People & Portfolios

How the commercial real estate and coworking worlds differ in the words they use for the occupiers of flexible office space.

Often referred to as a total disruption of the office leasing model, the coworking movement is an evolution of the use & leasing of physical space for work. Part of this comes from the coworking world speaking a completely different language than the world of traditional commercial real estate (CRE). 

The coworking world & CRE have more in common than not, with both contributing to a modern ecosystem of workplaces. The flexible space movement is about providing people a better place & a better way to work. The way that CRE & coworking talk about people is one of the biggest separators between the two camps right now. 

The customer:

Members – In the majority of coworking spaces, the customer is called a member, just like a member of a gym or social club. A membership to something implies belonging. This is a critical component of the community-focus of coworking spaces. Embedded in the term “member” is an expectation of the community experience that is more than just being inside physical walls.  

Tenants – CRE, on the other hand, traditionally refers to their customers as tenants. This term implies occupancy, but nothing beyond that. The trend in coworking has been to stay away from calling customers tenants. “Tenant” doesn’t include anything beyond a transaction with a landlord. There is no relationship, no expectation of community.

The office owners & managers:

Landlords – These are people that lease space to a tenant. There isn’t an assumption of involvement beyond a responsibility to make repairs, or whatever maintenance is dictated in the lease contract. Again, its a transaction relationship, nothing more.

Operators – Coworking space owners aren’t called landlords. While they do rent space to members, it is assumed that they are deeply involved with the business & their members. Operators run both the space and the business, they cannot be separated.   

Property/Facility managers In CRE, particularly for larger buildings or portfolios of buildings, there will be a person or team of property managers and facility managers. These managers are in charge of the maintenance & operation of the physical space, including everything from custodial services to landscaping to ensuring the heat and cooling are keeping everyone inside the building as happy as possible (and this one is a tough task).

Receptionists/Office managers – These roles are more common on the traditional CRE side of the office space industry. These are the cheerful faces that greet everyone walking through the front door, help check-in guests, manage the office supplies, coordinate with the landlord or maintenance, and generally help people in the space with small tasks as they arise. 

Community managers – This is much more of the norm in the coworking industry. Community managers are responsible primarily for the people in the space, whether that’s showing a new member how to make coffee, to setting up and running community events, to providing tours for potential new coworking members. The community manager role is diverse, but very people focused. 

Traditionally, CRE has focused upon the physical space first, who occupies it second. The driver is transactional. Coworking is the opposite. The focus is on humans first. The physical space is second and in the service of their needs. Rather than transactions, the emphasis is on experiences. 

Both approaches have their benefits and place in making the coworking industry strong and sustainable. That can only happen if the same language is being spoken first. 


*While we’re on the topic of terminology - a reminder that it’s coworking, not co-working. Coworking is recognized as the correct usage, sans hyphen, by the AP Stylebook as of 2018. Much like a secret handshake, coworking industry aficionados know you are not an insider if you let that hyphen sneak in there. Why does this matter? Check out Cat Johnson’s article on the subject.