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How does co-working actually work?

Like blockchain or venture capital, most people kinda understand what co-working is, but how it really works remains a bit of a mystery.

Far from the stereotype of tech dudes in tees playing ping pong, co-working has evolved into a global phenomenon since it first emerged in the US in 2005.

Coworking space

Co-working is a growing business in Australia. Picture: Gravity

Tim Mahlberg, a PhD candidate in business information systems at the University of Sydney, studied co-working in Australia for a report he co-authored late last year. He gives us the lowdown on all things co-working.

“In 2005, a new form of working was conceived when a small group of individuals from creative industries came together in an experiment to work alongside each other in an open and shared space called Spiral Muse in San Francisco,” he writes in his report.

“This marked the birth of the co-working space. Today, the number of co-working spaces exceed 10,000 worldwide.” In Australia, the number has rocketed from just 60 in 2013 to more than 300.

Harmonious environment: The basics of co-working etiquette

Mahlberg defines co-working as “the practice of working alongside people with whom one shares a workplace, but not necessarily an organisational affiliation.”

He says co-working spaces – which charge for a desk, office or even floor – come in all shapes and flavours and cater to a diverse range of small business owners, freelance professionals and corporates.

“Most co-working spaces are shared, open-plan workspaces that usually feature shared desks or tables where co-workers work alongside each other.

“These open work areas are not dissimilar to the activity-based work settings found in contemporary office environments of many large corporate buildings today. They mark a significant departure from the ‘cubicle’ style office lay-outs that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s,” Mahlberg says.

Work Inc coworking

Open-space design is central to co-working spaces. Picture: WorkInc

Co-working spaces also usually offer meeting spaces, open spaces or private rooms, spaces for presentations and events, board rooms or larger open areas, entertainment areas, kitchens and cafés, break-out and relaxation spaces and even private office suites.

“Co-working spaces are often the spiritual home of successful start-ups, the digital disruptors, the corporate change-makers and social visionaries. This is where new business models are incubated, nurtured, developed and discovered by investors,” Mahlberg says.

While the stereotypical co-working space may be seen the very opposite to traditional corporate work spaces, Mahlberg says new and more sophisticated co-working spaces provide “concepts more relevant to larger organisations”.

Co-working certainly isn’t going anywhere.

Decoding the jargon


Working alongside people you share a workplace, but not an organisational affiliation, with.

Co-working space

Spaces shared by people from different organisations, often freelancers, who work alongside each other, share infrastructure and often engage in joint activities associated with learning and innovation.

Flexible working: How to find a co-working space that’s right for you

Co-working member

Someone who subscribes to and uses a co-working space, usually for a fee, on a regular basis.

co-working space

Co-working is hugely appealing to freelancers and start-ups. Picture: Getty


Activity-based working. Refers to a workplace design principle that provides a variety of working environments that the worker is able to choose from, depending on the kind of work they do.

Flexible work

A work arrangement, usually agreed with an employer, that allows the employee to work from places outside of the usual work environment. It typically refers to “working from home” arrangements, but can include working offices that are closer to home or from a co-working space.

The term is also used to describe arrangements of working irregular hours that suit a particular lifestyle or commitment, ie as a care giver.


A new, emerging business venture, usually without established income streams, relying on (early stage) investor funding.


A type of professional creating a new business model or new market for their product or service.

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