by Melissa Mesku
A few months ago I got an email from a key card company, one of the many businesses that are keen to market themselves to coworking spaces. They asked if I wanted to contribute a relevant blog post. I didn’t reply. Keys? Who cares.
But later that night as I was coming home, I pulled my keys out and I couldn’t help but laugh. I was forced to realize that every night for the last few years I’d been having the same brief, forgettable ritual of mixing up two nearly identical keys: my house key and my old key to my coworking space that had since closed down. Obviously I no longer needed the damn key, but I had semi-consciously opted to keep it all this time. I considered that I might have something to say about keys after all. Not keys, as in actual keys, but rather what they mean.
The first shared workspace I ever tried was one of those fancy venture-backed places. Its designer couches and glossy high-concept design I initially I took as a good sign: if they cared enough to make the place look this great, they probably cared about their customers. On my first day they printed me a plastic key card. Again I was impressed – I’d only ever seen key cards in corporate finance buildings. I tucked it in my wallet with a feeling of satisfaction.
The next day I tapped my key card and got to work. And again the next day, and the next. The place stayed open until midnight so I often did too, leaving the front desk person to close the space behind me.
It was a productive month, but after a while I looked around and realized I had no idea who the people around me were. I had become enamored with the place because of how swanky it looked and how smoothly it functioned, but I hadn’t managed to get to know anyone. Every day new people started working there. But I didn’t even know the names of the people at the front desk, so seamless and dry was the experience.
I decided to try some other coworking spaces in the hopes of finding something I felt was missing. One of them was downtown in a rather ramshackle building up an ugly flight of stairs. Entering the place didn’t particularly make me feel like I had “arrived,” but I was quickly greeted by the founder and a number of people who worked there. Within minutes it was clear. Contrary to my first impression, I had indeed arrived – into a community. I was welcome and immediately felt comfortable to be myself and to get to know everyone. Within a few days I felt the space to be my new home.
I came every day and stayed as late as I wanted, which required my being shown how to lock up at night. Knowing I had the responsibility of closing the place down was a small thing that went a long way to making me feel a sense of ownership. A few weeks after that the founder gave me a key. It was just a regular key, nothing fancy. But it symbolized what keys tend to symbolize, that I had been granted privileged access. It meant I was not only welcome to come and go as I pleased, but that I was trusted to take care of the place as if it were my own. The fact that the key was a metal one on my key ring and not a plastic one in my wallet seemed to signify a deeper difference: the things in your wallet are used for transactions while the things on your key ring are far more personal.
I worked from that space for years until it gave up its lease and had to close down. In the interim there were signs things may have been going downhill. Nothing serious, just the small things that build up over time, the things that happen when the ambivalence of an institution that is both a community and a business never get firmly addressed. Could investing in fancy furniture and upgraded systems have turned things around? On their own, of course not. Would key cards have saved them? Not a chance. Likewise, great design was not enough to turn that first coworking space into a homegrown community. But there is a middle ground. Every coworking space lives or dies by finding that middle ground.
I still have the key for the first place: it’s in a drawer with my other plastic cards. I still have the key to the last place: it’s still on my key ring even though there is no longer a door to use it on. Whether metal or plastic, neither is in use: the first space wasn’t right for me and the other place is gone. But both places knew what they were and communicated it clearly in everything they did, right down to the last detail. They couldn’t help it – it’s what they were. In the effort to find that middle ground, it’s far less about appearances and far more about communicating the truth about what you are. In the end it comes out anyway. Every long-standing ambivalence, every over-determined intention – all of it will be seen for what it is, eventually.
That is the key to building the right community and having the right people access it, whether by metal key or plastic card.