Can Virtual Coworking Platforms Make Us More Productive?

Membership services like Flow Club, Flown and Caveday offer online study halls complete with proctors and goal setting

Flow Club is a membership service that hosts dozens of online coworking sessions a day. Flow Club

In June 2022, Susan Lieu’s dream of publishing a book was turning into a nightmare. She’d signed a contract with a major publishing house to deliver a memoir about finding her way in the world after her mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who’d established two successful nail salons, died at the age of 38 from a botched tummy tuck procedure. More than a year later, though, Lieu was far behind the word count she’d need in order to publish the book before her own 38th birthday. She was procrastinating, feeling isolated writing in her basement, and juggling the responsibilities of raising a toddler.

Then a friend told her about Flow Club, a membership service that hosts dozens of online coworking sessions a day. Participants in each one-to three-hour live study hall are encouraged by a proctor to set goals and report on progress at the end, but the majority of the time it’s just a group of people working simultaneously in front of their computer cameras.

Lieu quickly ramped up to spending five to ten hours a day in the virtual shared workspaces. Seven months later, she turned in the manuscript to what would become The Manicurist’s Daughter, published this March to significant acclaim. “I don’t think I would have finished my memoir without Flow Club,” says Lieu, who even thanked the company in her acknowledgments. “It was a godsend.”

Can Virtual Coworking Platforms Make Us More Productive?
Flow Club has quadrupled its users since the beginning of 2023; the service now offers close to 2,000 sessions a week for nearly round-the-clock coverage. Flow Club

Why did it work for her? For one thing, says Lieu, Flow Club taps into accountability, the positive social pressure we feel when our actions are answerable to others. “If you end up scrolling the internet for the whole hour you have to own up to that,” she says. Lieu points to studies like the American Society for Training and Development’s in 2010 that found a 65 percent increase in the likelihood of completing a goal if a person shares it with someone else. Even more significantly, it found that the probability rose to 95 percent if that goal was shared during an appointment specifically made for accountability.

Accountability is just one of a basket of psychological mechanisms that makes Flow Club work. Another is minimizing the number of times your brain switches tasks, what some experts call context switching, and yet another is called body doubling, a boost of focus people get while performing tasks alongside a peer. It’s also why Flow Club is one of a burgeoning number of such companies now offering coworking sessions for those looking to get more done, or just feel better while working.

“I’m an extrovert,” says Lieu, “I can feed off the energy of others.” Even, apparently, if that energy is derived from a video gallery of remote workers, though Lieu says the five-minute goal sharing and debrief periods that open and close each session are enough for a morale boost. “There’s also virtual bursts of confetti we can throw at each other to celebrate a win,” she says. “It’s a little hit of dopamine.” A 2019 study published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience showed that even small social interactions can activate our dopamine reward circuitry, another piece of evidence that these coworking platforms are underpinned by scientific efficacy.

I’m not an extrovert, though, so when I logged onto Flow Club, as well as two other coworking platforms, Flown and Caveday, for week-long trials, the social aspects of the experience weren’t as appealing to me. Flown’s sessions can have as many as 40 participants—lawyers, academics, writers, all logging on from locales as far-flung as England, Australia and Uruguay. Even in the fly-eye multitude of video screens, I often felt shy to speak my goals out loud, and gravitated to sessions where participants shared mainly through the group text chat function, an option in most of the platforms. (“I hate those text-only sessions,” says Lieu, an actor by trade.) On Caveday, I felt even more squeamish when hosts broke participants into groups of two, three or four for introductions and goal sharing.

Can Virtual Coworking Platforms Make Us More Productive?
Flown’s sessions can have as many as 40 participants—lawyers, academics, writers, all logging on from locales as far-flung as England, Australia and Uruguay. Flown

Get through that short discomfort, however, and I found the services tremendously helpful. I was first diagnosed with ADHD in 1979, and prescribed Ritalin. Prior to that, I recall grade school as a blur of frustration. I took myself off of the medication in high school, afraid of the stigma, and bashed my way to graduation thanks only to a writing ability that had fortuitously installed during middle school, when I was still on the meds. When I got a new ADHD prescription years later in adulthood, all I could think was, “why did I ever get off this stuff?” I no longer lost my wallet and keys weekly, gained far more domestic tranquility as I followed through on tasks, and became far less stressed about making work deadlines because I simply started them earlier. For a freelance writer competing in a world of diminishing opportunity, however, the drugs are not enough. As someone who works at home and has a toddler himself, I was able to get far more done working on each of the platforms than I normally do left to my own devices at home.

I appreciated the peppy welcome from the session hosts and goal setting, and loved checking tasks off my list, but what was most intriguing was the effect of working alongside others virtually. With my camera on, I felt myself sitting up straighter, and though no one could see what I was working on, I often was able to stop myself from unthinkingly logging onto social media sites. In the corner of my computer screen, the gallery of other participants worked steadily away. It was strangely calming, and most every time I glanced at it, I felt myself relax and settle into the work.

Some experts refer to this phenomenon as body doubling, a term coined in 1996 by Linda Anderson, an executive productivity coach, and now popular in the ADHD community. The basic idea is that the presence of another person allows someone to feel more focused and motivated, says Candan Ertubey, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in England. She likens the effect to that of training with a partner. “We know that jogging with a partner is more effective,” she says. “It’s bringing that coaching model to the work environment.”

In 2023, Ertubey led an unpublished study of the effects of virtual coworking on 101 Flown members. She found that 95 percent of participants reported an above average improvement in focus, that 94 percent reported an above average improvement in productivity, and 85 percent rated their quality of work as higher with the program. Ertubey also found that “work flow and well-being were highly coordinated,” with 87 percent reporting an above average improvement in stress level.

In Ertubey’s estimation, three psychological mechanisms make programs like Flown work. The first is the declaration of intent that triggers accountability. The second is body doubling, and the third is the strict schedule of work time punctuated by interactive breaks. Flown, Caveday and Flow Club all include short interactive breaks within their sessions. Hosts urge participants to take their hands off their keyboards and stretch their shoulders, or share one word about how they are feeling, or high five the screen en-masse. Those small breaks are significant, says Ertubey. “The nature and quality of attention is a very complicated matter, but we know that interspersing short periods of distraction during focused work enhances creativity.”

That last process, alternating stints of focused work with short breaks, is one of the strategies for obtaining better focus prescribed by productivity guru Cal Newport. His book Deep Work was a big inspiration for Flown’s founder Alicia Navarro. Newport describes deep work as, “activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” The company’s name, like Flow Club’s, is a nod to the concept of the “flow state,” that Newport says accompanies successful deep work.

Can Virtual Coworking Platforms Make Us More Productive?
Launched during the Covid-19 pandemic, Flown’s users have tripled every year. Flown

“There are systematic attacks on our attention by modern technology,” says Navarro. She points to a 2008 study from University of California, Irvine researchers that found office workers were distracted from their work every three minutes and 5 seconds. The authors also found that it took those workers an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return their focus to the original task. Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Washington, has subsequently dubbed the phenomenon “attention residue,” which she describes as “the brain struggling to move on from interruption.” That struggle, according to Leroy, impedes cognitive performance. As Newport likes to say, there’s a cost to task switching.

“I wanted to build a platform for people to be able to do deep work,” says Navarro. That meant helping people set aside dedicated blocks of time for distraction-free work, and then using positive social pressure like accountability and body doubling to keep them on task.

In my own time on the coworking sites, I found those pressures to be beneficial. Time and again, I course-corrected back to work in the sessions, and while my smartphone called to me like a phantom limb, I could more easily leave it untouched in the desk drawer.

Launched during the Covid-19 pandemic, Flown’s users have tripled every year, says Navarro. She also reports that the average number of focus sessions per user per week has risen from 4.3 to 6 over the last year. “This means that people are using Flown more heavily, on average, as we grow,” she says. Flow Club reports similar growth, quadrupling users since the beginning of 2023 and now offering close to 2,000 sessions a week for nearly round-the-clock coverage.

Interestingly, on all three of the platforms, users don’t limit their productivity to typing on keyboards. A frequent goal I heard on Flow Club was to “relax my shoulders,” which I quickly adopted as one of my own. On Flown, I saw people list tasks like, “make a breakfast smoothie and then clean for 30 minutes,” and “bake a birthday cake for my son.” Navarro heard a report that one Flown participant used the time to practice parallel parking.

Lieu, who still logs three to five Flow Club sessions a week as she markets The Manicurist’s Daughter and works on a new television screenplay, reports all manner of unexpected behavior. She sees artists sketching, or cleaning up their studios. In her afternoon sessions, she often sees Australian users logging on to perform their morning routine: take vitamins, drink water, meditate. “I always think of a morning routine as something very private,” she says, “but if you are living alone and need that Flow Club appointment to make getting your day started more easily, I can understand that.”

Lieu references what many call the “loneliness epidemic,” and cites a 2024 American Psychiatric Association poll finding that 30 percent of adults feel loneliness once a week and that 10 percent feel lonely every day. For her, Flow Club has been an antidote to that. “I really miss coworkers,” she says. People she has met on the platform have attended readings on her book tour, and the effects of coworking provide a sort of existential comfort. “I can observe other people struggling with their work and can relate to that,” she says.

Lieu adds: “It’s comforting, and it helps me get out of my head. I can remind myself everyone isn’t perfect. I’m not alone in this world.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.