Examples of different workplaces within the lobby of Cowork Tahoe

Activity-Based Workplace Design for Coworking Spaces

Creating the right spaces for your workplace

Is your office floor plan helping or hurting your business goals? If it’s too open or too private, too quiet or too noisy, it’s possible that the effect is actually detrimental. Including a wide variety of options, from spaces to focus to places to socialize, can help your members be more productive no matter what type of work they are doing. 

Examples of different workplaces within the lobby of Cowork Tahoe

Lobby of Cowork Tahoe.

When designing a space, it is important to consider not only how people will use individual spaces, but how they move between them & throughout their space. Providing flexibility in how and where people work within a space is a key concept in Activity-Based Workspace (ABW) design, and it can make or break your member experience.

For example, at Cowork Tahoe, our lobby/lounge space is on the opposite end of the building from our focused open desk area. We designed the building this way for several reasons: 

  • The lobby serves as the first entry point, so when potential members or clients walk in, we want them to experience a wow moment seeing modern design, comfortable seating, the smell of coffee, local art, and music playing. It also doubles as a great gathering space for member lunches and evening events. The lobby is filled with natural light & because it is also our lounge seating and adjacent to the kitchen, there are always people there – working, chatting, drinking coffee, etc – the energy is palpable. That is the stage we want to set when beginning any tour.
  • The desk area, on the other hand, is meant for productivity. It is a focus zone, so we strive to minimize distractions there. We do not play music throughout the space, lights can be controlled in each area, including individual task lighting, and we try and limit foot traffic. The design is more clean & muted. Since we do have dedicated desks, members can have their personal belongings and while the area is generally tidy, there is more visual clutter which is not the first impression we would like to set. 
  • Because these spaces are on opposite sides of the building, any noise or foot traffic through the lobby does not impact those working in the desk area. It also encourages social interaction as everyone must walk through the hallways to the lobby to get coffee, snacks, or their lunch. Having that distance be more than a few feet means members are more willing to take a few minutes to catch up with someone and not just dash right back to their desk.

Buildings may be static, but people are dynamic, so the physical design must account for the motion of people through the static space. I know very few people that are able to be productive sitting in one position for hours on end. 

On any given day, I work from half a dozen spaces within the coworking space. I might start my day at my desk in a private office with the door closed to get a little focused work done. Then, I’ll take a video call in a small meeting room down the hall. Next, it is time for coffee and some time standing up, so I’ll set up at the counter in the kitchen. When I’m writing, I like sitting in a comfy chair or on a couch with my feet up. If there is a team meeting, that means we need a white board and a larger meeting space with a door. A quick phone call? I’ll either walk outside to get some fresh air, or jump into a phone booth. Having all of these spaces easily accessible throughout the day means I am encouraged to take advantage of them and can be more productive as a result. 


Types of Work to Consider

  • Focus/Creative Work – needs distraction free setting. This could be an open desk area, private offices, or isolated seating that makes it easy to put on headphones and get to work.
  • Task Work – can be in a more general setting, distractions don’t matter as much. Also good for opening desk areas, but also for a coffee-shop like setting with music playing and comfortable seating.
  • Collaboration – needs space for several people to talk to one another, whiteboard space, can be private or in an area where conversation won’t be distracting to others
  • Social – think the kitchen or coffee bar, lunch tables, somewhere that encourages chit chat
  • Audio & Video Calls – needs small, private spaces like phone booths or small meeting rooms for 1-2 people. 
  • Presentations – this is best for larger conference rooms of 8 people and up to full classroom or even larger event size

Other considerations – there should be plenty of options for people to sit down at a desk, stand up, or otherwise change their position throughout the day, and each of these options needs to be available for all types of work. Think sit/stand desks, counter height tables, clusters of comfy chairs, etc.


More Benefits of Activity-Based Design

  • Increased work productivity. When people have the flexibility to work the way they need to, and to do so easily with support from the space they are in, productivity is much easier to achieve.
  • More interactions between members = more opportunity for social connection. People moving throughout a building increases the number of interactions between them. This can lead to more conversations and more social connection than if everyone stayed in the same place the entire day.
  • More movement. Its just not healthy, on a variety of levels, to be stationary for too long. Moving around is good for our physical well being. Changes of scenery can be beneficial to our mental health, as well as help to break up the work day.
  • Happier community. By designing spaces well for the types of work that can be done in each, it can minimize frictions between members (ie no more loud sales call next to you while you are trying to do focused writing or coding). 

Implementing Activity-Based Workplace Design

There is no definitive rule of thumb for how many & what types of spaces you need for an ideal office environment. I’ve seen ratios such as 1 meeting room for every 10 workers in a space, but there are so many more nuances to it than that. Partially because everyone is different, and as members come into or leave your space, the needs of the community overall may change. So, how can you implement activity-based workplace design? 

Track everything – tracking how often your meeting spaces are being used, which ones, and also how often there are none available, is critical to understanding how to optimize the use of your space. Also important is tracking your memberships – is most of your demand for private offices, and if so, is that only because you are not offering enough flexible workspaces to meet their needs without having dedicated private space? Are most of your members part time? Is your large conference room sitting empty, or worse, is there often 1 person in there squatting because they can’t focus in the desk space? These are all data points that can be used to adjust the physical space to meet the dynamic needs of your members, and provide a much better experience for them as a result. 

If you don’t have a customer base to track, start with your target customer. Who are they and what will they need? How many members can your space serve? That should give a good starting point for how many of each type of workspace you should aim for.

Whether you are in the early stages of designing a new office space, or looking to improve your member experience by re-designing the space you have, activity-based workplace design should be on your radar as a way to ensure you are meeting the needs of your members. 

Image for blog post Booking meeting rooms at coworking spaces

Booking meeting rooms at coworking spaces

The ability to book a private meeting room on demand is a critical component in any coworking space. Ensuring that members can do this quickly, easily, and when they need it is as important as having the rooms at all. 

For too long at Cowork Tahoe, we used paper sign-up sheets outside our meeting rooms for our members to reserve them. Yes, paper. It worked well enough, a member could walk up to the room they wanted and block out a time slot for a meeting later in the day, or even for right then if it wasn’t already being used. That is, if they remembered to have a pen in their hand.

However, it would cause problems when we inevitably forgot to post the new sheets up on time each week or if someone needed to book a room before they came into the office. It was a terrible member experience and our team spent far too much time helping members make reservations, printing out new sheets, and handling squatters

Sure, there are lots of technology solutions available to digitize room bookings, and we even tried one or two. We’ve since learned that technology isn’t automatically a better solution than an analog approach. 

For example, having an online calendar that members can book doesn’t help someone running late if they have to go to their desktop or laptop first, log in, find a room, book the room, then go to the room. 

Having tablets mounted outside each room with the ability to sign up can be powerful if they sync well with personal calendars, but are no better than paper and pencil if they don’t. And if the calendars they sync with still requires logging in through a website, you may as well not have the technology solution at all.

The ability to book a room with a few taps on a mobile phone has worked wonders at Cowork Tahoe. With our Jellyswitch app, members book their meeting rooms for the day or for the week while they are drinking coffee in the morning, or while they are walking up to the building. They book what they need when they need it & when they think of it. Not when they can get back to their desks. 

My members get what they need without having to ask me. When they talk to me or someone else on my team, it can be about more than something they can’t get quickly on their own.  We talk about their day, about their children, how their work in going. The conversations can be about human relationships rather than transactions because the transactions are easy to take care of on their own. That is meaningful. 

That level of convenience and flexibility contributes to a much better experience. It means that the coworking space is supporting, not hindering their productivity. It is one more way to add value to their membership by removing a small friction. 

It is also one more way for them to actively engage with our Cowork Tahoe brand. The frequency of engagement is multiple times a day. That builds brand recognition, trust, and through that, customer loyalty. 

If coworking is about one thing, its flexibility. That applies to how meeting rooms are used as much as anything else. A mobile first approach is the best way to achieve the level of flexibility needed to provide a seamless meeting room experience.   

Image for blog post Self service coworking doesn't exist

Self-service coworking doesn’t exist.

These things don’t run themselves.

  • Coworking spaces are high touch businesses, so cannot be expected to run without a high level of attention to the customer experience.
  • Technology does not exist to replace human involvement, it exists to support it and better leverage how time is spent on human involvement.
  • To create a premier customer experience, great technology & personal interactions are both required.

About a year ago, I had a number of conversations with a building owner as they were preparing to open a new coworking space.

Many of the discussions centered on basics like what furniture to buy, what memberships to offer, and what brand of coffee maker to get.

But the rest were tough – this owner wanted to be completely disconnected from the space. He wanted the place to run itself and was assuming that electronic door access and independent members would make that happen. He had a true “build it and they will come” attitude, with no intention of investing in actually running the space. Nice ergonomic desk chairs, yes. Human time? No.

One year later and I happen to have connected with several of the people in his community that I’d spoken to because they had wanted a new coworking space. None of them work there. They all tried it out and quickly left. Why? The place feels dead, there is no sense of place, no experience, nothing to keep them there. They did not feel valued as customers.

The input they gave about what they needed to be productive was ignored.

I have seen this so many times – a building owner that wants to monetize their space hears about coworking & thinks its an easy way to drop their vacancy rate. That 1200 sq ft office space on the 2nd floor that you’ve used for storage for the past 10 years? Of course it could be a coworking space! Slap on some paint, add a few desks & some motivational posters and open up the doors. People will show up in no time and you’ll be rolling in the extra revenue coworking can bring. Because its hip, its cool, and it look super easy. It’s just office space, right? Not true.

The thing is, these places don’t run themselves.

Coworking is not just office space. It never has been.

The key to building and running a thriving coworking community? The experience. Coworking is about providing the right flexibility to help members be supported & productive in their professional lives. That requires a heavy dose of customer service – heavy.

Small coworking spaces in particular are competing not just with other commercial office space, they are competing with non-consumption. Why would a remote worker pay for office space outside of their home if it provides no added value? They won’t. They have a desk and chair at home. Coworking spaces must provide more than a place to put a laptop.

Too many people believe that technology can be a substitute for that human touch. It can’t. What it can do is support, streamline, and improve the experience for both sides. But it absolutely does not serve as a replacement for human interaction. What it can do is free up time and remove inefficiencies that are preventing us from connecting to one another in the right ways.

My members use our mobile app to save them time & to interact with the physical space. Technology in this case makes it easy to get things done quickly. They can do things like see what meeting rooms are available and book one while walking down the hallway or waiting for their espresso.

What does that give them in return? Time to do things technology cannot – talk to another member at the coffee pot, take a moment to pet the office dog, focus on their next call, the things that we need to continue to feel connected to other humans and to be productive.

What can technology help me with as a manager? Keeping track of all the human things. Great technology does more than just enable payments and room scheduling. It helps me keep tabs on what my members are doing, what they need, what they don’t like, and what I can do with all of that information to help provide an even better customer experience and grow my business.

If you’re going to run a business, focus on that business, because it’s not going to run itself.