Updated: 3 days ago
To tell you the truth, when I asked her "What makes you want to leave your current coworking space?", I never anticipated this answer.
A friend of mine works as a freelance English teacher. Whenever I speak to her, she tells me that she has a very busy schedule as she works with dozens of companies providing them with all the English teaching services they need. She chose to rent a coworking space because much of her work involves video conferencing. "It was the smartest thing to do", she said, "I now have my own space, with all the facilities I need, and with interactions with other people like myself, which is so important to me because I am a people person."
One day she casually mentioned to me that she wanted to leave her workspace and find a new place. She simply didn't feel comfortable there, but she didn't give it too much thought. Now, me being a curious individual, I couldn't just let this conversation end without asking her: "What makes you want to leave your current coworking space?" She paused for a few seconds, and then said: "You know what Perry? I am not sure how to put it. Let me think about it for a moment". "Oh", I thought to myself, "this is going to be a blast!".
After a while, she said: "I am still not sure how to say it accurately, so I will give you a few examples." And then she listed some of the most disturbing things I heard about women's experiences in coworking spaces.
When Coworking Spaces Turn Into Dating Venues
Most of us come to our workplace to... work. Well, the first example she gave me was how easy it is for people that work in that coworking space to flirt with her by referring to her appearance, asking for her phone number, and so forth. Doesn't it seem absurd that a professional woman comes to the workplace only to find herself in the middle of a dating scene? Well, my friend felt not only absurd but also offended.
Private Phone Booths Aren't So Private
Do you know about these phone booths that you can use to conduct personal calls and video meetings? Well, my friend likes to use them when she has one-on-one sessions with clients. They are quiet and thus create the ideal environment for an online session. The transparent door, however, doesn't seem to stop people from opening it in the middle of the session and starting a conversation with her even though she is clearly working.
Public Kitchen Isn't So Public
It is well known that one of the main attractions in coworking spaces is the kitchen! A space that is usually decorated in such a way that makes everybody feel welcome. Well, it seems that this is not necessarily the case for everyone though. Often times you will see teams taking a break together in the kitchens which are coworking spaces. The other day my friend went to the kitchen to get her coffee, and there was such a team, talking about a subject that really disturbed her. Using disrespectful language they talked and laughed about female prostitutes, unaware of her presence. That made her feel uncomfortable, and she escaped back to her space.
When Women's Restrooms Become Gender Neutral
Last but certainly not least example she gave me was an incident that was so overwhelming to her. She described an incident that occurred in the women's restroom. In the midst of washing her hands a male colleague came inside. In response to her, he said that all male restrooms were too crowded. It felt as if her privacy has been invaded and that she had nothing she could do to stop it. She felt helpless.
Tips for Diversity and Inclusion in coworking spaces
I asked my friend if I can share my thoughts with her, and she said "Yes". I asked that because I was cautious not to misinterpret what she said, and wanted to be sure she knows I am only sharing my own opinion with her.
"The people in that coworking space make you feel like they own the place", I said adding, "and some of them it seems like also treated you that way". Silence. It took a moment for what I just said to sink in. As she continued to speak she said: "That is exactly how I feel".
No matter where you work: on your company's premises or in a coworking space - you should always feel comfortable and secure to bring your true self to work. Every workplace and every coworking space should create a safe environment that suits everyone.
So here are a few tips for creating a more inclusive climate in coworking spaces:
First thing first! Coworking places management needs to write a Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) policy that reflects their own values, as well as the values they expect their clients to follow. When you have a written policy at hand it is much easier for all your staff to understand what is expected and what is not.
Coworking businesses usually host several businesses on their premises. In the same way you communicate with your clients about different aspects of their renting deal (costs and conditions, happy hour, equipment, etc.) you should also make sure that the communication about D&I issues is open and welcoming. Your clients will feel safe approaching you with any issue concerning this sensitive subject that may arise.
A lot of coworking spaces see themselves as more than just hosts. Through the different clients who rent spaces on their premises, they try to create a sense of community. So why not incorporate also D&I activities in your well-being plans for your clients? Imagine the reaction of your clients if you offer them activities that also have great value for their businesses and teams!
At the end of our conversation, my friend asked me a question about my experience as a Diversity & Inclusion Project Manager: "Tell me, Perry, why did you hang a Pride flag on the board in your company's kitchen?", and my answer was: "I put the Pride flag in the most public place in the company not only as a means of education and awareness for the employees and vendors but also for those who are a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I wanted them to feel that they belong". There are so many things coworking spaces can do to make everyone feel they belong. The simplest thing can make the biggest impact.
Corporate Coach for employee engagement and diversity and inclusion