Coworking Europe 2016 Day One: David vs Goliath

The seventh annual Coworking Europe Conference was held in Brussels, Belgium this past week, hosting upwards of 400 coworking owners, operators and other future of work enthusiasts. Produced by SocialWorkplaces.com, the event was brought back to the first city it was held in, by organizer and Brussels resident Jean-Yvette Huwart. Though other regions, such as Dublin and the Canary Islands were in contention such, hosting the event in Brussels was an nod to honor the city after the terror attacks earlier this year. Taking place at Brussels Environment, a conference center and part of the newly redeveloped Tour & Taxis complex felt perfect as over the past years the conference has showcased how many European cities are re-invigorating industrial complexes that have long been vacant.
Jean-Yves Huwart, Founder of Social Workplaces
Jean-Yves Huwart, Founder of Social Workplaces

The coworking industry is known to embrace the different and the quirky; often opting to participate in “unconference” sessions where discussions are led by the participants, rather than a long list of panels with industry experts. That said, it is tradition that Day One includes presentations such as the initial results of the Global Coworking Conference as published by Deskmag, keynotes from industry leaders and a collection of curated panels.

Many in this young and burgeoning industry can sense a growing divide among those who run independent spaces versus newer, venture funded coworking “brands” who all seem to be chasing after WeWork and their infamous $16B valuation. Within the first two hours of the event, you could see the voices of discontent on the live twitter board at the front of the auditorium. Presentations given by the founder of We+, a coworking chain in China and the co-founder of Tribes, a brand built on identities of nomadic and ethnic groups, based in the Netherlands seemed to be the two that ruffled the most feathers.
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If these organizations wanted to make a good impression to an already skeptical audience, quotes such as “Coworking doesn’t work unless it’s big”, and “We’ve got two billionaires backing us” didn’t help their cause. Rather than inspiring or motivating the crowd, they set off a chain of conversations amongst attendees that two days after the event are still being discussed in various circles and Facebook groups. There were some, like coworking legend Alex Hillman that took the lead and hosted their own round tables halfway through:
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Later on in Day One, panels focused on discussion such as “Transforming your space into the hub of your local business ecosystem” and “Solving social issues through coworking” seemed to provide some balance to the event’s content. A new addition to this year, a set of “Masterclass” workshops were provided for veterans of the industry and focused on topics such as “Arranging shared revenue deals with landlords”. These topics certainly point to the direction the industry is heading in, whether those veterans want to admit it or not.
Say what you may, the organizers of this conference should be commended for taking the risk in attempting to bridge this widening gap between the Davids and the Goliaths. In their desire to produce an event for an industry that has a larger than normal spectrum of members, they provided the catalyst for endless discussions, only it appears that rather than fostering dialogue between these dissenting groups, it seemed as if to only drive them farther apart.
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This Coworkaholic’s take on Day One would be that both parties would be well served to connect with each other rather than further dive into their own bubbles. The Davids who have been struggling for years to grow sustainable businesses could learn a thing or two from these larger brands. The Goliaths too have much to learn as many of them are facing challenges in staff retention, filling their coworking areas (instead of just selling private offices) and should note the need to be a part of the local industry community, rather than just dominating their markets.
Data from the 2016 Global Coworking Survey proves there is growing demand for flexible and shared workspace of many types, shapes and sizes. For those that are fearful of any type of competition or others that plan on adding 2,000 spaces in 10 years, one must ask what their true priority is: themselves or their members? By connecting and learning from each other, one would think that the actual members might be the ones to benefit the most.
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