Coworking Today - France

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= case-study focusing on 'silent' collaborative practices in a French coworking space. "Coworkingtoday (CwT) is a coworking space located in the center of France."


Stephanie Faure, Jeremy Aroles, François-Xavier de Vaujany:

"Coworkingtoday (CwT) is a coworking space located in the center of France. It presents a different logic to that of ‘traditional’ workspaces, in particular corporate open spaces. Both places can be described as open spaces that are not partitioned, equipped with tables and chairs, and in which workers can ‘settle collaboratively’. Two notable differences need to be considered; the first one relates to the users of these spaces and the second to their respective territories. In the context of an open corporate space, offices are assigned and the procedures and practices of the company are known and shared by each employee. Everything is framed around the culture of the company. This space thus appears as a closed and ‘regimented’ place. On the contrary, a coworking space brings together individuals who do not belong to the same structure (company or institution). As such, they are not linked by the same corporate culture and are not (directly or indirectly) subject to the same hierarchical structure. People sharing the same space are therefore ‘default’ work colleagues. As a result, the rules of that space, apart from the respect of each other, are not driven by the same collective of workers sharing different activities that are part of an operational chain or even a company.

The account that follows comes from an on-going ethnographic study of CwT that the first author of this note started two years ago. CwT is a non-compartmentalized space where a wealth of activities unfolds and that hosts a vast range of communities. Makers, coworkers, readers and others mingle in the restricted space of CwT. Upon entering the place, people would typically take some time to look at all the possibilities offered by the space before deciding to head to a particular area that would seem to be appropriate for the activity at stake. Much care then would ensue to avoid disturbing others and to maintain the silence that would pervade in that space. This could involve lifting up one’s chair when moving it, opening one’s bag cautiously, ensuring that one’s mobile is on silent mode, refraining oneself from eating, etc. In the coworking space, the ‘rules of life’ are imposed by the place itself where the ‘working together’ must be as comfortable as possible for all the professionals who have chosen this place to exercise their activity.

The first author of this note instinctively followed these invisible rituals. Particular practices and codes also surrounded the ways in which coworkers interacted with people entering the space of CwT. On many occasions, people would simply enter quietly, grab a seat and start working on their laptop. Even in a silent environment, the posture of the body was very significant; it sent certain signals regarding one’s disposition to others (e.g. does one appear to be willing to engage in a conversation or not?). On other occasions, some coworkers (already present in CwT) would send signals (such as body movements) to acknowledge the arrival of someone into the space and to suggest that they may be willing to engage in a ‘chit-chat’. Most of the users of the place knew each other, and it was not uncommon for them to greet each other once they were done with their respective activities.

When a conversation started, it was nothing more than a mere whisper in order to avoid disrupting the activity of other coworkers. The preponderance and special status of silence in collaborative spaces led us to interrogate the actual motivations behind the imperative to remain silent. In other words, is silence some sort of self-imposed practice (denoting a will to work together) or the result of external pressures, such as the presence of community managers (who would act as ‘silence guarantors’)? What is the value of ‘rules’ or ‘internal charts’? On various occasions, we noticed that this rule of silence was maintained even in the absence of community managers (hence silence was not coerced). More than ever, silence appears as a paradox here. What a strange way to welcome newcomers, in silence… At first sight, this can be assimilated to haughty attitudes, distance and even symbolic violence against those trying to join in the space.

Some of the professional activities of the coworkers actually take place outside the walls of CwT – this could be the case when calling a client or discussing a new collaboration over the phone for instance. As such, the noisy times of collaboration could take place outside, and the coworking space could then be a place for concentration, focus and to disconnect. Thus, we note that there are no barriers that force some activities to be carried out on the premises of CwT. In addition, CwT regularly organizes events and convivial moments in its street or neighborhood. One such occasion is captured in figure 2 with coworkers eating outside the space, on the sidewalk in order to enjoy the first gleams of sun. The noise of the place was thus produced far from its core activities.

Our ethnography of CwT makes visible another paradox. ‘By no means does silence define sound deficiency: it defines the state in which the ear is most alert’[3] (Quignard, 1996: 148). This quote by the French writer Pascal Quignard proved particular meaningful during the course of our study in the space of CwT. Paul, one of the two community managers, would always speaks in a low voice, regardless of whether he would have one or many interlocutors. He knows that the slightest noise can disturb the balance of what happens in the coworking space. As argued by Serres (1980), noise can be perceived as parasitic in a communication system, then transforming meanings in an environment. A noisy environment can be a hindrance to some with regards to the development of their reflection and creativity. Faithful to Paul who introduced them to the coworking space, newcomers would pursue their exploration of the space of CwT with the same commitment to silence, with a greater attentiveness to these innumerable little sonorities that underlie the ways in which this coworking space would operate. By extension, silence is also encountered between two people who collaborate on a same project and who happen to be working alongside (each behind their own screens). Silence is the space where their collaborative activities unfold: in some cases, this took the form of a complex web of glances and gestures.

The semitone silence that prevails in CwT was well perceived and widely accepted by coworkers and other users. It is even helpful when it comes to focus on a particular project, as can be noisy café where the subtle interfering noises are no longer heard and disturbing. This ‘white noise’ seemed to be produced by the many computers in the space. Absolute and prolonged silence does not exist. The form of silence encountered at CwT was simply a silence not disturbed by sonorous, meaningful words or speech. Interestingly, this form of silence was not always appreciated; for instance, in another coworking space in the center of France, the community manager told us that most coworkers cannot stand silence and continuously ask for some musical background in order to create a comfortable and soothing work environment. More precisely, the community manager argued that it thwarts the ‘false silence’, namely that of murmurs, the sound of chairs being moved, or the noise caused by the keystrokes of the keyboard of a computer. Concerned about the wellbeing of the users of the space, he decided to broadcast some carefully-chosen background music so that it would not become an inhospitable element for coworkers. This musical background had become an asset of the place, a distinctive element that was sought after by workers.

In CwT, silence would be only interrupted when an event is organized within the communal area, when the community manager connects two persons, or when a coworker receives a call from a client or collaborator. Most coworkers accepted this form of nuisance because they knew that it was temporary; upon receiving a phone call, a coworker will promptly move to an area where ‘noise’ is authorized (e.g. entrance hall, etc.). Those who are more bothered by these interruptions and accustomed to quieter environments resorted to headphones, took breaks on the sidewalk of CwT or left for another place. Ultimately, a coworking space is shaped according to the rules of life adopted by its community. This may explain why there are not two spaces that are entirely similar.

The community manager of CwT has left a real space for silence, refusing to interfere or impose it, leaving CwT’s community free to tolerate it or not. This clearly varied according to the situation and the people present in the space. When CwT would become noisy, some coworkers would accept it and consider it as a vector of focus. However, this was not the case for the majority of them, as some preferred to leave the place, to return to another time of the day or the following day. "



* Article: At the heart of new work practices: A paradoxical approach to silence in a coworking space. Special issue: Work, reconfigured. By Stephanie Faure, Jeremy Aroles, and François-Xavier de Vaujany. Ephemera, volume 20(4), 2020

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