Research shows that loneliness is a growing problem for working Americans, and the seismic shift toward working from home may be making the problem worse. The solution for many of these employees is not a return to the office—they tend to relish the flexibility of remote work—but rather working from socially fulfilling spaces outside the office.
"Remote work can be isolating, and it can be difficult to connect with other employees without the informal interactions that are common when working in a shared onsite workspace, like you get in the workplace," said Caitlin Duffy, research director in the HR practice at Gartner.
Liz Elam, a leader in the coworking movement and founder of the Global Coworking Unconference Community (GCUC), outlined the dilemma: Remote workers don't want to return to the office, and working from home is not consistently productive, with its distractions and isolation. "So people need a third option, a space to get their work done in a more efficient manner," she said.
Constance Hadley, an organizational psychologist at the Boston University Questrom School of Business and founder of the Institute for Life at Work, agreed that employers concerned about employee well-being need to think beyond the either/or choice of working in the office or at home. "Among these 'third space' options, coworking sites show special promise for solving employee loneliness," she said.
Hadley teamed up with Ben Marks, founder and executive director of the #WorkAnywhere Campaign, a global advocacy movement representing remote and hybrid workers, and Sarah Wright, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury Business School in New Zealand, to study the issue of social connection and remote work.
The trio surveyed over 800 employees in spring 2022. "Results showed that people are creatively solving their loneliness issues by finding a pseudo-office in third spaces, which include coworking sites," Hadley said. "These third spaces are more socially fulfilling than working from the office or from home. Respondents found they could get a sense of relaxed but welcoming community from going to these sites."
A coworking space is an office space that offers many of the amenities of a typical office workplace—desks, collaborative and quiet spaces, an area for eating and socializing, and a structured environment. Both individuals and organizations can sign up for membership.
Companies have been putting people in coworking spaces for years, Elam said. "The difference is that it used to be something that you had to go to your boss and explain what a coworking space was and ask if you could do it, whereas now managers are more aware of it as an option," she explained.
The Benefits of Coworking Spaces
Remote workers don't always have viable workspaces in their homes. Coworking spaces outside the office can benefit these workers in several ways, including providing a professional place to work and potentially be more productive. Then there are the psychological benefits of seeing and engaging with other people.
"Coworking spaces facilitate social connections, offer employees more flexibility to work in an environment that best suits their unique needs and preferences, and may offer employees a more convenient location for a shared workspace that reduces their commute time and cost," Duffy said.
Elam said the main benefit to remote workers is that they are working in a space that is purposely designed to get work done, with ergonomic chairs, meeting rooms, stable Wi-Fi and coffee included. "There's also the intention to build community," she said. "That's the difference from just working in a public space. Without the conversations around the coffee station or lunch table, you're still alone in public."
Hadley said coworking sites also enable employees to practice relational job crafting—customizing the people with whom they engage during the workday—which has been associated with positive outcomes, including greater employee satisfaction, performance and retention.
She added that a well-designed coworking site provides a variety of often like-minded people to socialize with who have no direct impact on an employee's performance at the office, making it safer to interact with them authentically. Some coworking sites maximize connection by offering structured group programming for those who are interested in more social opportunities. Plus, working outside the office "allows people to avoid any unnecessary or unwelcome interactions with colleagues in the office," Hadley noted.
Access to coworking spaces provides meaningful benefits to employers as well, based on the idea that comfortable and happy employees are more productive.
What Employers Can Do
The No. 1 thing organizations can do to encourage and support their employees in the use of coworking sites is to provide financial support, experts said. Employers could buy subscriptions for individual employees at a local coworking site or give employees a stipend, giving them the flexibility to choose when and where to use the benefit.
"Offer it as a perk or benefit just like you would a gym membership," Elam said.
Currently, only about 5 percent of employers reported offering employees the option to work from an alternative office location, such as a coworking site, according to recent research from Gartner.
Elam recommended employers first explore the coworking spaces in their area. "There are many flavors of coworking—try a few and see which one fits your workforce best," she said.
She also recommended checking in with consultant aggregators who can help find spaces and set up a national program so employees across the country can access the benefit. There are platforms that can automate the process of purchasing memberships as well.
In addition, Hadley said employers can educate employees about the potential benefits of coworking spaces and encourage their use by providing a directory and links to coworking sites. Employers can also participate in or support what is available at the coworking sites, such as sponsored networking and professional development opportunities.
"One key to a successful coworking plan, however, is to preserve employee flexibility," she said. "The idea is not to mandate the use of coworking spaces on certain days, for example. Funneling employees to the same set of sites may inadvertently re-create the same office dynamics that employees are seeking to avoid."