Tackling challenges and inequalities in the workplace: Women Who Cowork

At Gable, we believe employees who are engaged, happy, and feel a strong sense of belonging and connection to their company culture are more likely to do great work, build trust in the workplace, and stay at their jobs longer.

That belief is shared by many of the organizations we partner with and promote, especially Women Who Cowork, a community for womxn and gender-diverse coworking space operators. Today, we’re chatting with Iris Kavanagh and Laura Shook Guzman about tackling inequalities in the workplace with the help of flex and coworking spaces.

Trends and changes in the flex space & coworking industry

Tell us more about Women Who Cowork. What is your mission, vision, and goals?

Women Who Cowork launched in 2016 as a community for womxn and gender-diverse coworking space operators. Our mission has been to amplify the coworking movement by providing women and gender-diverse people with support, resources, and mentorship. Prior to and through the pandemic, we held retreats, meetups, and online events, all designed to support our growing coworking movement from the unique perspective of being a womxn or gender-diverse person in business. Prior to the pandemic, we focused on delivering content that included a wide-ranging mix of self-care and business coaching.

In 2022 WWCO, we began to narrow our focus and shift our programming and services due to our own experiences and those of our members, as womxn during the pandemic who were both primary caregivers and primary breadwinners and the burnout we all experienced in 2021. Our experience encouraged us to learn how to meet the changing needs of womxn in the coworking industry. We saw a growing need for founders and operators to increase their resiliency and hone their leadership skills in a world that is hallmarked by a lack of certainty in the future.

What are some trends you’re seeing in your community when it comes to changes in the flex space and coworking industry?

The flex-space industry is becoming more well-known as it shifts from a sharing economy movement centered on bringing people together to work in the community to a profit-driven space-as-a-service model. This shift is leading more women to see this model and to know it's an option for them. The collaborative nature of the model means that there is a lot of information available about how to start and run a shared workspace today and many mentors and business coaches to support newer operators, thus lowering the barrier to entry.

Some of the positive movements I am seeing are the number of women opening new spaces since 2018. The post-2019 marker seems to be a milestone for the shift from predominantly male founders to at least half female founders, I'm really curious to see how our anecdotal trend spotting holds up to the data that comes out of the current Global Coworking Survey.

What's really apparent is that the women who are opening spaces post-2018 are serious about their business and the business of building a local community. The trends in the types of spaces women are opening are exciting to watch right now, there's no one model that is the most popular. Instead, women are opening and sustaining everything from the traditional shared office with a mix of every kind of business to femme-centered spaces, spaces that are centered on improving the life experiences of traditionally underserved communities, therapy spaces that foster therapists as entrepreneurs, wellness-based spaces, and hybrid office/artist/maker's spaces.

Suburban and rural spaces, along with spaces that are focused on centering families and their needs, are continuing to open and grow. While these spaces have traditionally been more difficult to operate and sustain due to the size element or the complexity of the model, we are now seeing more resiliency in these niches. Some have been operating for 5+ years now and, having survived the pandemic, are now taking advantage of the current work-from-anywhere cultural shift zeitgeist.

Solving challenges and tackling inequalities

What inequalities are top of mind in relation to workplace environments?

Well, as a start, equal access to workspaces that promote safety, productivity, and accessibility for diverse and differently-abled workers and entrepreneurs. In general, there has been a lack of workplace design that caters to neurodiversity and promotes positive mental health, despite design initiatives that have focused on health and well-being through biophilic design, lighting, and air quality. Since the pandemic, stark increases in stress, trauma, and emotional dysregulation have led to an increase in the need for workplace design strategies that promote feelings of safety, choice, and trauma-informed care practices.

Then, there’s gender equality - traditional workspaces have been built by men for men, promoting competition over collaboration, working in silos, hierarchical power structures, and designing for the male body, physical attributes, and male-gendered preferences.

Next, we have financial accessibility - with the majority of coworking spaces being privately operated, it can be challenging for people who are not well funded to afford a basic 24/7 plan that would give them access to a network that could help them 10x their business.

Also, physical accessibility. Lack of accessibility for people from various backgrounds, including those who are differently abled and those who may not feel safe entering and exiting a building that is not designed with their safety in mind.

Additionally, many people who are not cis-gendered white men have experienced varying degrees of harassment in coworking spaces. Because of the relatively young age of our industry and the unique model of a community of multiple legal entities rather than one corporate body, there are several legal gray areas within which coworking spaces tend to exist. In 2023, there is little understanding of how to develop and train community managers to uphold protocols that allow for communities to flourish in a way that fosters collaboration while keeping everyone’s safety a priority.

How do coworking and flexible workspaces help combat these inequalities?

Coworking can be the ultimate equity tool, democratizing economic development in a way that is unique to and centers the community the space is built within. However, this is not a given. Operators need to be intentionally welcoming, create safety policies, design their facilities to meet the needs of neurodivergent and differently-abled people; womxn (yes, that includes trans women), and Indigenous, Black, and People of Color; and create specific programming that supports the unique challenges of these populations.

As the shift to remote work became prevalent, what challenges did you see for Women leaders and workers?

The biggest challenges women faced was and is having to be both caregivers and breadwinners in a society that doesn’t support families. We are a society that expects women to “have it all” and do so while smiling and looking dewy fresh, and perky. Yet humans developed in social units, thus, our biology and physiology require social units for us to function in an optimal way.

The isolation brought on by the modern (post 50’s) culture was exacerbated by the pandemic and showed us in neon color the weakest points in our social fabric. Since the pandemic, we have not been able to catch our collective breath. As a species, we collectively experienced what is being called a global trauma, 'the loss of the assumptive world' in 2020. We have not yet reckoned with that and are being driven forward to try to “get back to normal,” and our world is anything but.

How does having access to coworking and flexible workspaces affect these challenges?

The key is in having spaces that are designed with a trauma-informed approach and with the needs of differently-abled people, gender and racially diverse people, and parents in mind. Additionally, parenting support, support for gender-diverse individuals, and mental health.

How can groups of people support women and individuals within remote teams?

First, we’d say lead from an institutionalized understanding that personal wellness, which includes the mental and physical health of the employee and their family, should come first. The data shows that when people have a job that supports them from a place of caring for the whole person, especially mothers, we tend to be very loyal and efficient in doing good work for that team and company.

On top of that, providing flexibility in schedules and building work-from-anywhere policies gives employees the freedom to choose which work model is best for them and shifts them from being time-focused to being results-focused. They go from prioritizing ideas that maximize growth as the prime marker of success to prioritizing ideas that maximize connection, belonging, and a sense of welcoming inclusivity within the team and customer communities.

In terms of flex space, memberships in coworking spaces that prioritize both the personal safety and mental health of their members are good for employees while also maintaining an HR and Corporate IP-safe culture.

And finally, providing managers with the resources they need to succeed at their jobs as managers and to develop as leaders of their teams. This includes providing managers and leaders with the professional development and skills-building resources needed to understand how to lead people who are women, those who are Indigenous, People of Color, Black, and those with different neurological and physical abilities.

What’s next for Women Who Cowork

What's next for Women Who Cowork?

We are continuing to build towards an equitable Future of Work through providing workspace operators access to business coaching, mentors, and leadership training and through promoting mental health-positive workplace cultures with our focus on providing mental health and mindfulness tools and tangible support to entrepreneurs, therapists, and coworking operators.

We are supporting HR teams in understanding how to identify a coworking culture that is right for their team.

How can readers get involved with Women Who Cowork?

We welcome operators up to join us in the next cohort of our signature Resilient Community Builder business coaching leadership development program for HR teams to book a call with us to talk about how to find a space that is a safe and supportive space for your team and for anyone who knows an entrepreneur to share the Tools For Founders resources with them.

To wrap up our conversation, what continues to drive your passion for the work you do?

We are driven by a desire to see a world where humans are allowed to flourish. Coworking is a model that can foster grassroots economic development and dismantle loneliness. In a world with so much online connection, coworking offers tangible real-life connections. This connection leads to better mental health and happier, more successful members. We want to see coworking spaces that support mental health and equity in every community, and we are here to help make that happen.

Schedule Your Workplace Policy Session

We’re excited to hear your policy, show you how others are tackling challenges are doing, and give you practical advice.
Let’s talk
Andrea Rajic