Although the term ‘coworking’ was first used in 1999, in reality the building blocks of the movement were laid well over 100 years ago. Here is our Slideshare and accompanying blog post that get to the bottom of this complex history:

1906: First Ever Open Plan Office

Frank Lloyd Wright decided to design the Larkin Administration office in Buffalo, New York with as few walls as possible in 1906. The Larkin building was groundbreaking because of the lack of walls – a first for the time. The building also came with built-in office furniture. Related or not to their open plan office, The Larkin Company did not fare so well, and in 1943 the soap company was forced to sell the building. Unfortunately, the building was demolished in 1950 after it was purchased by Western Trading Corporation in order to make room for a truck stop, despite nationwide protests.

1939: Wright vs Walls, Round Two

Wright continued to champion his open plan style in 1939 when he opened the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. Commissioned to create the cleaning supply company’s headquarters, he created the ‘Great Workroom’ to be used only by the secretaries of the Johnson Wax company. Administrators of the company were still given private offices, illustrating that the open plan office was not yet accepted by the entire office community. Nonetheless, the ‘Great Workroom’ was a huge step in the popularization of the open plan office. The building is still the world headquarters of the company, since changing their name to SC Johnson & Son.

1980s: Hot desking emerges

Image courtesy Getty Images

Whilst Wright laid the physical elements of open plan office styles that would later form the bedrock for co-working, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the concept of creating flexibility and efficiency in where you worked in an office started to emerge. 

Adapting the concept of ‘bed-sharing’ on submarines, hot desking stripped away the tradition of one person needing to working at the same desk every day. Just as submarines are cramped environments where space is a premium, office space was becoming more and more expensive. It no longer made sense to have people’s personal belongings take up critical work space if the desk owner wasn’t present.

1980s: Portable Offices Become Popular

In addition to hot desking, modular desks and cubicles had been popularized by the ’80s. These office elements were portable, allowing office arrangements to become as freeform as employees wanted them to be. Instead of being fixed behind big wooden desks in private walled spaces, these new inventions allowed work to take place in any kind of room. Desk space was becoming unhinged, and offices had more freedom how they wanted to set up their arrangements.

1989: Flexible Office Rental

Image courtesy Regus

British entrepreneur Mark Dixon founded Regus after moving to Brussels. While starting a flat rental service, he discovered that travelling business people had no choice but to work from their office. Seeing an opportunity, Dixon started renting out fully serviced offices for travellers to use on the go. In 2000, the company was valued at £1.5bn at its London IPO and Dixon became a billionaire. The company file for bankruptcy in the US following the dot-com bubble in 2002, but was saved by its profitable UK branch. Today, under the name International Workplace Group, they offer many different workspace options, including modern coworking styles.

1994: The Office That Almost Killed Open Plan

In the 90s, ad agencies were at the forefront of creativity in the workplace. The American agency Chiat/Day was one of those companies that really pushed the boundaries,commissioning Gaetano Pesce to design the ad agency’s Manhattan office to break as many workplace traditions as possible. In 1994, the building opened with no offices, desks or personal equipment in an attempt to foster creativity. It was in this wacky space that Chiat/Day created the iconic ‘1984’ advert that announced the Macintosh computer. Many consider this office building to be one of the main influencers on the collaborative philosophy of modern coworking, as it intended to place people in the same room who were working on completely different tasks. However, this attempt to spur collaboration didn’t last. Employees complained they couldn’t focus, claiming that the open space and bright colors were too much for them. Jay Chiat realized the radical design was a mistake about a year after it opened, and it was quietly redesigned. Chiat later sold his shares and left the company.

1995: Hackerspaces Open – Independent Workers Share Space

As the Internet grew in popularity, people had less constraints on where they could work, especially in the technology sector. People were less tied down by offices and started branching out on where they worked.

The not for profit organization C-base opened in Berlin as the world’s first hackerspace. Providing free access to the Internet starting in 2002, for the first time they brought workers together in the same space who weren’t working for the same company. Completely unrelated to each other’s work, people were sharing workspace together in a way that had never been seen before. Hackerspaces were different from anything that has come before them because they emphasize learning from everyone in the community in addition to getting work done. C-base is still up and running in Berlin.

1999: The Term ‘Coworking’ is Used, 42West24 Opens

Image courtesy 42West24

Computer game designer Bernie De Koven was the first person to use the word ‘coworking’ to describe people working together.He believed that through non-competitive collaboration and immersing themselves with similarly-minded workers, people could help each other out. Although he never made a business out of it, De Koven is credited as the first person to use the term.

In the same year, 42West24 opened in New York City. Although it offered flexible workspace rentals to software programmers, the space did not quite fit with the modern definition of coworking. Tenants sat side by side and did not have to sign long term contracts, but the company did not do anything to foster community, like encouraging collaboration or hosting events. When they first opened, they offered desk space starting at $395 per month.

42West24 took off after the dot com bubble, which left many tech workers jobless. Needing workspace but without a company to give them an office, the New York space attracted tech workers who only needed a computer to do their work. The business is still open today, calling themselves a “New York Office Share,” just not quite coworking despite sharing some of the same elements.

2005: Coworking Officially Opens for Business

Once the elements of open plan offices – including flexible office rentals and emphasis on collaboration – were established, Brad Neuberg pieced it all together in 2005 into the coworking movement we have today. Neuberg, a computer programmer, was struggling to find an office space that best suited his needs. When he tried working from home, he found that he was unproductive and couldn’t focus. He realized he needed the collaborative and social aspects of the workplace without being tied to a company’s office. So, he decided to start the world’s first true coworking space. Neuberg’s coworking was different than anything that came before it because members paid a rental fee, worked independently and with a flexible schedule. Coworkers also often practice hot desking, as permanent desks are a rarity. Neuberg often gets credit for inventing coworking because he was the first one to officially call his business a coworking space, and the first to create the coworking environment that we still use today.

Neuberg decided to rent out some office space and start the first ever coworking space today. He opened the San Francisco Coworking Space, a not for profit co-operative that allowed customers to work there two days a week, from 8 to 5:45. The co-operative was located inside Spiral Muse, a feminist collective operated by friends of Neuberg. They charged him $300/month to use the space for two days a week. This fee was originally paid by his father because Neuberg was broke at the time.

2006: Coworking Full-time

The Hat Factory in San Francisco was the first dedicated full-time coworking space, opening its doors in June 2006. Many sources on the Internet will list Neuberg as the creator of The Hat Factory, but that is inaccurate evidenced by his blog. In reality, the Hat Factory opened after Neuberg’s co-operative failed after only a year. They charged a monthly fee of $250 for access to a desk. Sadly, Hat Factory was not able to have long term feasibility either and has since closed.   

Citizen Agency was another early player in modern coworking. In 2006, the San Francisco Consulting firm started allowing people to come into their office occasionally and use their WiFi for free. But when people started showing up regularly, or wanting dedicated desk space, Citizen started charging people for the services they were providing.

Coworking Today

Image courtesy WeWork

Although Citizen Agency, Hat Factory and Neuberg were unable to turn their spaces into successful coworking businesses, all were critical in creating the coworking movement that is trending worldwide.

After many failed attempts at building a successful coworking business model, one NYC startup succeeded in a big way. WeWork, now worth $20 billion (the same as Snapchat), has quietly taken the office space world by storm. The company manages 10 million square feet of space, enough for more than 100,000 members. As office space becomes more and more a premium, the environment and space that coworking provides have become a must-have commodity.

Image courtesy Brian Conway

Coworking has exploded since Neuberg first used the word in 2005, now with a dedicated community of niche workspaces. Some coworking spaces for artists allow its members to be loud and messy while others ban distractions like phones and snacks so its members can focus. Some are for hardware manufacturing while others are for fashion designers only, so-called “co-sewing” spaces. Although general workspaces like Runway East are still the most popular and common, there is a huge diversity of specialised spaces out there for any industry.  


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