The NPR radio piece on CoWorking yesterday mentioned a new CoWorking Cottage in East Grand Rapids, interestingly they claimed its establishment was assisted by Steelcase, one of the largest manufacturers of office furnishings and accessories in the US. I've been very interested in how the office furniture industry would respond to CoWorking, if it continues to grow at its current pace. This was the first I had heard of a manufacturer taking any interest. A little link clicking and I landed at the site of 654 Croswell. I phoned them and by the afternoon I'd spoken to two of the site managers there including Laaté Olukotun.
The space started in October 2009, with its official launch in November - so its very new, as good as the doors just opening. It is located in the "Gaslight District" of East Grand Rapids, a small commercial district surrounded by residential neighborhoods where they are already drawing some of their active members from. They are in a freestanding cottage, which appears to have originally been a house, as are many of the other properties on their street. It is informative to note that when they choose the site for their space they had a zoning issue - office uses were not permitted on the ground floor level. This is a common zoning regulation in small business districts used to promote shops on the ground floor of commercial buildings. Do your due diligence when you look for a space so you are aware of this.
Laaté explained that 654 was a project of the Steelcase Growth Initiatives department. This is essentially an research entity within the company that explores new developments in the workplace. They had been watching the emerging CoWorking culture and as its popularity was accelerating they felt the best way to understand the social factors behind the movement was to open and operate a CoWorking site. Amazing!
Curiously the term "CoWorking" is not really used on their web site to describe 654. When I questioned Laaté about this he explained that they felt that the term was actually confusing to people. CoWorking took an explanation while a comparison to well understood business models did not - for instance an analogy to a gym membership, or shared service that you use at your convenience. 654 Croswell also will have an active Gallery component showing rotating work from local artists, hence their slogan Art-Work-Life.
They have plans to join the CoWorking Visa program to allow their members to access other communities while traveling, and vice versa, and will get the space listed on the coworking wiki. Hopefully we'll see them posted to the CoWorking map as well. all to help establish themselves in the wider CoWorking community.
As far as SteelCase is concerned the end result of this project is not known. The imperitive is for the company to get to know and understand the nature of coworking. Whether or not that results in or influences specific product, or can serve as a site to seed prototypes is all unkown at this point. The first step is getting to know coworking before they can determine how they address it through their product design. I'm very excited to see a manufacturer the size of Steelcase being so proactive, and validating the significance of CoWorking as a new workplace paradigm. I'm curious to see if other manufacturers watch from the sidelines or eventually engage in R&D around CoWorking themselves.