It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

—1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered

As you start thinking about creating a collaborative workspace, start with function and let that guide your design. This process will help you to avoid design mistakes which impact ability to build community, user well-being and space revenue.

1. Choosing a coworking space that is too small

This is related to list items two and four below. Start with identifying the number of people that you want/need to serve.  If possible, know how many people will use the space at any given time before you commit to the space. If you choose a space that is too small, you will not have the right mix of work space types and “I” and “we” areas to keep users productive and happy.

Woman in small office

Are you creating a coworking space that needs to generate a certain amount of revenue to be a sustainable business? I have heard collaborative space operators say “I can only afford 4,000 square feet” and then they back into the number of members that they need to generate the profit required for the ROI they are looking for. This approach only looks at the economic constraints, not the design constraints. If you need to jam 50 people into 4,000 square feet of space in order to make your numbers or accommodate an existing group, you will not have the room you need to design a space that accommodates work styles, privacy needs, aesthetic desires and user well-being.

Begin with the end in mind (Stephen R Covey).

2. Choosing the Wrong Mix of Workspace

Ultimately, we’re designing spaces that foster community and collaboration. But that is difficult to observe for the coworking space shopper. The criteria a prospective member can observe is whether or not you have the type of workspace that they want – generally three types – coworking, dedicated desk space, or private office. If you are accommodating an existing group, survey, interview, get the data. If you are creating for an unknown user group, try hosting Meetups or getting feedback from other collaborative space operators in your area. Get as much data as you can about the type of spaces that your users want/need/are willing to pay for before you choose your space and before you write the design brief for your architect.

In Chicago, coworking space operators and owner of, a directory of coworking spaces, will tell you that they have a high demand for private office space and that open seating continues to take a lot longer to fill up than in markets like NY and San Francisco. People in NY and San Francisco are used to paying a lot for a little space, having roommates, not having private space. More affordable cities like Chicago are different. People are used to more space. They love the idea of coworking but in a contemporarily-designed private office. For the coworking purists – I totally get it. But I’m bringing up economic realities that new operators should consider.

3. Not Enough I/we space

Find data on % of private versus communal space

A lot has been learned since the term coworking was coined in 2006. Lessons mostly get learned by making epic mistakes. Like benching entire rooms.

open office benching

At first glance, benching looks like a simple approach to achieving the physical proximity that creates those serendipitous interactions and the real estate cost-savings goals of corporate America. But the revolt is raging. Recent articles by the Washington Post and New York Times tell tales of disgruntled employees claiming downswings in productivity, upswings in communicable illnesses and annoying coworker complaints skyrocketing.

The open office plan is not inherently evil, it just has to be done well…and there have been some mis-steps. Fortunately, there are a lot of people solving this problem and making recommendations.

Furniture designer Vitra has a model workspace called “Citizen Office.”

“At Citizen Office the employees decide which rhythm, form and location is right for their respective activity. Concentrated individual work is just as possible as communicative teamwork.”

Give people a “base” station where they can keep their supplies, plug in their laptops, leave stuff overnight. This desk might be in a bench setting and might be perfect for answering emails, doing “admin” work and chit-chatting with coworkers when you need some socialization. Then give people lots of options depending on what they need to accomplish in a given stretch of time. Small team rooms with easy projecting tools and white boards. “Refuge rooms” for focused work – writing or presentation development. Lounge areas for reading or recharging. Cafes where people can find a creative buzz (both literally and figuratively).

Vitra | Weil am Rhein Net 'n' Nest Office July 2010 | E10295-13594

Back to #1 on the list – this is why you may struggle to keep members/employees happy in a collaborative space that is too small. You need enough space to provide a variety of settings. People are getting savvy enough to identify these issues and they either won’t choose your space at all or they will struggle to make it work once they try it even if they love the community.

4. The Wrong Furniture

Think about your favorite vacation destination. What is the hotel like? Inviting lobby? One of those fruit-infused water coolers by the elevator? Hip decor? Maybe the room has a “heavenly” bed? The gym somehow feels more like a spa than a gym? There are outlets everywhere….art on the walls you wish you had at home…high end bath products that you sneak into your toiletry bag…a coffee/wine bar with a view… The sum of the parts make you feel like you’re someplace special – someplace better than home. As the coworking industry evolves, members are going to become savvier space-consumers. The bar is going to get higher. They are searching for community but they don’t know that at first. First they think they’re looking for a really productive place to do work…and if they’re going to throw down $200…$300…$500 a month for it, it’d better be way better than their home office.

Let’s talk chairs as an example.

Which one would you rather sit in all day?

Chair comparison

Yes, the first one is $75 and the second one is $271 with wheels and adjustable arms. But one of them is designed to discourage long-term sitting and one to support. If you are Starbucks, you want people to drink coffee, get a sore butt and leave. If you are creating a workspace, you want people to sit long enough to feel productive and accomplished. Probably longer than it takes to finish a latte.

That being said, you’d better also be shopping for standing desks. It’s becoming mainstream knowledge that sitting is the new smoking and no one wants to die young. Fortunately, there are more affordable standing desk options coming onto the market at a rapid rate. Read our post on affordable standing desk options.


5. Not enough personality

Take a look at coworking spaces “1” and “2” below. Which one do you feel most drawn to? If you get to pick where you work – you, the entrepreneur, the freelancer, the mobile worker, which one do you pick? Probably #2 right? Why is that? It looks inviting. It looks like home. You can’t quite place it but it’s just so…alive and interesting. The first one looks kind of like….the corporate office that you’re trying to escape for a few days or forever.

Space #2 is MAKER space in Seattle. It’s a favorite for anyone that visits and anyone with great taste like Dwell Magazine. Can you get that look yourself? Probably not…Maker-In-Chief Lana Marisol happens to be an interior designer so she has formal training in how to “style” a room. Consider hiring someone like Lana to help. It’ll pay dividends in attracting people to your space. Where to find a local designer? Try Homepolish or Houzz.

Coworking Design Example