Mobile Workers Unite!

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Please note: This post is an adaptation of an article by Gary Woodill and Janet Clarey first published in print in April 2011, in the Canadian Learning Journal.


Mobile computing has had a major impact on the lives of many workers, who now work at home as independent contractors, or as telecommuting employees, hardly ever showing up at a traditional office to do a 9 to 5 job. We are both examples of this way of working. Gary works from home or a small office in nearby Cobourg, Ontario, while Janet lives and works at her home office in Clinton, a small village near Utica, New York. At the same time, we work online with colleagues and clients from all over North America, and occasionally from other parts of the world, and we also find ourselves work on the move, using our mobile devices to work and stay connected with our colleagues, who also may be anywhere in the world.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this shift in the location of work, but this is a growing trend. One of the major downsides to working at home or by yourself in a hotel is the sense of isolation from other workers. And, many independent knowledge workers don’t have the space or privacy to effectively work at home, especially if other family members (or noisy pets) are also in the house during the day. With a home office, there is no real work-related socializing. There’s no sitting back and saying, “What do you think of this?” or, “Can I bounce this idea off you?” And, there’s no one asking for advice. No creative side trips. No informal learning.

One solution is the use of “third spaces”, alternatives to home or a traditional workplace such as cafes, libraries, and community centres, where you can use mobile tools to connect to others. Gary can sometimes be found working at the train station in Toronto, using a laptop connected to the free wireless Internet connection available from the railway company. Janet often gets out of the house and settles at a table at the Tram, a coffee shop near her home.  Yet, there is something missing in these nomadic sanctuaries. It is the contact with others, the everyday banter, exchange of gossip, and help from interested colleagues that occur in the traditional office environment.

Co-working is a solution that has been developed to address this problem.  You still can work for yourself (or remotely, away from a central office), but not always by yourself. Co-working is about building a community of people who work together. It’s not about finding “office space” and renting out spaces.

Co-working is redefining the way we work. The idea is simple: independent professionals and those with workplace flexibility work better together than they do alone. Co-working answers the question that so many faces when working from home or on the road: “Why isn’t this as much fun as I thought it would be?” Beyond just creating better places to work, co-working spaces are built around community-building and sustainability. Co-working centers agree to uphold the values set forth by those who developed the concept in the first place: collaboration, community, sustainability, openness, and accessibility.

There are many benefits of co-working. When working by oneself, there is a tendency to continue working without taking breaks, because there is no one else to talk with. Co-working re-humanizes work, while allowing workers to maintain their independent status and/or entrepreneurial spirit. Bringing a group of people together makes collaboration easier, builds social ties that extend into the community, and allows the sharing of resources that are often too expensive for an independent worker to buy and maintain.

This arrangement seems ideal for knowledge workers, mobile workers, and creative people who are trying to earn a living from what they produce.  There is value, too, in a ‘many jobs loosely joined’ set up where it is easier to meet the needs of a large client organization that no one person could easily handle. But, co-working is not just for the self-employed; people working as full-time or part-time employees, contractors, and entrepreneurs can all enjoy co-working.

Camaraderie, a Toronto co-working location, has this message on its website:

Welcome to Camaraderie!

We are a shared office space for entrepreneurs, freelancers, independents, and any form of digital nomad that is looking for a vibrant community and a space for collaboration. We have combined the best elements of café culture with a productive, functional work environment that is affordable for startups to gain ground and succeed.

Camaraderie is the spirit of friendly good-fellowship, an apt name for an open, shared facility where being a lonely freelancer is yesterday’s news and today’s entrepreneurs usher in the future.

Co-working has arrived in Canada, but it is a global movement. There is even a Co-working Visa Project, where you can use office space in a city you are visiting, in the spirit of sharing and reciprocity. Essentially, it is an exchange program where, if you are a member of a taking part co-working centre, you can work for up to three days at another taking part co-working centre without having to pay additional fees. There are now taking part co-working centers in 30 states of the USA, and in an additional 32 countries. An online co-working directory lists over 20 co-working sites in Canada, from Victoria to Halifax. The list is growing each month.

While the initial co-working movement is mainly about sharing physical spaces, one can apply the principles of co-working to the online world, and reap many of the same benefits. While Gary has a co-working arrangement with a genealogy company in Cobourg, he also has colleagues in Georgia, Oregon, New Jersey, and New York City – his “virtual cubicle mates,” who show up to chat on Skype regularly. Since the beginning of December, Janet has been involved in a small group on Facebook. Even though it’s virtual, she has met several people face-to-face, and it feels very much like co-working. The group shares skills sets (design, research, teaching, graphics, authoring, standards, etc.), conversation, and support, the essence of co-working in a virtual space. In addition, group members identify each other as members of their personal learning network. There’s a great deal of informal learning to take place in both physical and virtual co-working environments. This is why co-working should interest the learning and development community.

There are more and more workers who work from non-traditional sites, usually from their homes. This is good for the environment, reduces time wasted in commuting, and often increases flexibility to better balance childcare, work, and social activities. At the same time, we all need to learn from each other, and to be connected in a satisfying way to other people who understand and are willing to talk with us about what we do. Co-working is a growing trend that makes a new world of mobile work and mobile learning possible.

(For more information, see the Co-working Wiki, a community-driven resource being built by the community:

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

» Pedagogy and Learning » Mobile Workers Unite!
On August 30, 2011
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