Diversity in Coworking: How to be more inclusive?

I’d like to start a conversation about diversity in coworking. People of color appear underrepresented, both in the individual spaces I’ve visited (including mine) and the coworking movement in general. I want to explore how we can improve this.

I’m lost myself, I don’t know how to do this. So, I’m asking you. What can we do (or what do you already do) to ensure that we are being inclusive of people who may be underrepresented, like people of color or LGBTQ or gender nonconforming individuals?

Particularly:

  1. What can individual space operators do to build inclusive and diverse communities?
  2. What can the wider coworking movement do to incorporate diverse voices and perspectives into the movement?
  3. What coworking organizations can we bring into this conversation? (e.g. this forum, the leadership slack, GCUC, service providers, regional alliances)

Coworking is a maturing industry, and I think it has gained a reputation as predominantly white, male, and tech-focused. Whether fair or not, this is a perception many of us have encountered. If this perception continues, I’m afraid that attempts to increase the diversity of our spaces will just get harder.

What do you think?

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Thank you so much for kicking off this convo, @Mike_Morita!

I’m going to share this thread in the closed facebook group that I’m aware was started for folks interested in this conversation, and I think it’s especially valuable to be able to have in public so more folks can find, contribute, and learn from it!

Personally, I’ve gone through my own experience learning my own blind spots and realizing how much work we can do. I wrote some of that learning process when we launched our code of conduct, but it’s something we continue to think about and work on every day.

For your questions, some initial thoughts!

What can individual space operators do?

  • Figure out your own blind spots. Even if you are doing well in certain kinds of diversity, do the work to figure out who isn’t in the room, and why. This usually involves some conversations, potentially uncomfortable conversations. You have to meet people where they are.
  • Be ready to do the work and research rather than expecting people or programs to do it for you. This can be frustrating, since you don’t know what you don’t know, but I think it’s part of the process.
  • Small sustained actions are generally much more valuable than big, sweeping gestures. Communicating elements of how you work to include different kinds of people in every day conversations (tours, event planning, etc) will make a much bigger impact than having a single conversation.
  • Be intentional about who you collaborate with. When you’re planning an event or project, instead of inviting the exact same people you always do, try to think outside of the low hanging fruit. I’ve gotten a LOT of milage out of asking our members explicitly for recommendations and introductions to people who often aren’t at the table when we’re putting together an invite list or planning a collab.
  • Who and how you hire matters. In our last round of hiring, we intentionally decided to do the work to reach into communities beyond our usual contacts and make sure that a wider range of potential candidates were able to, and believed they could, apply. The result is crystal clear in the words of the candidate we hired. What you offer, and how you offer it, impacts who will apply.

What can the wider coworking movement do to incorporate diverse voices and perspectives into the movement?

  • Ask fellow operators the same questions you’re asking yourself. Who isn’t in the room, and why/why not? There is no single correct answer.
  • One of the biggest sets of voices I feel is missing from the movement are members. Operators (myself included) tend to dominate the conversation. When you’re doing an article, or invited to join a panel, or go to a local speaking event to talk about coworking, try getting at least one member involved.
    • Rather than answering a reporters’ questions yourself, suggest that they speak to a member or two. I’ve even been so bold as to say that I won’t speak to the reporter unless the speak to a member.
    • Ask a member to represent your coworking communtiy on a panel instead of yourself or a teammate. Trust them to represent your community and speak authentically about their experience.
    • In all cases, be thoughtful about the members you invite. Mix it up. Encourage new voices to share their stories.
  • I’d love to see more ways for non-english-speaking voices to contribute to the learning experience. There are some VERY smart people around the world doing amazing community building work, but you won’t hear from them because even if their english is perfectly understandable they aren’t fully comfortable or confident presenting in english. It’d be amazing if we started to see conferences invite non-english speakers to talk in their native language, and then either invest in have it translated live and/or pre-record the talks and have them transcribed and subtitled. In all cases, it’s not just about getting knowledge TO non-english speakers, it’s about having non-english-speakers able to contribute to the mainstage conversations.

What coworking organizations can we bring into this conversation? (e.g. this forum, the leadership slack, GCUC, service providers, regional alliances)

  • I know that the European Coworking Assembly has been organizing conversations about these topics over the last year, perhaps @Jeannine can speak more to that.
  • I wonder what it’d look like to have an event that exclusively focuses on these topics, and have it led by actual experts from outside of coworking. When we hosted the People at Work Summit, we invited someone who has a lot of experience doing D&I work within universities, which IMO has a lot of similarities to the kinds of work we do. I learned more from that 40 minute talk than hours and hours of conversing amongst ourselves, so I’m making that video public specifically for this conversation.
  • I would like to launch some language specific sections of this forum, allowing conversations to happen in multiple languages. I could see that idea expanded in other ways, and warmly welcome ideas/suggestions.

Honestly, a lot of this is table stakes (or should be). I’m looking forward to seeing how this thread unfolds, and encourage others to add your own experiences and ideas, no matter how big or small they seem.

There’s literally endless work to be done here, and it’ll be a lot better for everyone if we do it together!

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Hi, Mike!

Well you do it the same way you eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

I think it is useful to think of inclusion as a process and not a goal; possibly this is because I like process. As a general matter the process starts with looking at what you are already doing, then considering what effect that is having. After that you look at what you could do differently, noticing how that affects things, and then repeating.

For many people the Code of Conduct is a really useful tool for going through this process, and it results in a concrete thing you can put your hands on which people also like. I do think it is important to understand that the CoC is a frame for the process rather than an end in itself: it is not unlike a business plan in this way. The business plan is not what makes you successful or gets you the finding you are seeking with it: the business does that. The business plan requires you to make concrete your vague and half articulated notions of how to go about things and rubs your nose in them; and this is also how a CoC works I think.

At the European Coworkng Assembly we have indeed been holding conversations both offline and online for a bit over a year now as part of the Inclusion Conversation. The most recent one was in March with Tara Everett from Canoe Coworking and Shazia Mustafa from Third Door Coworking. The next one is in May, I will be speaking on Accessibility in coworkng in Amstelveen on Global Accessibility Awareness Day (#GAAD).

We have a grant application out with a large consortium of folks, including the Coworking Library to develop a coworking space for a specific group, and that includes funding to develop a set of best practices for inclusion and study their effect on marginalized populations in the area of the coworking space.

We are working with Cobot and CoUp which are leading in the area of CoC for events and for spaces and we are developing a workbook/toolkit in both written and electronic form for the development of a CoC in both contexts.

We need a workbook and toolkit on representation and inclusion in comms and marketing very badly; ut that’s for the future.

So we are all in, I think it is fair to say.

Not only is coworking a maturing industry, there are a number of larger issues at play here: with the shift to freelance working, the gig economy, and smaller nimble businesses, a number of social issues come into play: discrimination, civil rights, gender equality, accessibility, are all addressed by society in a legal framework within or based on labor law, that is, employment. Freelancers and often employees of small businesses are out here with effectively no protections on these fronts.

It seems to me that coworking as a movement should be getting right out in front on this. Our commitment to the core values of accessibility and openness means something.

To get off of my soapbox and answer the questions:

  1. What can individual space operators do to build inclusive and diverse communities?

I think this is a process as I say, and there are a lot of ways to start. But I think one of the best ways is to start a conversation around something concrete, like the development of a CoC.

I think representation is important. I think most of us can tell when we walk into a place whether we feel at home. A lot of that is who we see there. Founder bias is real in coworking: most of my coworkers are over 40 and most of them are women. This is not coincidental, it is at least partly a function of the fact that I am both of those things and they see me both in real life and in our comms.

  1. What can the wider coworking movement do to incorporate diverse voices and perspectives into the movement?

I hate to sound sort of simple about this but: include people. Invite people. Talk to people.

I would like to see coworking events become inclusive: the only one I know to be active in this area is CCCSee2019 in Belgrade. They have committed to majority female representation on their panels and are working on bringing in speakers with disabilities for the mainstage. They have asked the Assembly to help them develop an accessibility statement and are connecting with folks all over Europe on this subject.

I would like to see coworking spaces working on inclusiveness in public, talking about it and working with each other and their coworkers and allying with others in the field to open up the conversation because that’s where it starts.

  1. What coworking organizations can we bring into this conversation? (e.g. this forum, the leadership slack, GCUC, service providers, regional alliances)

I think most are interested and engaged, in general. Just like coworking spaces, what is needed is focus and some hard work.

We have had events on a more or less regular basis, some of them including folks from outside of coworking (because I do think we spend too much time talking about coworking with people in coworking :stuck_out_tongue: ) and they are wonderful and energizing but usually do not lead to sustained action. I think if we could develop a CoC for events and for spaces, and have events as a part of that development process, it would be a very good start.

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hi Mike,

First of all - great topic! I’ve been waiting for coworking leaders to ask this question. Speaking as a black person who’s regularly frequented coworking spaces as a member, I’ve also noticed the lack of diversity in most shared workspaces. Though I’m not an owner or manager, I think there are a few concrete steps that coworking spaces can take to appeal to a more diverse crowd:

  1. Host a Diversity Day or mixer: since coworking spaces are so enthusiastic about connecting with local businesses, why not seek out minority-owned businesses in the area and invite them to a networking event dedicated to them, even if they aren’t members yet. It would be a great way to advertise your space, obviously good PR (I defy any local newspaper to ignore an event like that if it’s big enough), and it will spread the word among minority communities that your space is progressive and a viable option for their business. In a small or mid-size town word travels fast, I think the main barrier for underrepresented communities (like black-owned businesses) is that they won’t risk buying into a new concept unless they know it is…friendly (or at least open-minded).

  2. Go where they go: by this I mean advertise your space where there is a concentrated diverse community. If you see that your space is predominately white, it’s probably because you’re located in a predominately white neighborhood, and you advertise and partner with businesses that have a - you guessed it - predominately white customer base. This is where profiling your target customer might be a good thing. Find minority communities of artists, freelancers, LGBTI-led businesses, etc… (they have their own forums and facebook groups). So go to their events, give them your brochure or present your concept in their space first. Also it wouldn’t hurt to do a photoshoot to add at least one person of color in your marketing materials. Trust me, we notice. And whether it’s unconsciously or intentionally done, a lack of representation alienates minority groups from your business.

  3. Educate them about your membership plans: Another reason you may not be seeing a lot of leads from minority groups is a lack of understanding about prices. They simply might not know that a coworking space can be cheaper and less stressful than a traditional office lease. Perhaps you could host an open forum or design marketing materials that break down the savings they could achieve by moving to your space. But first be very self-aware about your pricing in the first place. If you’ve priced yourself into a very narrow demographic already, you might want to revisit that and do more research on what your target minority community can afford.

Hope those help. Let me know if any of this makes sense.I repeat, I’m not a business owner. Just a coworking enthusiast who’s passionate about inclusion.

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I love these notes and ideas @Ashrendav. Thank you!

They also reminded me of some other things we do that have been noted by members and member prospects with things like “thank you SO MUCH for thinking of me.”

  • With the help of some members who were nursing moms, we set up one of our phone rooms with signage, supplies, and priority access to those nursing moms to have a comfortable and quiet place to pump.
  • We proudly display our local LGBTQ flag on our door (our local version includes black and brown bars for representing people of color).
  • I know that I mentioned our code of conduct in my previous post, but we’ve gone the extra mile to make it a primary nav item in our public website AND call it out during our signup and onboarding process. I’ve gotten a lot of direct messages from people saying how excited they were to see our commitment to inclusion right upfront.
  • Some of our members who run events have specifically started mentioning accessibility in their event promotion, including our Code of Conduct and the fact that we have gender neural bathrooms available, that we are wheelchair accessible, etc. Notably, these are all things that have been fact for a while…but we don’t always remember to call attention to them.

Lastly - one of our members posted this amazing post yesterday that outlines a TON of specific things that they’ve done, what’s worked, and what hasn’t, for including more women, trans, and non-binary members in their program: https://www.recurse.com/blog/148-what-we-have-learned-from-seven-years-working-to-make-rc-50-percent-women

This post is a long read but I HIGHLY recommend it. I plan to borrow and riff on lots of the ideas inside, many are simple and cost nothing while others are more difficult and resource intensive. But in all cases, they’re seeing meaningful impact and that’s the goal right?

I was also struck - and this echos @Jeannine’s comment - that this work takes time. It’s not something you can just do for a quarter or even a year and be done. It’s more about rebuilding systems and approaches with more people in mind than the people who show up by default. That took me a long time to really get my head around, but now that I do, I feel like I’ve been unplugged from the matrix and I’m ready to do the work!

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Wow, @Ashrendav - thanks so much for these great bits of feedback! I am so grateful that you took the time to write this all out from the perspective of a member. So many of us here reading are owners and operators and so your voice is absolutely refreshing. Thanks!

Eager to see this conversation continue and for the process to move ever forward.

Susan

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Hey @alex can you please double-check that the video from PAWS is still public? I hit the link and it didn’t work for me. I’d love to check it out.

Thanks!
S

whoops, thanks, fixed!

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Thanks!

Hi all,

What an amazing and needed discussion. Thank you so much for everyone’s points.

I have been part of running a small co-working space in Brixton, South London; one of London’s most ethnically diverse boroughs, also one of the economically most unequal ones, housing prices in Brixton are actually rising faster than in any other area of London … Hence, when we thought about building a co-working community the tensions in the wider area/neighbourhoods played a massive part.

The co-working space has since been taken over by a new team of leaders. Both have grown up in the Brixton area, are from African and African-Caribbean background and really have experienced the changes that have happened in the area. In only four months the community within the space has grown and evolved massively, and there are very courageous conversations happening about gentrification, inequality and race. I definitely recommend checking out the space ‘Impact Brixton’ and the weekly event they are running on Monday nights.

This process has led to us growing a new project called OurSpace. Working across co-working spaces and community centres, we are trying to answer the question ‘What actually makes an inclusive space for social action’. We are engaging local leaders, businesses, change-makers in a new programme and have just launched a crowdfunding campaign as well.

We are looking for all kinds of support, sharing the campaign, getting involved with experience and advice, taking part in the programme, pledges and sponsoring us via our rewards…

So please, do get in touch with me & check out the OurSpace project here: [https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/ourspace-building-inclusive-spaces-in-lambeth]

Cheers! Steph

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Thanks, Alex – there’s couple of points that I want to pull out as exceptional topics (though they are all good!):

  1. Member’s voices.
    Members’ voices are really important. We try to involve our members as much as possible within our space, but you’re right that their voices seem missing beyond the walls of a space. I’d love to have more perspectives like @Ashrendav in the conversation. This is an area I’m going to be thinking a lot about. And further, I think the perspectives of not-members; people who toured our space, but declined to join. Sometimes they just feel better in another space, and that’s fine (and even encouraged!). But if they felt unwelcome for any reason, I’ll probably never hear about it unless I seek out that perspective.

  2. Non-english speakers.
    Of course! Duh, me. But I had not even thought about it (how’s that for a blind spot?). I would absolutely want to hear perspectives from people beyond my own language limitations. I understand this would take more work for organizers, but it would be a welcome addition to events.

I also have skeptical feedback on one point.

  1. An event exclusively for this topic.
    I’m of two minds. I understand the intent – this is important issue, and worthy of focused conversation. However, who would attend this event? People who already care about this topic. I worry that a “coworking d&i conference” might allow these issues to be seen as separate from the community building and business aspects of coworking, and not part of the conversation in larger conference settings.
    (on that note, thanks for the linked talk – I’m happy it was among the wide breadth of PAWS topics)

Thanks for all the food for thought. It gives me a lot to ponder.

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Thanks so much for your thoughts, Ashley. I really value getting your perspective as a member – it’s your experience that matters! Especially since it sounds like you’ve visited more than one space.

Can I ask a follow up?

Do you have any examples of something a space did that made it feel welcoming and inclusive when you were there? (Or, conversely, unwelcoming things to avoid?)

tagging @Ashrendav

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This is a really good point, and I agree that this is a thing I’d be cautious of.

To your point about who attends, I don’t know about you but I meet a lot of people who care about this topic but have no idea what to do (frankly I put myself in that category more than half the time).

That’s the audience I think could be moved into action beyond caring by seeing specific things that have been done, by people just like them.

My hope would then be that those actions can be carried back to other conferences, and shared to a wider audience.

Does that ease your well-placed skepticism at all?

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My skepticism is not at all with the conference itself. Add me to the frequent “no idea” bin who would like to learn.

My skepticism is with the actions of others in response to the conference.

Here’s an example. In other industries, I’ve observed that a conference might have a “diversity panel” to discuss the perspectives of people of color, or a “women in [subject]” panel. These are fine and good. But the speaker diversity is largely confined to those talks. Diverse speakers are given attention when the topic is diversity, but they are not included broadly in subject-matter sessions.

My worry is that conference and event organizers would not see a need to proactively include a diversity of voices in their events. They would think: “the coworking movement values diversity, there’s even a conference about it!” but might not recognize their own responsibility to make their event inclusive. (To be clear - I don’t think this would be malicious, or intentionally exclusive. I’m sure the conference organizers in the above example thought they were doing well by including a diversity panel, though they could have done more.)

I think that having the right intention, and communication, when planning a conference would allay my fears. The specific intent should be to empower attendees to bring the information out to others. Yes, I want to learn how to make my own space more inclusive. But we should also learn to engage and advocate effectively beyond our walls.

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Thanks for the input, Jeannine. I like your conception of inclusion as a process. I’ll have to give that perspective some thought.

Also, I can see a CoC being a valuable tool. We currently have a (years-old) statement of values, and revising them would be a good opportunity to involve the community in a discussion of our shared values.

Do you think it’s important to characterize it as a “code of conduct,” rather than a “statement of values”? The former seems more prescriptive, a set of rules to abide by; while the latter is a way we aspire to act within our community. Either one allows us to set expectations and correct unwanted behavior, and I’m inclined towards a less-prescriptive statement of values. However, I can see how it might differ and wonder if a “CoC” model has added benefit.

Hi @Mike_Morita! It’s great how deep we’re getting into this! Yes I have visited many coworking spaces (some casual and some corporate) and enjoyed most of them. When noting the lack of diversity, it’s not so much what the spaces do as what they don’t do. No one has ever explicitly said “you don’t belong here” or went out of their way to make me feel unwelcome. It’s more the general sense of apathy towards minority groups that builds over time. Similar to @Jeannine, I think a lot of business owners don’t realize (until late in the game) that diversity and inclusion are habits that you have to cultivate, not end goals. There is no finish line to diversity, no quota, no gold star. You simply practice it, until it becomes natural, like learning a language or playing an instrument - until you no longer question it in your mind.

But I digress: Sorry, I don’t have a direct answer to your question, but I can say the spaces where I’ve felt the most welcome (as a woman and a minority) are places where I’ve seen others like me walking through the doors or working in the space. Where people don’t assume that I’m loitering and take initiative to involve me in those “water-cooler” talks or fun activities during breaks and after-hours. In the space I work in now, my coworkers regularly have conversations about our hobbies. We found out one of the two black people in the office is deep into knitting, along with a few other people from a different company. Now we have a knitting circle at work (which includes men, women, black, white, Asian)! My point is that inclusion doesn’t always have to be about grand gestures and bold campaigns. Sometimes it’s as simple as having lunch with the right person or asking about someone’s weekend plans…

And I completely agree with you that, while having conferences and targeted talks about diversity are great, usually you just end up preaching to the choir. You can’t just include people of color/women/LGBTQ voices only when the subject is diversity. Include them in every aspect of the business (i.e. talks about sustainability, profitability, safety and security, new technology… the list goes on forever!).

I think the key for owners and operators is realizing that there are minority groups passionate about the exact same things you are and intentionally initiating conversations and partnerships with people outside of your immediate circle. Those connections will be much stronger than a surface-level bond over skin color or gender. When you get beyond the superficial, and value your minority members and employees for their ideas, they will start to feel at home in your space and attract more of the same. And over time you’ll look around at your space and see more variety and color than you had in the beginning.

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Good to see you in here Steph!

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