Managing a Team in a Coworking Space: Tips from a Small Business Owner
Coworking spaces are full of freelancers, independent professionals and remote workers. They can also house startups and small teams. I spoke with Launch Brigade and Cloud Brigade founder Chris Miller, who runs a team of 11, plus 20 contractors, out of NextSpace in Santa Cruz, California, about the benefits and challenges of managing a team in a coworking space. He also offers insights into how he and his team engage in the greater coworking community.
Cat Johnson: What are a few benefits of running a business and team out of a coworking space?
Chris Miller: There’s community in a coworking space—at least in this particular one. We’re all like-minded individuals and we’re all willing to pay the price to play. It’s not a giant barrier but it’s a pretty good indicator of whether somebody’s really serious about succeeding.
That filter means that you’ve got a pretty reasonable pool of people to bounce things off of—from a business perspective and from a technical perspective. It gives you access to this network and the ability to build a network to find potential people to bring on the team, whether that’s permanent members or short-term jobs. All of these social and professional relationships have given us the ability to rapidly scale up on opportunities as they come in.
From a business perspective, starting a business is hard, getting a lease on an office is hard, finding the right space that offers you the potential to grow is hard. These are difficult challenges even if you have money in your pocket. Coworking provides a really low barrier of entry to a professional workplace to be able to start a company.
How does the coworking community influence your team and business?
It’s a plus. Our employees enjoy being part of this community because everybody has interests outside of their normal job function. The interests might be related to the job or they might be totally different, but they already have access to a network of really cool people to collaborate and generate ideas.
One of the struggles of growing in a coworking space is, when you get big enough that you have to consider leaving to grow the company, this community piece is potentially missing. How do you maintain that moving forward? It can be potentially jarring to the culture of the company. It’s kind of like breaking up.
How do you think managing a team in a coworking space is different from managing a team in a traditional office?
Voices carry, so being in a coworking space has a slight impact on how you deal with people because you’re in a public setting, even if you’re in an office. That’s a good thing because it adds an extra level of accountability to everyone involved. It’s one thing to have a debate or disagreement over a particular topic, but if you’re doing it in a public forum, it definitely changes everybody’s tact. It forces you to be more adult about things.
What are the challenges of managing a team in a coworking space?
When you outgrow a single office, you can have some bumps in terms of scaling—cost-wise and space-wise. You have a tendency to cram more people into a space than you might otherwise do.
There are noise management issues, especially if there’s collaboration happening out in the open and phone calls with customers. I see a general impact on people’s sanity and ability to focus based on background noise. Everybody has been adopting headphones whether it’s because they prefer to listen to music when they’re working or it’s just noise cancellation.
What are some ways you deal with these challenges?
With the scaling, I try to make sure everybody has adequate personal space—that there’s enough desk space to be able to operate. Multiple monitors to help with efficiencies—just more virtual workspace.
We’ve begun purchasing high-end headsets that have noise cancelling for phone calls so calls don’t pick up background noise. We adopted a strategy that everyone is on mute unless they’re talking on a conference call.
I’ve considered having a light at each desk that indicates that somebody is on a phone call. People will walk in and have no idea you’re on a call.
Do some team members take to the coworking environment more than others?
There’s this allure with telecommuting so we try to be flexible and accommodate people when they need to do things during business hours. At the same token, for our company, I feel that the collaboration is best done when we’re all in the same room.
Any tips on helping people feel at home in the coworking space?
If you’re considering moving from a silo at home to a coworking space, there’s probably already some inner desire to break free from that shell. Even though sometimes it can be uncomfortable, you just really need to be committed to that transformation because the more interaction you have with the community, the better the rewards are going to be.
There’s an ongoing conversation about the role of offices in coworking spaces. I’d love to hear your thoughts on having office space for your team and also being an engaged part of the coworking community.
We definitely need an office for a lot of functional reasons. We need to be able to have discussions as a team pretty ad hoc and that would be disruptive if we were in an open area outside of the office. And we’re talking about projects and details of our customers and it’s not appropriate to talk about those things out in the open.
As far as engaging in the community, an office does provide the ability to focus. When you’re in the office there’s less distraction than when you’re out in the open area. But we’re all coming in and out of the office and we get to know each other through the happy hours, the functions, the coffee breaks, that kind of stuff.
It does have that kind of Cheers feel where everybody knows your name. There are times I’ve walked through the space and known almost everyone in the open space. It has that feeling of comfort, that hominess, that’s provided by all these other people who you might not work directly with but they’re part of your daily office life. We get the benefit of being in a bigger company without being in a bigger company. It’s kind of a hybrid.
An ongoing conversation about offices in coworking spaces is about whether people in offices can really engage in the community. When I find myself in these conversations, I use you as an example of someone who has office space and is one of the most engaged people in the local coworking community.
I think people are happier engaging. Maybe that’s an unintended consequence of running a team in a coworking space. The office is the comfort zone and for people to interact in that offices is one thing, but to interact with the greater community is another step; you’re coming out of that protection of the office space.
There are productive conversations that happen in the community that can only benefit everybody as a whole and they’re going to bring that energy from the community back into the office.
Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on coworking, community and the future of work. Publications include Shareable, Yes! Magazine, Mother Jones, Triple Pundit and GOOD. She’s the author of Coworking Out Loud, a guide to content marketing for coworking spaces and collaborative teams. Follow her on Twitter: @CatJohnson