In our casual culture, the art of welcoming someone into a new situation seems to have gone the way of the newspaper or the hand-written note: it’s nice, but who has the time?
What we must remember as a global community is that while coworking may be as familiar as sending a text message, the idea of shared workspaces is still odd and sometimes intimidating for new or potential members. Since we’re all interested in growing our coworking spaces into sustainable communities and businesses, it seems that retaining new members plays a big part in our collective success.
I started wondering how that “first impression” of coworking plays a part in new members feeling like they belong. Are we missing an opportunity to create a lasting relationship by assuming that people can figure it out themselves? I asked 10 coworking space owners around the country to share their onboarding process for new members, and thoughts about whether or not it played a roll in new members becoming permanent members. Here’s a summary of what they said–I hope it will help us all be become better hosts and communities!
First, all of the space owners or managers that replied acknowledged that they had an onboarding process, though some were more formal than others. Alex Hillman of Indy Hall said, “the only theme I can speak to concretely is the importance of having an “Indy Hall moment” (IHM). It varies from person to person, and usually involves making a personal (non-professional) connection with at least one other member. When somebody goes longer here without having an IHM, the possibility of them not sticking around long-term increases. Looking at our last 6 months of member exits, the only people we’ve really lost were people who never got a chance to “buy in”, which is the main result of the IHM.”
I think most of us can agree that there was a moment when something unexpectedly cool or helpful occurred while we were coworking. This “moment” helped us decide that coworking was something good, and that we wanted more of it in our life. Of course, you have to feel comfortable enough in the space to reach out or participate in that moment, which is why there needs to be a process for encouraging new members to “take off their coat and stay a while.”
Liz Elam from Link Coworking shared her process for getting new members settled in, which included everything from a welcome folder to help them get acquainted with the space and surrounding area to the creation of a member profile on their website.
“Once they have the folder in their hands we ring a bell and everyone claps, whoops etc.,” said Elam. “I do think it makes a difference. They feel like they’re part of something and official.” Elam also takes the time to introduce new members around and when a few join at one time she hosts a happy hour/mixer so current members can connect with new members. “I also recommend that they introduce themselves on Mavenlink (we use their networking feature for members to communicate) and toss out a question for members to ask them,” she said.
Most of us have member profiles on our websites, but as Craig Baute of Creative Density pointed out, making a literal member wall is an easy to spark conversation and make the community aware of new members.
“The member wall [has] fun facts about people and what they do. I notice several people drift over to it once a week or so to see if any new people are part of Creative Density. I also announce new members on the white board and remind people to give them a high-five. Overall, members pay attention and notice when new members are listed and seek them out so that this helps introduce people into the community.”
Baute also had an interesting suggestion about assigned seating for the first few days of membership:
” I recommend that new members spend a day at our high-top table where conversations usually flow and people quickly build relationships. Most members do spend a day or two at the high-top before moving off to the larger coworking floor with low tables and they end up being part of the community quicker because of it. If they don’t, I join them for half a day in the room that they choose. I figure everyone is pretty comfortable with me since I’m here all day and I might spark a conversation or connection.”
Although the general consensus seems to be that yes, having a process–however quirky–for welcoming new members makes a big difference in how quickly they become comfortable in the community, it doesn’t guarantee that they will fall in love and stay forever.
“As I think about the real life examples of the people who have done well and not so well here, I’m increasingly of the belief that the work we do in the beginning is less relevant than the person and their needs and expectations,” said Tony Bacigalupo of New Work City. “I think the onboarding is critical as a way of informing and empowering the people who will thrive and contribute, while it is less valuable to those who are more or less destined to not get much out of the experience in the first place.”
So if you’re planning new member soiree’s but people still drop out after a month or two: like we’ve said before, coworking isn’t for everyone, and its important for your community to coalesce organically. Don’t force it, factilitate it.
One key to truly facilitating a welcoming atmosphere is getting the rest of the community involved. You can hold a new member mixer, but if no one attends, it won’t feel that welcoming. You can introduce new members out loud in the middle of the space, but if everyone immediately replaces their head phones or returns to their private conversations, it’ll make the new kid want to bail as quickly as possible.
Sit down with some of your permanent members, and get them talking about their “aha” moment in the coworking community. Ask them who or what made that impression on them, and then get them thinking about how they could help make that happen for a new member. Encourage people to leave their go-to desk for a seat next to a new member; find out what their favorite lunch spot is and organize a group lunch; or simply make a point to ask them (by name) for feed-back when bouncing ideas around the room.
Also, if you or a staff member isn’t always there to welcome new members personally, make sure your community feels empowered to explain the little things that make a big difference on the first day: i.e. the grand tour, how to get online, guidelines for conference room usage, hours, printing, online resources, phone calls, keys/how to lock up, etc.
And of course, we’re all still figuring this out. There is no perfect combination of actions that will guarantee a new member will stay forever. “There’s a natural barrier to joining a new group and it’s important to overcome that and welcome people in,” said Jacob Sayles of Office Nomads. “I also think it’s easy to get comfortable and not approach each new member as something new because ‘new members’ come in all the time. Consistency supposedly helps that out but we are still working out the best ways of doing all this.”
On that note, let’s hear some ideas!
What was your AHA moment when you joined your coworking community?
How can coworking space owners/managers create the best environment for new members to have their own “coworking moment”?