31: How to Cultivate Community in a Shared Workspace

Welcome to Episode #31 of the Everything Coworking Podcast!

This episode is brought to you by the Global Workspace Association.

In this episode, Craig Baute, founder of Creative Density, a coworking space in Denver, shares his experience around how to cultivate community in a shared workspace. He gives some tips on how to facilitate without going overboard. This episode and our next episode, #32, focus on facilitating community in a shared workspace. I created a downloadable cheat sheet with a list of tips and insights shared by our guests, Craig in this episode, and Chris Holt from Tech Artista in the next episode.

To get the cheat sheet, text GWA2016 to 44222, and then follow the instructions on your phone.

Enjoy our conversation!

Craig is the founder of Creative Density. Before I talk about the space, talk about how you started Creative Density and how you picked the space and location. Back in 2009/2010, I was working remotely for a Chicago-based company. I heard about a coworking space in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their experimental space was called Croswell 654. It was designed for remote workers, so it was kind of this traditional coworking clubhouse view of people just coming in and working and getting to know each other in an organic, natural way. That’s all I needed and wanted out of a coworking space. I started Creative Density back in 2011, coming from the mindset of a remote worker. As a remote worker, I really didn’t need too many educational events. I wasn’t a freelancer trying to drum up business, or doing a start-up and wanting to learn every skill possible. What I really wanted was that clubhouse feel of hanging out with friends and helping each other out. That’s the kind of approach I took to Creative Density. About 80% are remote workers here. I want people to get to know each other in a very natural, organic way.

When you say 80% are remote workers, you mean that they work for big companies, not for themselves. That’s interesting and somewhat unique, right? It used to be unique. We kept with that model. Our space is only 10% private offices, so being really 80% or 90% remote, it lends itself mostly to the individual and not the team.

Describe your space and your neighborhood, because it’s unique. Croswell 654 was in Grand Rapids, Michigan and it was a converted house next to an Ice Cream shop. It had some nooks and crannies, and a few big rooms. The bedrooms were converted in to conference rooms. Creative Density is in the first ring of neighborhoods outside the downtown core of Denver. Most of the rooms are around 250 square feet. You can still walk through and speak to people between the rooms, but it gives it a more cozy feel, and allows me to give each room a different culture.

I’ve been there recently. It’s just such a unique culture. I think we will start to see more unique spaces that are a good fit for a neighborhood or a specific environment. Yours certainly fits that bill. I also want to say I have a second location that is more of a traditional office building that has mostly private offices. There’s a lot of benefits for being in a traditional office space. You can’t make them fun and funky, but that might not fit the image a company wants to portray. As an individual, you really aren’t looking for the space to be your branding. You’re going for the atmosphere and feel of the space.

Your second location is another great example of shifting to market needs. Tell us about your community and the events you do. Remote workers are really looking for a comfortable seat, great coffee, strong Wi-Fi and awesome people. Their businesses provide all the other things that they need, so they just want awesome people to be around. My job is to start conversations and pull people in. I remember when we first opened, we had 10 members. I didn’t furnish all the rooms and I kept certain doors closed, so I kind of forced this density in people. As we got more members I furnished more rooms and opened up space and so we played around with the space to create that small community feeling. We also grabbed yard games so we play a lot of corn hole. It’s so approachable, everyone can do it. Two or four people can play, and then start chit chatting out in the yard. Other people can jump in, so it creates this pervasive culture of just being friends by having washers, and people having moments of conversation that are very relaxing and natural. Another big thing is “Take Yourself to Lunch Friday”. It says “I’m not going to pay for your lunch, so don’t think I’m going to” but it also gives them an invite. You don’t need to join, but it’s putting the bug in everyone’s ear. Friday is now our busiest day. It brings the community together, and doesn’t cost me anything. I can use events like this to even it out so there’s 30 people every single day. It’s that pervasive community effect-- culture friendliness-- that spreads throughout the place very naturally.

Give a couple of examples of some of the bigger after work events. Don’t you do kickball games? Yes! It was just a natural way for our communities to get to know each other. I wanted to support the Freelancers that are here. Another big event is board game night with a potluck. That’s been very successful. We have 3 to 4 board game sessions going, and it becomes a feast. Another one is a picnic barbecue. That gives us more of that company picnic feel. It creates a stronger community once you get to know each other’s significant other and kids. Another key is not to overdo the events. Doing one big event a month is enough, otherwise you only get a quarter of the people to come, and people that don’t come feel excluded or pressured.

You’ve shared great examples and insights. Is there any final advice you would give to someone who is just starting a space, or who feels like they could work a little bit more on their community? Assuming you already have some sort of community, you have to be the instigator of interaction. You are the only face that they know. We don’t realize that as a community manager, because we know everyone. You might do an intro, but they don’t know each other’s names.

Right, we’re not wearing name tags, you feel awkward if you say “hey dude in the blue sweater”. I’ve noticed if you make a joke of that, they’ll be totally comfortable. When we play yard games, people are much more comfortable saying “dude, I don’t know your name”. The Community Manager has to be a casual instigator, and you have to provide the tools for people to get together without you being the anchor all the time. You can’t be that central hub. Space design does a lot for that. Don’t put everyone against the window. You’re going to think they enjoy looking outside, and it’s space efficient, but it also means you walk into a room of backs where nobody faces each other.

You started as a co-worker. Now you’re an operator, and you’re helping other folks who are starting spaces or looking to grow their community by doing consulting work. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re seeing going on in the market place? I’m working right now on a function at the end of March. It’s a coworking catalyst with Angel, who is at Cohere of Fort Collins. Most people have probably heard of her and should check out her blog. We’re starting a service for DIY coworking entrepreneurs who want to start their own space and need some guidance. We’re creating affordable entry points. We offer advice, and also give steps and operations training. Angel and I have already worked on several projects together. We feel this sense of joy in being able to help someone start their own community space. Every time we work on a project, we learn something new, or see a new problem that’s very specific to that entrepreneur that we can learn from. We’re excited to launch the service at the end of March.

We might have to have you back on after you do a few more projects. Where can people learn more about you and Creative Density? Creativedensity.com is the website. Craigbaute.com has more advice for coworking space, entrepreneurs, and DIY’ers, I just wrote a love affair blog post about a new printer that I got, you should check it out if you run a coworking space. You’ll save yourself probably $500 in the first year. Angel and I’s coworking service website will be up at the end of March with some free advice for business planning, financial guidance, and building community.

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PodcastJamie Russo