The frustrating truth I learned about co-working spaces after I was sexually harassed in one

Image: AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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A few weeks ago, I was typing on my laptop at a co-working space in New York City when a fellow freelancer approached me. “I was worried you weren’t going to come in today,” he said. “I couldn’t find you! You should be by the window. That’s where the pretty people should sit.”

I didn’t say anything, but he kept going as he gestured to my body. “That guy who’s sitting at the table right now is fine … but he’s no you.”

After he left, I sent the owner of the space an email. I said that I was being sexually harassed, and wanted the man to be told that his actions were not acceptable. A few minutes later, the owner approached me.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “He does that to everybody!”

The owner never said that he was sorry for the incident , and, to my knowledge, never did anything to address the situation. I sat there the rest of the day, furious. I had no idea what else I could do, except never give them my business again.

Later, I went on the space’s website and discovered the company—which operates in Soho and costs $250 per month to use—had no official sexual harassment policy, or anything resembling an HR department for that matter. Co-working spaces routinely claim to be at the forefront of the modern workplace—and I’ve previously written about some of their many positive qualities. But while replacing traditional offices may offer greater flexibility and opportunities to collaborate outside your specific field, they also offer few of the same protections associated with the traditional model.

The future of work is fluid

The Harvard Business Review describes co-working spaces as “membership-based workspaces where diverse groups of freelancers, remote workers, and other independent professionals work together in a shared, communal setting,” but there is no set definition. Regardless, they’re increasingly popular. In New York City alone, there are dozens of spaces spread out across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Worldwide, there are over 7,000. Their members are diverse, ranging from freelance writers and designers to entire companies.

The community aspect of co-working spaces is often similar to an office, at least when it comes to physical proximity. But these spaces are also without the rules and guidelines that seek to ensure respectful and safe office etiquette.

One of the biggest benefits of co-working spaces is the freedom it provides. For example, a service that I use, Get Croissant, allows me to float between a total of 61 different co-working spaces in four major US cities. As a result, I never have to feel connected to any particular place.

While this can be great for someone who wants to work without distraction, the movement from space to space can also make each location feel casual. The sense of anonymity lowers the stakes on “risky” interpersonal interactions like flirting. After all, if something goes wrong, you never have to go back to that space again.

“It’s a workplace, but it could almost as easily be a coffee shop,” says Douglas Bracken, a lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law. “People are just using the internet in the same place, and there isn’t necessarily protection from sexual harassment in that situation. But someone just making unwanted remarks wouldn’t get you the kind of protection that you would get in a workplace if you had an employer.”

It’s very possible that some members of a co-working space belong to a larger company, which requires sexual harassment training of all of its employees. However, this is still only a portion of the office overall. No space, to our knowledge, requires uniform sexual harassment training of all of its members.

Holes in the safety net

Even if a co-working space does have a sexual harassment policy, freelancers may not be aware that it exists. Employees at larger companies typically go through an on-boarding training that at least touches on the consequences of sexually harassing another employee. Not so with freelancers sharing co-working spaces. Most co-working spaces also often lack the department tasked with dealing such issues: Human Resources.

While not exactly glamorous, corporate HR departments play a vital role in office life by helping train existing staff, encouraging positive and safe employee relations, and raising awareness of relevant workplace legislation. (Of course, it’s important to note that HR’s loyalties ultimately lie with the company, not the employees).

Without this safety net, individuals risk harassment, explains Amanda Mustard, a freelance photojournalist. “Being freelance means that you don’t have an HR department, and sometimes even if you do, your reputation can pay the price for speaking out against a predatory person in the industry.”

Making up for murky legal precedents

Labor expert Bracken explains that the laws governing a co-working space’s responsibilities to its users are murky because the concept is still so new. By disrupting the traditional employer-employee and business-customer relationships, co-working spaces have also blurred the once-bright lines drawn by employment protection legislation.

“This is sticky, because there is really no employer,” he says. “Laws are drafted from an employer’s standpoint. The employer is responsible for maintaining a workplace that’s free from harassment. That goes back to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says that employers should provide a workplace free of discrimination—and that includes sexual harassment. So, as an employer, you’re supposed to have policies and procedures that prevent that.”

Whether or not co-working spaces are legally classified as employers complicates the situation, and without case law, the responsibilities remain unclear. What is clear, however, are the benefits of sexual harassment policy. Bracken notes that regardless of the law, creating and enforcing sexual harassment policies is in everyone’s best interest.

“You should have policies and procedures in place, enforce them, and train people to use them properly,” he said. “Co-working spaces should want to keep their workplace free from harassment. And if the co-working space has any employees, they can be held responsible to the extent that one of their employees may be harassed by somebody else in the workplace.”

Businesses must be proactive, not reactive

But it shouldn’t take a high-profile lawsuit to convince co-working spaces that it’s time to start taking sexual harassment issues seriously.

A PR representative for WeWork—perhaps the most high-profile co-working company, with a valuation at $16 billion—told me that the company has a “zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment of any kind.” But afterward, I asked via email if the company has a set definition of sexual harassment, or if their employees are made aware of the policy when they join the space. Since then, I’ve yet to receive a response despite repeated attempts.

Indeed, after conducting a random sample of eight co-working spaces for this article, only one had a clear policy easily available on its website: the QNS Collective in Queens, New York. The Collective’s House Rules page defines the meaning of sexual harassment, as well as the different forms it can take. The rules for employees at the QNS Collective can be found here.

And the problem isn’t limited to the US. Copass, a service that gives freelancers access to co-working spaces internationally, doesn’t mention sexual harassment in their Terms and Conditions, either.

But just because you work with freelancers doesn’t mean you can’t provide them some protection.  The Yard, which is located throughout New York and Philadelphia, does not have a sexual harassment policy clearly visible on their website. They do, however, have an external HR department—Justworks.

Justworks enforces the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition of sexual harassment, which is included in all of The Yard employee’s membership contracts. According to one of The Yard’s staff, “There are clauses in all members’ agreements that outline that offensive activity and activity outside the laws of the State of New York will not be tolerated.”

Know your options

So what options do freelancers have? “There are opportunities for liability, especially if you get a creative plaintiffs lawyer who’s decided that there is an argument that can be made under a state law,” Bracken said.

It may also be useful to pressure your co-working space of choice to create sexual harassment policies. As Bracken noted, that should be a win-win for both parties.

“Putting policies in place creates a workspace that people want to work in, even if the space owner doesn’t really have any liability,” he says. “I don’t think anybody wants to work in an environment where they know they’re going to get harassed and nothing’s going to be done about it.”

In my case, one bad experience hasn’t turned me off co-working spaces entirely. In fact, I still go to one almost every day. But it has changed the way I think about workplace harassment in the age of the fluid workplace. It’s frustrating to know that I may get cat-called on my way to work, only to walk into a professional space that makes me feel just as unprotected.