At long last! This is a talk called “Like Work, But Not” that I gave at TYPO SF in April 2013. I will readily admit that it wasn’t the smoothest presentation, and I ran out of time, even though I had 45 minutes to speak. It’s important to put out there what I think about, though (my members sometimes ask “what do you do all day?”) so here it is. I think most readers of this blog are familar with what we’re about so I removed a bunch of the images, and tightened up the text to make sense.
It’s a long, long read about some of the more esoteric aspects of this field, but for the process-loving people out there, this is for you.
Why Makeshift, Why Now?
In September 2012, I started Makeshift Society in San Francisco. It’s a coworking space, primarily for freelancers, but from the beginning we’ve referred to it as the clubhouse. Why?
A clubhouse implies activity that is not just work. It has members who choose to participate in something bigger than themselves. In different ways, it supports its community, and the feeling of belonging that everybody craves. For a freelancer of any type, that’s important. For a creative freelancer, who may never sit in the same room as her clients or peers, that’s critical.
I haven’t worked for The Man for 13 years. (Last full-time job: I helped launch Banana Republic’s first website in late 1999, and quit soon after.) Since then, I’ve been a consultant, on and off, in between stints of makerhood and small business ownership.
Working for yourself has evolved incredibly in thirteen years and has been fascinating to experience firsthand. Altogether, this has led to my interest in work, creativity, and the relationship between the two. Specifically, I want to talk about what ‘work’ means in today’s world, the design process behind a physical and mental space that supports that kind of work, and how we use this space to encourage someone to really advance their career, and shape their own destiny.
I believe in agency: the capacity to act. Sometimes people are afraid of doing things ‘wrong’ and so they emulate other people a little too closely in an attempt to duplicate that success. This isn’t acting with agency, it’s copying.
Copying is necessary in some fields when you are starting out; there’s nothing wrong with learning from the masters. But every person has their own unique path to follow that is absolutely right for them and them alone. What I’m trying to do with Makeshift is construct an environment in such a way that our members feel free to take a risk and be original. We’re here to provide support for people’s projects and experiments, but we don’t do the work for them. They still need to make shift happen, all by themselves.
What Does Makeshift Look Like?
We spent a lot of time thinking about the interiors and branding for Makeshift – the look and feel. We think our values are truly reflected within our visuals and make us instantly identifiable in the larger coworking ecosystem.
Victoria Smith helped connect us with brands you wouldn’t normally associate with coworking, like Anthropologie, Restoration Hardware and Schoolhouse Electric. This establishes our vibe from the moment you walk in the door. We’re comfortable and grown-up. We’re neither clinical nor fussy. We’re chill but inviting…and our ability to communicate that feeling has been an important part of our membership growth.
Suzanne Shade, Victoria and I went through several rounds of exploration to figure out what we wanted to say, both to and about our members, through our branding. First, the name: Makeshift Society is about the society of people it serves. A lot of shared workspaces emphasize “work” in their name but our feeling is that you come for the work, and stay for the community.
We agreed that play and a sense of discovery was paramount – this translated into messing around with language, in both words and pictures. We took care to keep the language from being too buzzwordy, so instead of promising innovation, incubation or anything like that, we just suggest, via rebus, that you Be Amazing.
Designing Makeshift was way beyond collaborative, it was practically neglectful on my part. I literally shoved tasks at people and said “go.” I handed over major decisions to others and that was very new for me. I had to give up control, and the clubhouse is better for it. *I’m* better for it. It’s like a see-saw; if I’m not the one in charge, somebody else has to be.
What Is Coworking?
Here’s one definition: coworking is for independent workers who inhabit a shared workspace. The key words, “inhabit”, “shared” and “work” point to three concepts that all coworking spaces try to cultivate.
Inhabit is a great word. It implies intimacy, ownership, and commitment. These are all necessary to pull a motley band of people together into a community. In a workspace, habitation with strangers is kind of a tricky dance; there’s definitely etiquette involved, but the end result is absolutely worth it.
People are hardwired to need the company of others, even the introverts among us. A General Theory of Love popularized the notion of limbic resonance – physiologically and emotionally synching and connecting with someone else. We gain deep understanding about and create empathy with others when we connect with them face to face. As a result, we’re also usually more polite with each other because we’ve removed that safe, anonymizing screen that can get in the way of an actual conversation.
Shared points to a major shift in how people spend money, allot their time, and think about the world. Coworking spaces are great examples of the sharing economy in action. The utilization of resources like desks, office equipment, and water and trash, etc is higher so automatically it’s a more sustainable way to work (and freelancers themselves are the original shared asset.)
Finally let’s examine work and what it means at this moment in time. Go to any coworking website and the word “collaborate” will be there, somewhere. For all the talk on this topic, not all work is or should be collaborative. There are studies that show people are more effective and productive when there are other people around, regardless if they are actively working together or not. Proximity can stimulate productivity.
Open-plan offices are partly the result of organizational consultants trying to foster collaborative instances and creativity with physical space. This can indeed happen, but one of the challenges of an open office is that sometimes you just need to crank it out, which is best done without distractions. That definitely should be accommodated in some fashion, while keeping in mind that different kind of thinking gets done in different environments.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Work
Let’s look at another definition of coworking by a woman named Nina Pohler who wrote her thesis on the subject. “Coworking spaces are the result of a quest for strategies to deal with the risks and problems of new, flexible types of work.” If coworking spaces are designed to help alleviate the risks and problems of modern work, what is this work she’s talking about?
How we work today, and who’s doing the work, is pretty different than in the past. It’s varied and mutable. The practitioners are split almost 50/50 men and women. It requires specialized knowledge and training, but in a practical sense, it’s less expensive to be an independent than it used to be. And, more of the workforce is truly location-independent because the new tools of work enable that to happen.
Modern workers have multiple clients and projects instead of joining one company and staying there for an entire career. Teams may be comprised of different sets of people on every project; the needs of each project may differ as well. It’s a fractured way of doing business, and more people are working like this all the time, both freelancers and those within large organizations.
Thinking about this, it makes sense that the space you work in should be able to adapt to how you need to work on a particular project, with a particular set of collaborators, at a particular moment in time. The environment needs to be as fluid as the work itself.
Where you work can influence not only how you work, but who you are. Modern workers, who are always on, still need to learn how to be. If we provide different kinds of spaces so that at any given moment you can choose to sit by yourself at a desk, on a couch with one other person, in a conference room with a group, or coffee shop-style at a communal table, that can help shape the texture and the output of your day.
What Is Coworking, Redux
Designing for today’s freelancer, independent, part time or contingent worker, 30% of the workforce in the US and 35 million people strong, is hard. The only commonality is self-employment: the desire, or need, to work for yourself.
At Makeshift, we have members from all backgrounds. The clubhouse is home to a hundred and ninety or so different micro-businesses. The thread that binds all of them together is slender, but strong: simply do the work, then find more of it. That’s it! I’m not saying that some of our members aren’t following an entrepreneurial model, with a business plan, a growth strategy, an exit strategy. It’s not as if they don’t have other goals, around influence, education, happiness or altruism. However, if you pare it down, that’s what you come back to most of the time.
Knowing this, how do we respond? A coworking space is not just a convenient provider of desks and WiFi. With Makeshift, I’m trying to influence behavior, much like designers of theme parks, casinos, or video games. Those are some of the most immersive environments around, all trying to find the sweet spot between control and agency, and we’re very delicately trying to doing the same.
In the retail or transactional space, you’re both stoking and fulfilling desire. In hospitality, you play with familiarity and novelty. In a workplace, you’re balancing productivity and sociability. But, the unforced and genuine interaction between people is that lovely, elusive and ephemeral element that takes it to the next level, and that’s really where my job gets interesting.
Why do we gather, at permanent activity hubs like Makeshift, or temporary ones like TYPO? Let’s go back to limbic resonance. The talks at a conference are just a framework, in a way, and provide fodder for further conversation. The shared experience of ‘being there’ – the time and interaction between sessions, coffee breaks and waiting in line for lunch – is the true value. There’s power in meeting people in the real world. Magic happens.
Navigating The Analog World
Navigating the analog world is a skill that, when practiced, increases serendipity, diversity, trust, and accountability. These are all values of openness that are critical to modern work. They’re values that complement and intertwine with community and productivity, and they’re what we’re advocates of at Makeshift.
Serendipity is one of the wonderful outcomes of talking to lots of different people. It’s rather trendy right now but there’s really no other term to describe it. We learn to look out for it, to accept luck into our lives, and even try to plan for it, that’s how valuable it is. Being in the right place at the right time helps, but so does just being around for a long time and being open to talking to people. You can take either a slow tortoise or a fast hare approach.
At the clubhouse, we try to make room for both. We have tortoises who, by virtue of being around a lot, get to know everybody’s business. That’s the idea behind the entirely open workspace and our residency program. And for the hares, we plan events; we engineer lots of opportunities for people to bump into each other. That’s the idea behind the classes and lectures, and lunches and mixers.
Another benefit is diversity, which brings about better understanding of other people. Freelancers don’t always work solo. Learning to work with, or for people who may not be like you takes practice, and Makeshift gives people a safe place to do so. We practice formally, at success squad meetings and workshops, and informally, when you’re just sitting in close proximity to others all day. Even if you aren’t working with someone or forming a team, cooperation can still be learned.
And then there’s trust. People at any gathering are continuously involved in an exchange. What is a conversation but an exchange in which you give up some level of privacy in order to receive information, or support? Hopefully this is a voluntary act, but sometimes even involuntary exchanges can be beneficial. I think of this as the nosy neighbor syndrome.
An example: When I lived in Brooklyn, I knew someone who would complain about the people living across the street. They never said hi, but were always watching who came and went, and he felt it was invasive. One day, though, there was a knock on his door. It was his neighbor. The street cleaning truck was coming and he forgot to move his car and it was in danger of being towed. Because of all of the watching, they knew it was his car, knew where he lived, and came to tell him about it. So, it works both ways; anybody can learn to be a good neighbor, and trust one another, even if you don’t have a lot in common.
Finally, when you see somebody on a regular basis, it’s hard to hide what you’re doing…or not doing.
For a freelancer, having other people around, even if they aren’t directly involved in your business, can offer the accountability that a traditional workplace provides. If you normally work at home, coming in to sit with other people is a deliberate act – of spending money on a membership, of putting pants on that day and getting out of the house, of doing what you said you’d do. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
Helping Make Shift Happen
While people need to learn to negotiate the analog world, there are also many other skills necessary to build your business. As a independent, you have to figure things out yourself. There’s no set career path and no obvious guidance. It can be a little scary. So how do we help our members, who all have different desires, different skillsets, and different styles of working? How do we create an environment where it’s okay to learn, teach, play, and think?
ENGAGE THE SENSES. Physicality matters – literally. What we’ve designed hits you from all directions, in a way you can’t quite replicate online. Sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste. When you come to Makeshift, it’s quite different than being at an office or a café or a business center. These choices shape our member’s experience.
MAKE IT WELCOMING. I had no idea, when I started Makeshift, that my role would include learning how to throw a great party. In the past year, I’ve been honing my curatorial skills and the empathy that a good host has. I need to always be aware of the scene, checking the mood of the room, speeding things up or slowing them down, and making introductions or leaving people alone to do their own thing.
It’s important to get this right, because it’s the blend of social cues plus those physical factors I just mentioned, that help put people at ease, and when they’re at ease, they want to return. Someone coming in will always see old faces and new, because it’s that blend of structure and fresh energy that’s so intriguing. We love our regulars but we really, really love our irregulars too.
DON’T CODDLE. This is probably not right for every space, but it works for us. It has more to do with keeping people off-balanced rather than taking a stance about privilege. We want to provide comfort, but not be absolutely comfortable. We think our style, for example, is very welcoming, but really it’s not ergonomically sound. We don’t have fancy task chairs all around the table, we have mismatched vintage pieces. They aren’t great to sit in for 8 hours straight – but you know what? You’re not supposed to do that anyway!
Also, we may be the only coworking space I know of that doesn’t serve free coffee. We do have really great coffee in the neighborhood – at least 5 places I can think of within 2 blocks, so people can get up to stretch, grab a neighbor and go for a short walk – and they do.
What’s not in short supply, though, are things to look at and think about. There are always new magazines sitting out, a new pop-up to shop from, a new survey on the chalkboard wall in the bathroom.
We also try to inspire a little mystery before a member even drops by. We use our Instagram feed quite a bit to document our days, and to give others a chance to share in our most fleeting moments. It’s working; we have 3300 followers who are looking at small, blurry images of people on their laptops. There are so many people with full-time jobs, people who don’t live in this country, responding to what we do. Why do people who aren’t members care so much about Makeshift? They look and say, “That looks awesome. I want that for me.” We get requests to open more Makeshifts every week – and that’s why we have our eye on the Brooklyn market, since most of the requests are coming from there.
SAY YES. There’s a website that’s been around since 1999 called Halfbakery, and it’s still active. Halfbakery is where you list your half-baked ideas, and people can leave comments, some serious and some snarky. It’s nerdy fun. The site is a place for ideas – things that will never be produced, or marketed, but nevertheless *are*. Sometimes ideas just need to get out of your head and into the light of day, even bad ideas. Especially the bad ideas.
Makeshift is also a place for you to air your ideas, good or bad, without judgment. The community becomes your Greek chorus. I think that freelancers especially need this, since they are often making decisions by and for themselves. There are other places online to solicit feedback, but these sites are often too serious, too focused, too portfolio-driven. People often just upload their best work, because there’s something really final and permanent about putting things online these days. They don’t dare to show the process, the sketchbooks, the failures.
Bringing an idea up in the real world, though, means instant feedback, off the cuff reactions, and empathy. And somebody knows immediately if you’re messing around with them or not.
Like Work, But Not
I feel that creativity and anarchy are best friends. When you are a child, you are a pure creative being. There are no rules, there’s just testing, failing and learning. It may seem like an oxymoron but I think good leadership allows for and even requires anarchy. That word is a little scary when thrown around the workplace so let’s call this ‘directed discovery’.
I have a great job. The most important thing I do is to say yes. Some of the most useful ideas about improving the health, wealth and happiness of others have been suggestions from members. Our much-sold-out series of classes on calligraphy was a member suggestion. A panel about finding, hiring and managing interns was entirely member-organized – they moderated, found panelists, recorded it, put it online and blogged about it on our site. I didn’t do a damn thing except wonder out loud, a month beforehand, why so many people needed an intern but were afraid to hire one.
For freelancers, speaking up about what you know is critical to help move your creative career along. ‘Speaking up’ can take the form of a blog post or a pinboard or a tweet, but as always I encourage face to face interaction. We lead our members down the path as painlessly as possible, starting out by holding office hours, and sharing what they know with one person at a time. When they gain confidence from that, I nudge them to teach a class or appear on a panel. As is always the case, they gain as much knowledge through teaching as the people they are helping.
Here is how we make shift happen: We treat you like an expert, then help you become one. We solicit suggestions for classes, and ask you to teach them. We remind you that learning is fun, and that being present is still important. We invite you in, and entice you to come back. We encourage you to ask for what you want, then help you go get it.
Our members already know how to do their work. I can’t teach them that, but I can support them in doing their best work. I can remind them of the joy they find in what they do, and direct their attention to other people and activities to create more of that joy, for themselves and for others.