How to apply the principles of coworking within companies to boost creativity and innovation: Creative intrapreneurs, informal spaces and the Catalyst’s role.

Coworking spaces are shared working environments playing host mainly to freelancers, start-ups and, in general, work-at-home professionals. Coworking differs from office-rental business centers in that its main goal is creating a community that promotes synergies among its members.

Besides reducing spending on infrastructure, people come to these spaces attracted by several reasons: to meet people with similar values, work in a creative environment, establish collaborations and widen their network of contacts.

It is indeed curious that communities of freelancers working on different projects are often capable of generating more synergies and a more collaborative environment than many companies.

The question that arises here is if this environment could be applied into companies. I’ve visited three coworking spaces in Barcelona to answer this question: Makers of Barcelona (MOB), Betahaus and Impact Hub.

1. The creative intrapreneur

The profile of the typical user of these spaces is that of the creative entrepreneur and this, of course, largely explains the dynamics of collaboration and innovation that arise among them. However, this profile is by no means something exclusive to freelancers.

Firstly, it’s well known the role that intrapreneurs play within companies, broadly defined as employees who carry out new initiatives, often innovative ones, without being asked to do so.

Regarding creativity, it isn’t confined to technological innovations. Although members of MOB and Betahaus come mostly from areas such as design, marketing, communication or architecture, we can also find freelancers from more “traditional” areas. In the case of Impact Hub, members are exclusively social entrepreneurs that address social challenges such as the environment or youth unemployment.

What differentiates these coworking spaces from most companies are both the external and internal filters for selecting their members.

First, people come to these spaces seeking a stimulating social environment, a creative community. By contract, most people select companies only in response to a job offer.

Secondly, in the three coworking spaces a selection of their future members is made. They look for active, engaged people, willing to participate and who will contribute to the development of the community. In the words of Jesús Iglesias, Talent connector at Impact Hub, they don’t want “people who only come to keep their seat warm”. In the case of Betahaus, members “don’t come just to work, but also to develop professionally and socially”, explains Eduardo Forte, Co-Founder & CMO. How many companies consider these qualities as selection criteria?

2. Informal and multipurpose spaces

Entering MOB and Betahaus, the first thing we find is a café. Some people are talking, but most of them are working, absorbed in their laptops. The first impression is being in a college bar. In fact, the café and other rest areas have a fundamental role.

The function of these common spaces is essential: encouraging informal and cordial meetings between members, as these non-professional relationships allow the spontaneous emergence of future collaborations and synergies. These spaces are multi-purpose and versatile. They can be used to work, chill out, chat or carry out joint activities.

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Photo credit: Makers of Barcelona (MOB)

 

The distribution of spaces is not accidental. Even in the rooms devoted to work, all elements are intended to encourage personal interrelations and collaboration. At Betahaus they even occasionally move the café tables to prevent people always sit in the same spot.

All this differs widely from companies, where each space has a specific function, employees occupy the same places, being surrounded always by the same people, and rest areas are controlled.

The difference couldn’t be greater. While informal meetings are highly valued and encouraged at coworking spaces, in companies these are frowned upon. The ideal employees are those who sit in front of their computer for eight hours, avoid informal conversations and reduce rest periods to a minimum. In turn, senior managers are isolated in exclusive areas, away from the other employees. No wonder that innovation is almost nonexistent in these companies.

3. The Catalyst

In the three coworking spaces, one or several members of the team know everybody in the community. They relate daily with members, know the projects in which they’re working as well as their skills, and their role is to connect people and ideas in such a way as to ensure that synergies may arise among them. Making a parallel with the human brain, the catalyst facilitates the synapses among members.

Besides the catalyst, coworking spaces energize the community through events and informal activities to facilitate interrelationships. At Impact Hub, new members introduce themselves to the community and explain the project they’re working on, MOB organizes the “surprise sandwich day” and “Meet the MOBbers”, and at Betahaus are often the members themselves who organize activities spontaneously.

The difference between coworking and companies is evident.

While the role of the catalyst is to facilitate, in the least intrusive manner, that people relate to each other and exchange ideas, the role of managers and supervisors in a company is to be connected with their staff to collect information from them and build connections themselves.

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Regarding the activities, these are rarely optional or organized independently by the employees. The alleged “informal” meetings became boring moments from which everybody wants to escape.

One of the things that struck me was that, according to Pablo Bermejo, MOB talent, many of the collaborations between members were not based on the areas where they are experts. It isn’t about “stuff that people know, but they’re good at”, skills and interests.

For these skills come to light, two conditions are necessary. An environment propitious for informal relationships and freedom for members to perform activities out of their daily tasks that require the application of different knowledge and skills.

Do these measures may be applied in companies? Indeed. In fact, many companies already do. You will recognize them by their highly innovative profile, companies where employees grow professionally. The key is to stop treating employees as elements of a gear to build a true co-creative community.

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I’d like to thank Pablo Bermejo (Makers of Barcelona), Eduardo Forte (Betahaus Barcelona) and Jesús Iglesias (Impact Hub Barcelona) for their collaboration.

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