Even just ten years ago, the term “workplace” called to mind factory floors, farms, high rise office buildings, trading floors, classrooms or hospitals. Then the recession came through like a tornado and in its wake, a new gig economy and a newly energized startup culture meant a flourishing sense of independence, economic urgency, non-standard hours, and shoestring overhead budgets.

By 2017, a vast number of America’s workers have started working without any specific “workplace” at all. We’re setting up shop in coffee houses, living rooms, basements, and trains, and as long as we have well-connected devices, we can literally work wherever we are—lying in bed, sitting by a public fountain, or in the waiting room of a bicycle repair shop. But these places, and even home offices, are not always conducive to our best work and best ideas.

A growing demand for functional workscapes (to invent a word) has given rise to the concept of social communities, or intentional spaces where entrepreneurs and independent workers can gather to meet others like them over a shared purpose. Companies like WeWork provide a social community dedicated to work, while other social communities are experimenting with co-living, co-dining, or new iterations of private clubs which focus on personal development.

Throughout our practice, we’ve been fortunate to work with a variety of types of social communities founded on a wide range of interests and principles. As we’ve worked more with these types of clients, we’ve come to recognize amazing benefits to social communities, but also certain obstacles that need to be overcome.

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The Benefits of Social Communities

Here are some of the benefits that social communities provide:

1.       Access to like minded people. One of the greatest benefits of a social community is meeting other people who think and act like you. In a world sorely lacking in community, having a place where you can go and work, eat, engage with people over a shared passion, and meet others who are generally aligned with your values can be an amazing experience. It’s no wonder that in all areas of life (leisure, work and home life) entrepreneurs are looking for ways to implement a social community model.

2.       Networking. Idea generation and networking are mostly automatic in a social community. Simply sitting and working in the presence of others can foment new ideas, new perspectives, and new social connections that can lead to business contracts and professional relationships. Social communities that focus on a shared passion provide also people with another way to make friends or possible business partners and a practical way to meet new people.

3.       Aesthetic and controlled environments Architects have known for a long time that the way our spaces are designed can have a significant impact on every aspect of our lives, from the people we meet, to the work we get done and even the emotions we feel. Many of our social community clients are engaging in highly innovative experimentation in setting up these spaces. Everything from nests that are placed deep in the urban jungle, to retreats out in rural California or the Big Island of Hawai’i, and everything in between: social communities offer new opportunities for creativity with business models, and exploring how business can be sustained through helping people stay connected, all of which can be coordinated from the ground up.

4.       The Art of Sharing. Whatever your background or politics, it should be easy to agree that sharing makes the world a better place. And a well organized social community is ultimately about creating a space where people can share -- whether it’s ideas, clients, or resources.

Obstacles to Social Communities

When it comes to establishing social communities, here are some of the biggest obstacles we have uncovered in working with our clients:

1.         Sustainable revenue models. Generally speaking, social communities make their money through membership dues or other type of fee-for-services arrangements. In coming up with a sustainable revenue model, entrepreneurs interested in setting up a social community need to think through why people will choose their community over another one, particularly in a competitive community space (there are dozens of co-working companies now, for example). As the social community space matures, it’s important for entrepreneurs to keep thinking about the value they are providing.

2. Legality. Laws are unfortunately very complex when it comes to setting up social communities. Local and state laws will impact how flexible a company can be in setting up a new coworking or coliving space. Other types of social community spaces (retreats, co-dining communities) all implicate a variety of laws, many of which were designed to prevent or inhibit a community culture.

3. Traditional Business Concerns.

All of this is in additional to traditional concerns that weigh on a business -- finding and attracting talent, managing internal dynamics and disputes, attracting strategic partners, financing and other concerns. These remain important!

Check back on our blog as we will continue to provide updates and insights as to how entrepreneurs can build and sustain successful social communities.

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