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The unstoppable rise of the co-working movement

12 Jul 2018 By Emily Burt

Once the strict preserve of freelancers and 'creative' types, co-working spaces are fast becoming popular with larger employers – but is the trend here to stay?

It’s a sunny afternoon in Brighton and ambient music reverberates from the speakers at Platf9rm, an industrial loft space populated with freestanding desks, meeting rooms and ‘beach hut’ booths. A cappuccino-coloured spaniel snores beside the welcome desk, and workers pour themselves independently sourced coffee before returning to editing videos, coding on oversized iMacs, or sketching architectural designs on desks plastered with Post-its. 

Co-working – the sharing of workspaces by people who don’t all work for the same employer (or any employer) – represents perhaps the most fundamental shift in where we work since the popularisation of the modern office well over a century ago. And while the creatives at Platf9rm might appear to be the epitome of the type of freewheelers we associate with the trend, co-working is happening just about everywhere, and not just among the self-employed. Some of the largest employers in the country are embracing it as a way to control their overheads and tap into a more enterprising atmosphere.

For Tony Rogers, director at HR consultancy DEJA People, Platf9rm membership combines the continuity of a traditional office with the freedom to manage himself after starting his own business – and its pet-friendly policy is a bonus. “I considered working from home, but decided I’d prefer co-working,” he says, sitting with his office assistant, Pepita, a serene King Charles spaniel. “A huge gain is the people – connecting with potential clients, networking and a creativity that you might not get in a more staid and stifling office environment.”

Co-working rates start at around 8p per minute but it’s more common to charge by the month; £200 is typical, but rates in hipper parts of London are nearer four figures with extras such as storage thrown in. Technology-enabled agile working has spurred the growth of the sector by removing the need for workers to remain tied to a specific internal infrastructure. But the real driver has been the loneliness and isolation that can spring from people working out of coffee shops, bedrooms or garden sheds. “One of my main hesitations in setting up my own business was that I’m a very social person,” says Chris Rogerson, director at headhunter StylerWulf International and Platf9rm member. 

“The community is a huge factor; staff greet you every day and introduce you to other members, and the space puts on a lot of extracurricular events, such as how to increase your brand awareness, entrepreneurship support – even GDPR assistance.” 

But while co-working may have originated with collectives of independents, the last five years have seen it evolve into a far bigger beast. According to estate agents Savills UK, co-working takes up more than 4 per cent of all office space in London, and accounted for 20 per cent of new office space purchased in 2017, encompassing cities including Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester through to the likes of Gloucester and Guildford. 

Industry behemoth WeWork – “the Starbucks of co-working”, as one co-worker describes it – has almost 30,000 members, boasting 24 spaces in the capital alone. In a recent interview, Leni Zneimer, general manager of WeWork UK and Ireland, said at least 30 per cent of the organisation’s membership base was “large enterprise companies” including Citibank, Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, a trend she describes as “a macro shift in the way everyone wants to work”.

According to Anne-Marie Malley, UK human capital leader at Deloitte – which uses several WeWork locations – the open talent economy is pushing large organisations to reimagine their working spaces, and encourage staff to embrace co-working models: “It provides their employees with an opportunity to network and build relationships outside their traditional circles. As we move away from hierarchical arrangements and into networks of teams, individuals – and in particular millennials – will play a key role in driving that change.” 

While an increasingly disparate workforce could throw up fresh HR challenges for companies that traditionally existed under one roof, Malley expects the profession to adapt to reflect the changing employer-employee relationship. “As the number of contingent and gig workers rises, organisations need to implement hybrid workforce strategies to manage a labour force that has fundamentally shifted,” she says. “Distributed, remote workforces require a culture built on trust and accountability and should be enabled by new organisational structures and technologies for remote collaboration.” 

But while the eagerness of multinationals to snag a co-working space may seem understandable, they are entering a world that is radically different from the marble-clad confines they usually inhabit. “Our members initially needed to be working in personal transformation, social change or the environment,” says Rebecca Collins, managing director at ‘conscious co-working’ space 42 Acres, where daybreak yoga, morning meditations and sound baths form a regular part of the work schedule. 

“We are now loosening that because we recognise the value of diversity in professional industries, but there are some we would turn down, such as any business causing environmental harm. We don’t just let people buy a membership; we meet them and talk about how we can support their personal growth. Potential members tend to self-select and deselect naturally.” 

It’s a relatively extreme philosophy, perhaps. But a theme that runs through the heart of every conversation, whether a space facilitates a global member base or an independent haven, is that co-working is rooted in community – something HR consultants Fiona McBride and Michelle Parry-Slater realised after founding #LnDcowork, a group for HR and L&D professionals that meets in locations around the UK every month. 

“We started as freelancers, but also host a large cohort of people who belong to organisations,” Parry-Slater says. “People can be part of a big company and still be the only L&D professional in their workspace, making them as unique within that community as we are working from the garden shed. The chance to connect with other professionals in your sector is so useful.” 

McBride adds: “I think we’ll start to see a greater specialisation of spaces in the future – women-only co-working communities, or hubs around a certain industry type. Our members work in all sectors but come to us specifically for L&D provision, for example, so it would be good to see larger communities considering this.”

 A handful of specialised spaces are beginning to surface around the UK, notably women-only clubs such as The AllBright and Blooms London, many of which formed in response to the #MeToo movement. One space, Cuckooz Nest, is catering for another significant group within the co-working movement. The first of its kind in London, it allows working parents to simultaneously book office space and creche facilities on a pay-as-you-go basis. 

“I hadn’t heard of anything like it before, especially with such a flexible arrangement,” says Richard Faith, an architect who launched his own company in 2017, at the same time he became a parent. “I’d previously been at home, and my partner [a freelancer] moves between offices, so this space is ideal for our slightly ad-hoc schedule.” 

Marketing director Rachel, who is six months into maternity leave with her first baby, adds: “After a few months at home I knew it was time to re-engage my brain and reset some career structure. Thanks to this space, I had a work destination, and somewhere I could take the baby and know there would be excellent childcare.” 

The co-working movement is by no means unassailable. As many communities rent rather than buy office space, its economics are closely tied to the volatile commercial property market. The corporatisation of the sector may over time alienate those who treasure its homemade ethos. And some people may just never ‘get’ it. But those who do are true evangelists.

“It’s the future,” Rogerson says, describing his experiences in the Dominican Republic, where north American expats have set up co-working spaces to combine vacationing with hard graft in the ultimate working holiday. “Freelancers and beyond are starting to shape their work around their lives, and it’s only going to grow moving forwards.”   

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