Why people thrive in co-working spaces

Co-working spaces consist of members who work for a range of different companies

What makes co-working spaces – defined as membership-based workspaces where diverse groups of freelancers, remote workers and other independent professionals work together in a shared, communal setting – so effective? And are there lessons for more traditional offices?

To find out, we interviewed several co-working space founders and community managers, and surveyed several hundred workers from dozens of co-working spaces around the U.S. A regression analysis following our survey revealed three substantial predictors of thriving:

– People who use co-working spaces see their work as meaningful.Aside from the type of work they’re doing – freelancers choosing projects they care about, for example – the people we surveyed reported finding meaning in the fact that they could bring their whole selves to work. They’re able to do this in a few ways.

First, unlike a traditional office, co-working spaces consist of members who work for a range of different companies, ventures and projects. Because there is little direct competition or internal politics, they don’t feel they have to put on a work persona to fit in.

Second, meaning may also come from working in a culture where it is the norm to help each other out, and there are many opportunities to do so; the variety of workers in the space means that co-workers have unique skill sets that they can provide to other community members.

Lastly, meaning may also be derived from a more concrete source: the social mission inherent in the “Coworking Manifesto,” an online document signed by members of more than 1,700 working spaces. It clearly articulates the values that the co-working movement aspires to, including community, collaboration, learning and sustainability. So in many cases, it’s not simply the case that a person is going to work; they’re also part of a social movement.

– They have more job control. Co-working spaces are normally accessible 24/7. People can decide whether to put in a long day when they have a deadline or want to show progress, or can decide to take a long break in the middle of the day to go to the gym. They can choose whether they want to work in a quiet space so they can focus, or in a more collaborative space with shared tables where interaction is encouraged.

– They feel part of a community. Connections with others are a big reason why people pay to work in a communal space, as opposed to working from home for free or renting a nondescript office. Each co-working space has its own vibe, and the managers of each space go to great lengths to cultivate a unique experience that meets the needs of their respective members.

So what are the implications for traditional companies? Our research – which is ongoing – suggests that the combination of a well-designed work environment and a well-curated work experience are part of the reason people who co-work demonstrate higher levels of thriving than their office-based counterparts. But what matters the most for high levels of thriving is that people who co-work have substantial autonomy and can be themselves at work.

Our advice to traditional companies who want to learn from co-working spaces is togive people the space and support to be their authentic best selves. The result will be employees who feel more committed to your organization and who are more likely to bring their best energy and ideas to the office each day.

(Gretchen Spreitzer,a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Peter Baceviceis a researcher affiliated with the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and is a senior design strategist with the New York office of HLW International, a global architecture and design firm. Lyndon Garrett is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate