Features
31 Mar 2016 04:19pm

The new way of working

Xenia Taliotis uncovers the new face of the workplace, and examines how office and freelance hubs, and the concept of co-working, are shaping the way we go about our business

Moorgate in London, and a recently opened office, resembling a huge glass hive, is buzzing with activity. Laptop-carrying workers are flying about, making calls on the wing, greeting clients, having meetings, taking tutorials, grabbing caffeine-to-go from the newly installed coffee machine – so new that the salesman is still there, spouting as much froth as the device itself.

Welcome to WeWork Moorgate. With space for 3,000 people, it is Europe’s biggest co-working hub. Down the road are WeWorks in Spitalfields, Devonshire Square, Aldgate Tower, Chancery Lane and Old Street; a few kilometres outside this cluster sit WeWork Soho and WeWork Southbank.

And these co-working hubs – flexible, shared offices used by a growing number of self-employed folk, freelancers and small businesses for as short or as long as they need, anything from a few hours per month to full time – are the new face of the workplace. Over the past decade, thousands (the last, now seriously out of date, figure given in 2014 by deskmag.com, a specialist on the changing nature of the workplace, was an estimated 5,900, serving 260,000 members), have sprung up around the world to accommodate the new army of Millennial workers – entrepreneurially-minded free spirits who work for themselves, but who need a work space that provides high-tech facilities, complimentary posh coffee, social events and, most importantly, a collaborative environment that nurtures enterprise with professional soul mates.

WeWork’s eight London hubs can accommodate something in the region of 11,000 people and are part of a much bigger global “We” family that currently has 74 spaces across 21 cities, six countries and three continents. Before long – probably by the time you finish this article – that family will be bigger still, since WeWork is expanding so fast that its own marketing team can barely keep up: at the time of writing, WeWorks in Mexico and India were “coming soon” and plans for other spaces in the US were also well under way.

The company’s growth has been phenomenal: between January 2015 and February 2016 its membership numbers jumped from 16,000 to 42,000, and it opened 40 new hubs (with the help of some serious bucks from, among others, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Fidelity Investments), which have taken its global floor space to a conservatively estimated 3.5 million square feet. In New York alone, where founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey opened the first WeWork in 2010 (measuring just 3,000 square feet), it leases more than 1.6 million square feet, making it the city’s fastest expanding company of the decade by footprint. If its projections are realised, it will become the fastest-growing lessee in the US by mid-2016. No wonder it’s currently dangling an unconfirmed valuation tag of $10bn in front of potential investors.

And the key to its success? “We saw a change in the way people are working,” says Neumann, “and pushed it in the right direction. We’re creating environments in which working becomes more meaningful.”

Neumann and McKelvey were not the first to leap in to fill the gaping chasm that appeared between traditional offices and the cafés and bars that acted as quasi-workplaces for the “wherever I lay my laptop is my office” generation. Impact Hub, another of the biggest global players, pre-dates them by five years, having opened its first space in London in 2005.

Initially called Hub, the company, which rebranded as Impact Hub in 2013, has more than 12,000 members and has doubled in size every two years, from 20 spaces in 2011, to 40 in 2013, and more than 80 today. It operates in 75 cities across six continents: there are hubs in Austin and Zagreb, in Belgrade and Yerevan, in Curitiba, Kuala Lumpur, São Paolo and Seoul, and there soon will be in Honolulu, Khartoum and Taipei.

Alex Soskin, a qualified accountant who is now managing director of Impact Hub Westminster, one of the largest offices within the network, echoes what Neumann says about growth being driven by demand: “Co-working is merely the response to the changing nature of how and where people want to work.”

Either by circumstance or intent, says Soskin, the number of self-employed people is rising throughout the world. (To give you an idea, in 2014 it was 15% of workers in the UK according to the Office of National Statistics – the highest it’s ever been ­– and 10% in the US according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the Intuit 2020 report, also from 2014, predicted that the US total would hit 40% by the end of the decade.) Baby boomers expected and had a job for life, while the next generation – people who started work during the boom and bust 1980s and 1990s – chopped and changed a lot more as opportunity or necessity dictated.

This generation, the Millennials, says Soskin, have a fluid view of work. “They’re less likely to want a nine-to-five office job because they’re used to working where and when they want, and expect to do many things in their lives. One of our members jokes that he’ll probably have five careers in his life, and so will his children – only they’ll be doing them all at once.”

Co-working hubs accommodate this way of working – most provide 24-hour access, and will allow those on enhanced memberships to use other hubs in their global network. But the golden goose nesting at the heart of their business, over and above the access and the incredible facilities (super-fast broadband, printing, meeting rooms), packed events programmes and beautifully decorated, centrally located offices, is the fertile and collaborative environment they create. It is this sense of community and social purpose that has given hubs the edge over cafés, spare rooms and old-world serviced offices. This is what each hub, whether part of a global network letting space out to thousands of people, or a small independent accommodating a few hundred, strives to provide through attracting entrepreneurs who share similar principles and work in aligned sectors, and by creating a network out of the frequently changing strangers who become their clients.

HOW TO CHOOSE A CO-WORKING HUB

Try before you buy

Most spaces offer a free trial and/or day passes so spend some time there and see if the culture and ambience suit your personality. Look beyond the shiny exterior to the things that matter: is the kitchen clean? Are the communal areas crowded? Is there soap in the toilets?

What do you want from co-working?

Key sectors for co-workers are media and communication, technology, alternative finance, public service innovation and sustainable development. Choose a hub where the people you want to mix with gather.

Is it accessible?

Night-owls should check if their hub offers 24-hour access – most do.

Get a global reach

If you travel a great deal, go with one of the worldwide networks that offers access to all its hubs.

Location, location, location

Again, think about what’s important to you and your business. If you’re starting up and are unlikely to be meeting clients, a hub close to home could work for you. But if you’re going to be holding meetings, then a centrally-located space might be the better option.

There is also a common adherence to having a purpose beyond profit, which is why many of those running and using hubs consider co-working to be a movement: there is even a Coworking Manifesto, signed by thousands of co-workers, pledging to uphold four core values – community, learning, collaboration and sustainability – and to keep them at the fore of the businesses they create. Beau Button, founder of the Dojo hub in New Orleans, describes co-working spaces as “melting pots of creativity that generate a level of synergy resulting from the proximity and collaboration of like-minded people. New relationships are developed. Ideas are challenged. Problems are solved.”

Soskin says that’s it in a nutshell, but adds that Impact Hub goes further than that. “We’re a connected community of social innovators and entrepreneurs, all driven by the same principle, namely to develop businesses that benefit people, planet and profit. Those three Ps are at the core of what we do – and, as a result, we attract more members from certain sectors than from others, including sustainable global development, environmental sustainability and clean tech, human rights and advocacy, public service innovation and alternative finance.”

There’s no doubt that co-working fosters connections: 84% of Impact Hub Westminster’s members have collaborated with other co-workers, be that finding someone who’ll design a website for them, help them with their marketing, or go into business with them. And as these fledgling businesses grow, they start to need staff: in 2014, Impact Hub’s collective worldwide membership created 4,000 full-time jobs.

Hubs also boost local economies, which is why councils are active supporters of co-working initiatives. Impact Hub Westminster is 40% owned by Westminster City Council, while in Bath, Tom Lewis opened his immaculate The Guild with help from a £500,000 grant from the council.

“Co-working spaces bring together people with disparate but complementary skills and experience, so it’s inevitable that partnerships flourish between desk neighbours,” says Lewis. “And then as these businesses grow, they bring more investment into the area, boosting regeneration. Our office, in the 18th century Guildhall, was a shell when we moved in. Now it’s a thriving hub where 150 people come to work each day, creating a virtuous circle of enterprise as they bring clients here, or hold social events. And that, in turn, brings more people to Bath, which gives a further boost to the economy, and so on.”

Demand for co-working space outside the major cities is far outstripping supply. The Guild has already closed applications for membership for the year, and has even stopped adding names to its waiting list. “We were at full capacity quite soon after opening,” says Lewis. “The challenge now is accommodating our client businesses as they grow and need more desks from us.”

Lewis is currently looking for investment to open a new hub – either in Bath or in Bristol – and to satisfy the people who are pounding on his door.

There are enormous benefits to being a co-worker. Lewis quotes a couple of studies that have shown, quite conclusively, that working within these communities is a very good thing. In deskmag’s 2013 survey, 71% of the people surveyed said they were more creative, 62% said they were more productive and 90% said they felt more confident. “I guess that all comes down to the opportunities that abound – not just for collaboration, but for learning,” he says. “All hubs host regular tutorials and seminars so there’s constant exposure to something new. And of course there’s no office politics, or David Brent-style forced camaraderie. People are free to come and go as they please, to socialise as they please, to work as they please. They don’t need to put on a work persona.”

And where does the future of co-working lie? “We’re nowhere near peak point yet,” says Soskin. “There’s huge interest in the Impact Hub in Latin America and Africa, and I suspect the same goes for other companies in our movement. I think there will be very healthy growth at least until well into the 2020s.”

WeWork, meanwhile, has set its sights way beyond Latin America and Africa, indeed beyond Earth. In an interview Neumann gave to Forbes magazine following a meeting with Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, whose ultimate goal is to colonise Mars, he had this to say: “When Musk gets everybody to Mars, we’re going to build a community like there’s never been. It’ll be awesome. If he can get us there, then we can do it. No question.”

CO-WORKING AROUND THE WORLD

Co-working hubs come in all shapes and sizes. Here are a few of the many that are worth visiting:

1. CocoVivo, Panama

Surely the world’s most beautiful hub, CocoVivo, in 145 acres of jungle on the southern tip of Isla de San Cristóbal, welcomes “independent freelancers, digital nomads and unconventional companies”. Facilities include meeting spaces – one is outdoors – solar-powered wifi, the Caribbean Sea and a whole load of accompanying activities including kayaking, hiking, snorkeling.

2. Agora Collective, Berlin

Agora attracts a largely arty crowd. It’s a beautiful space – made more beautiful by frequent art exhibitions. Facilities include a vibrant working room, a silent working room, a garden, a great café and a dazzling events programme: sacred geometry, anyone?

3. Urban Station, Argentina, Turkey, Chile, Mexico, Colombia

Arrive, choose where to sit, log in, drink as much free coffee as you like and leave. Simple. A pay-as-you-go system means you can pop in for just a few minutes without being charged for a full hour. Facilities vary from hub to hub, but include high-speed internet, meeting rooms with conference call services and cafés.

4. WeWork, global

WeWork provides lovely spaces that attract innovators, mostly in their 30s, who want to change the world. Facilities can include showers, private phone booths, bike storage and the usual office services and weekly events.

5. Impact Hub, global

Each hub is locally owned and managed and there is a strong emphasis on giving back to the local economy. Frequented by people in their 30s who work in clean tech, alternative finance and media, Impact Hub is, according to its website, “part innovation lab, part business incubator, and part community centre”. Facilities vary but can include 24-hour access and a host of business and social events.

Xenia Taliotis

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