Imagine traveling to a new city and immediately finding yourself with local, trusted working contacts. Imagine prospecting for work in a country 12 time zones away from you and quickly locating multiple potential collaborators. And imagine, more simply, plunking down your laptop, iPad and files at a desk in an unfamiliar part of town and not having to keep a close eye on your belongings when you step out to make a phone call.
This is the potential of coworking. For regular independent workers, these spaces offer a compelling alternative to the lonely business of working at home. For cafe junkies, they bring community, security and the luxury of a consistent desk to set up shop. And for the world traveler, these spaces should be a treasure trove of international contacts, whether socially or for work collaboration.
"Our economy is so globalized," said Liu Yan, CEO at Shanghai's Xindanwei, China's first and most active coworking space. "People who have projects and tasks have a global scope in searching for talent. There is a demand there."
Liu, who has spent extensive time living and working in Asia and Europe, addressed this issue in a recent talk at the Coworking Europe Conference 2011. Her presentation, "Creating a Global Coworksphere" looked at the basic truth that we live in a world where location no longer matters, or certainly matters much less than it ever did before.
"But," she asked. "Could you trust someone without looking into his/her eyes?" Even as coworking grows globally, few spaces are interacting with each other and remain active only within a limited urban network.
Part of the impetus for Liu Yan's talk was an experience when a young coworker was traveling to Venice. Emlyn Wang, who runs a fashion label out of Xindanwei's space, asked Liu if she knew anyone whom she should meet to help build her business. After scouring her network, unfortunately, Liu Yan couldn't find anyone.
"I feel like I failed my coworker," she confessed.
In a world of banking scams and "business opportunities" in the form of email spam, finding the right contacts in a new country can be challenging.
"We need to build an environment, or coworksphere," Liu asserted. This network would "connect people and also trust amongst coworkers."
Coworking Networks: What's Out There Already
Liu Yan's global vision may not be a reality just yet, but there are glimmers of what this step would look like. Halfway around the world, networks in Spain and Italy already exist. These networks build on the idea of the coworking visa, a pass for members of coworking spaces that allows free use of spaces in other networks.
Cowo, aka the Coworking Project, is an umbrella brand for independent coworking spaces in Italy and parts of Spain. Affiliates receive a host of benefits, like a manual of coworking best practices and legal matters, hotel discounts in a number of Italian cities, and, most importantly, access to more than 600 creative workers within the network.
Coworking Spain links up spaces littered around the country. Members of the network have access to business services when they travel, like phone and fax. And they can access EmprendeBox, a kit to help new business get started and established.
"Collaboration is the most difficult part," noted Manuel Zea, who manages the site. "I can do it in my space. But I can't just go to other places." Coworking Spain, he hopes, will "bring life" to spaces as Spaniards travel to different cities for work.
And then there's LooseCubes, based out of New York. While popular sites like Deskwanted host active directories of spaces, LooseCubes takes it one step further. Users can sign in with their Facebook accounts (and, soon, Twitter and LinkedIn) and immediately see recommendations for spaces based on their social graph.
When I logged in while visiting Manila's co.lab, I could see a list of suggested spaces based on what's popular in my area. But when I hit the "Social" button, I see not only interesting spaces but a list of Facebook friends who know people who work there.
"What we're trying to do is help increase opportunities for serendipitous encounters to happen," explained Anthony Marinos, whose official title at LooseCubes is "Captain Awesome." "It used to be one of those things where normally it's left up to you, where you bump into someone at a coffee shop and get to talking. "
Working with someone requires trust, and knowing that there's only a degree of separation between me and potential collaborator makes it that much more likely that we'll find a serendipitous opportunity to work together.
The possibilities of coworking on a global scale arose recently with Worldwide #Jellyweek, an initiative spearheaded by Anni Roolf, who works with Coworking Wuppertal in Wuppertal, Germany.
A "jelly" is coworking parlance for a dedicated time when coworkers get together and, well, cowork. Roolf's idea was to get everyone around the world to do a jelly in the same week. She chose January 16 to 22 as the big week and rallied over 200 spaces around the world to participate.
"I think the real potential for coworking is the collaboration," explained Roolf. "We have to ask how coworkers and coworking spaces collaborate. How can we create international structures?"
I was in Los Angeles for #jellyweek and visited two jellies: CC:me in Atwater Village and Kleverdog in Chinatown. Both featured live video feeds, and when I tweeted out the links, my followers in Canada and the east coast US tuned in to say hi to us.
"We want to discuss what is the long term future of work," explained Mirta Gilson, who co-founded freelance collective CC:me with Sarah Shewey. Gilson, who is from Germany, heard about the project while traveling in her home country and spread the news to other spaces in the Los Angeles area.
The week wasn't without its faults, reflecting the challenges of working in a global context. Jellyweek Day Asia fell on the Friday before Spring Festival, the most important holiday in China. Shanghai emptied out, and Xindanwei did not participate.
And Jellyweek Day North America, slated for January 16, fell on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a major American holiday. Kleverdog extended their Jellyweek events for the entire week to help counter this.
"It's fun to see what other people are doing," noted Sarah Low, who runs Kleverdog with David Oshima. "It really breaks down the distance" between coworking spaces, both across Los Angeles and globally. They've begun hosting classes and panels to help build a community amongst LA's designer/developer community.
But the idea holds great potential, and in only its second year, Jellyweek has inspired countless ideas. Through livestreams, Google Hangouts, Skype chats, Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags, participants got to hear about others' work and projects and learn from each other's spaces.
Mazen Halmy at The District - Egypt, for instance, got in touch with spaces in three other countries and plans to launch a Coding Night for Peace project. Collaborations like this show the great benefit of extending coworking more globally.
What's Next for Global Coworking?
In a recent panel I participated in at Xindanwei focusing on "The Future of Co-", Liu Yan asserted that a place like Xindanwei is more about community and creativity than property and profits. The future of coworking lies in the ability to build communities both globally and locally.
Co-moderator Silvia Lindtner, who researches collaborative environments like Xindanwei, noted that coworking is both a global phenomenon and reflects distinct cultural differences. She notes the role of the founder and hosts in building a strong community and then taking the initiative in reaching out to other spaces.
And while Xindanwei eyes how it can connect Shanghairen with coworking around the world, it's also looking at how it can help grow China's budding coworking scene and organize creative communities throughout the country.
Xindanwei has just released the coworking manual, an iPhone app that Liu Yan first unveiled at Creators Project in Beijing. The manual outlines the lessons Xindanwei has learned in establishing the space and its offshoots, including hacker space Xinchejian and green business space Grasslands.
"Young people everywhere in China want to connect with people just like them, but they don't have capacity or skills to do that," she explained. "They see the model of Xindanwei and get so inspired."
As I've traveled now to a half dozen coworking spaces, from New York to Los Angeles to Manila to Shanghai to Beijing to Seoul, and as I've Skyped and tweeted with a half dozen more coworkers in other cities, I've seen a tremendous amount of new, creative energy from a younger generation.
They, like me, grew up seeing the potential of the Internet to build community but are seeking something more. They want a physical, real world connection more meaningful than clicked likes and pithy status updates, and they want to do something productive with these relationships.
"More and more people want to do things differently. They want a community to go to and get things done," said Liu Yan.
"I think if we can successfully link all the communities together, we will have done a wonderful job."