, so they share them with others in the same position. (See Gandini 2015, Merkel 2015, Moriset 2013; on self-employment in Finland: Pärnänen & Sutela 2014, Vallander & Douglas 2015.)

The increase in coworking is also connected to the sharing economy and the megatrend of shared use. In the cities of the 2000s, people borrow, swap and recycle things and use them together with others. If cars, flats, power drills or clothing can be shared, why not also workspaces? (On sharing economy, see Lahti 2015, Lahti & Selosmaa 2013.) But as indicated above, neither the sharing economy nor shared workspaces are completely new phenomena as such – they are long-established practices for instance in artistic work.

What is a coworking space?

In English, the term ‘coworking space’ is used for shared workspaces, whilst working in them is referred to as ’coworking’. There are no established Finnish translations for these terms. Instead, the Finnish language has the relatively unique concept yhteisöllinen työtila (roughly ’communal workspace’). Coworking spaces are also referred to by using other concepts such as creative workspaces or occasionally cultural centres, hubs or clusters, and often simply as workspaces, workrooms or offices. The concept of communal workspace (yhteisöllinen työtila) is particularly interesting, because in contrast to the English term ‘coworking space’, it implies that the activity is based on a particular degree or kind of communality.

During 2014, we conducted an ethnographic study in three coworking spaces in Helsinki. We sought to find answers – through observation and interviews – to the questions of what kind of work is done in coworking spaces and what makes them ‘communal’. In addition to this material, we have also actively monitored, both before and after this fieldwork phase, a Facebook group called Mushrooming that acts as a peer network for leasing workrooms or desk space in coworking communities.

The coworking spaces in Finland have not been listed anywhere, and no statistics have been compiled on their incidence. It is reasonable to assume that most of them are located in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, especially in Helsinki proper. In Finland, the creative industries – whose representatives are the main users of the coworking spaces – are strongly concentrated in the Uusimaa region around Helsinki (Metsä-Tokila 2013). There are some coworking spaces in other larger cities, and there have also been a few attempts in rural municipalities.

As a rule, the coworking spaces in Helsinki are located in the inner city. The principal tenant of the space may be one person or a small enterprise that sublets the workspace to other users. Alternatively, every user of the space can draw up a separate lease agreement with the owner of the space. Usually the practical issues related to the workspace, such as basic cleanliness or purchasing shared supplies, are handled collectively. Many workspaces have appointed a hostess/host or a ’person in charge’ who holds the final responsibility for managing the common and shared things, receiving new tenants, as well as facilitating communality in the workspace (see Merkel 2015).

The people occupying the coworking spaces in Helsinki include professionals from different arts fields, design, information technology, marketing, communications and science. According to our research, the work done in coworking spaces is individualised and highly personal work which our interviewees also saw in terms of self-expression and self-fulfilment. (See also Julkunen 2008.) They perceived work as an important part of their identity. On the other hand, our interviewees felt that it was important to maintain a good work–life balance. Working in a shared space could offer some boundaries in time and space, for instance, to creative workers who may lack a clear distinction between work and leisure.

In a coworking space, a self-employed person can find colleagues and a work community. According to our findings, this was the most important reason for using a coworking space. Working at home or in a café was, by contrast, perceived as solitary. At home it was also difficult to maintain the networks that are central to the work and constitute social capital for a self-employed person (Gandini 2015). The workspace community was also seen as an opportunity to find help in the everyday problems at work. Moreover, such communities offered a chance to find partners for cooperation. In our interpretation, the communities in working spaces are typical postmodern communities, characterised by fuzzy limits and changeability. Despite this, people could feel a deep sense of belonging and solidarity in the workspaces.

Helsinki's coworking spaces as part of urban milieu

The coworking spaces in Helsinki show how 'new work' has taken over the spaces of 'old work': former factories and business premises. Many workspaces have emerged in industrial spaces or old cornershops and cafés, as the users of the space have renovated the space by themselves to suit their taste.

Internationally, coworking is associated with an idea of spaces that do not much resemble a traditional office (for example, unoffice in DeGuzman & Tang 2011). The workspaces in Helsinki also aim to create a non-office-like atmosphere with their interior decoration and visual look. The workspaces can be cosy, café-like, or vintage-style; they can range from simple Scandinavian to 'hipster' and/or industrial romantic style.

Whatever the design, a common preoccupation of the workspaces is the pursuit of aesthetic beauty, personal style and a pleasant environment. In our interview data, many people working in the workspaces said that they were attracted by the large windows in former shopfronts or the high rooms in converted industrial spaces. In the Mushrooming network, workspaces are marketed like high-value real estate: the selling points can include location in an Art Nouveau building or proximity to the sea.

In our study, the aesthetic and locational values of the workspace to its users do emerge, but together with the content areas (i.e. what fields of work the occupants are involved with), they also form a kind of brand or image – a collective – to external observers. This is important because of the kind of community image that people want to be attached to and how it can support their own work. The positive image of a coworking space has an exchange value to the individuals working there, and vice versa. A well-assembled group of professionals can make the shared workspace flourish and generate external credibility (it may even become a guarantee of quality).

Spaces located at the street level are often active participants in the life of their district, and they are a visible part of the milieu of a certain street or block. In terms of architecture, the workspaces located in old shopfronts are semi-public, like stores or cafés. Many coworking spaces create a cultural reference to a café with their architecture and interior decoration, and they have a kind of a tensioned combination of public and private, open and closed, work and leisure (cf. Mäkelä & Rajanti 2000).

In these semi-public workspaces, the interface between the street and the workspace may be porous and it may leak in both directions. On the one hand, there may be a direct view into the workspace from the street, and uninvited guests may pop in. On the other hand, the functions of the workspace may also spill out to the street. Some people working in such spaces say that they sometimes go out to the street to make private telephone calls – paradoxically, since an inner-city street is not a particularly private space. The street has also been used as a place of work by carrying seats from the workspace to the pavement outside. This provides the workspace with a kind of a terrace, as in a café or a restaurant.

In the street-level workspaces, the field of street sociability and the theatrum mundi being played on the street (see for example Sennett 1977, Mäenpää 2005) expands to include the workspace, whose architecture already invites people to participate in a café-like urban life rather than ensuring that people can work in peace. The workspaces located on upper floors attract less traffic in and out. The same applies to spaces located further away from the inner city or in industrial buildings – outside the ’stage’ of leisurely street life and its various forms of performative practices. These spaces may be more peaceful environments to work in, just like spaces with less frequent visits from customers or other contacts.

Regardless of their location (street level or upper floors, city centre or further away), many workspaces actively participate in the life of the local community of their district. For example, a Mushrooming advertisement may state that the occupants of a workspace have participated in Restaurant Day or Cleaning Day, held an open doors day for the neighbourhood or organised events targeted at both the workspace community and the people living nearby. Some professionals may choose their workspace on these grounds if they wish to be actively involved in neighbourhood activities, as was the case for one of the spaces in our study.

Coworking spaces represent globality and locality at the same time. The coworking spaces in Helsinki are part of the international coworking community, which is an imaginary community in the sense referred to by Benedict Anderson: its members cannot all meet each other even in theory (see Anderson 2007). At the same time, coworking spaces participate in a new kind of local and community-based urban culture that has rapidly become a trend (see for example Keskinen & Kotro 2014, Jyrkäs & Luoto 2014).

How can the city support the work of creative self-employed people?

Urban culture, great parties or neighbourhood events are not the principal raisons d’être for coworking spaces. First and foremost, coworking spaces exist so that self-employed people can get their work done. The City of Helsinki has addressed the needs of mobile workers, for instance, by developing the Loft Helsinki concept (see Diagonal Mental Structure Oy 2013). The Urban Workshop and the Urban Office of the Helsinki City Library also serve all citizens with an occasional need for a workspace. Further efforts would be needed to ensure a flexible way of acquiring empty spaces in Helsinki for use as offices by small independents in the creative industries.

Coworking spaces represent one new form of urban work and one possible scenario of the future of work. This suggests a possible future trajectory where today’s various organisational structures become obsolete or are transformed into different kinds of ’cells’ defined by multiple jobs and changing workplaces and working methods. The world of coworking has already knocked on the door of traditional work culture, and soon we are likely to see how wide that door will open. What shape will future operational culture take? We can already see the sparks of things to come in these coworking spaces.

Pia Houni and Heli Ansio are researchers at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. The article is based on their book Duunia kimpassa. Yhteisölliset työtilat Helsingissä (City of Helsinki Urban Facts, 2015).

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