Broadening and Building in Coworking


It seems that many people who join a coworking space find the experience to be overwhelmingly positive. Much of the growth of this movement can be credited to the fact that people who partake in it are often the most vociferous proponents of its continued existence. How can this phenomenon be explained? What is it about coworking spaces that makes them so overwhelmingly positive for people?

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has developed a theory known as broaden-and-build which may help explain it. It's easiest to explain broaden-and-build by contrasting it with what we experience due to negative emotions. In times of fear, our bodies react in a very narrow and focused way in order to help us escape or vanquish the threat (fight or flight). Negative emotions generally produce a very intense and narrow repertoire of actions and thought. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Negative emotions are usually accompanied by things that could possibly kill us, generally something we are looking to avoid.

On the other hand, broaden-and-build posits that positive emotions like contentment, joy, interest, and love, allow us to have a broader thought-action repertoire which leads to increasing physical, personal, psychological, intellectual, and social resources. For example, Fredrickson looks at animal research which shows activities exhibited during play by young mammals, such as throwing oneself onto a sapling and being catapulted in an unexpected direction, is only ever shown in adults faced with threat. Building these important resources can lead to better outcomes in future threatened situations.

What does this mean for coworkers and coworking spaces?

Coworking spaces can, and should, be environments where positive emotions are cultivated and shared. Interacting with positive people, building relationships, being in an aesthetically pleasing environment, and doing good work can all lead to positive emotions. These positive emotions, in turn, lead to important adaptations like increased creativity, being more open to information, being more flexible, and increased efficiency. Most independent workers would argue that these characteristics are important to doing good work.

Not only do positive emotions lead to better outcomes, but the better outcomes can lead to more positive emotions. It is a cyclical process that can "build" on itself in what has been described as an upward spiral. For example, a member of a coworking space builds relationships with her fellow coworkers which leads to an increase in positive emotions, these positive emotions allow her to think more broadly and creatively on a project she's working on, her client is very pleased with the quality of her work and recommends her services to a friend which leads to another well-paying job for our fictional coworker. This obviously elicits more positive emotions which in turn lead to more positive outcomes. It's a reciprocal and self-feeding cycle that can lead to very high levels of well-being.

Coworking spaces can provide excellent environments for this positive upward spiral to begin. By providing a pleasing environment to do work, opportunities to meet interesting new people and collaborate on new projects, and by providing a way for an independent worker to feel like he or she belongs to a group, the stage is set for increasing positive emotions and the positive outcomes that accompany those emotions.

Reference: Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

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