‘SURE YOU CAN WATCH PORN’ Inside the offices where anything goes
The world is now your workplace as gyms, cafés and banks offer free desks for broke self-starters. But, asks JOSIE COPSON, is it too good to be true?
OK, my colleague is technically the fitness instructor at the spin studio where I have set up my office for the day. I know why he is asking me this. All around me, fellow exercisers have started to pile in. The space where they would usually dump their bags or sit to put their shoes on is now my office. As such, they are struggling to get changed. They shoot me dangerous glances as they balance precariously against the only wall space available. But I’ve no time to feel guilty. I’ve got emails to respond to! People to meet! Articles to write!
“No, I’m good,” I reply. He narrows his eyes. I’ve been sitting here since 9.30am. It’s now midday and, in that time, two sets of fitness classes have been and gone.“But why are you here so early?” he persists.
I tell him I’m a journalist and I have a very important feature to write up about the baby of a famous reality-TV couple. He, in return, tells me how much he hates reality television. Oh, how we laughed! He gets officially promoted to work-husband status. The blonde woman behind the reception desk, who I’ve asked to fill up my water bottle four times, has been relegated. She was on shaky territory anyway – when I asked for their wi-fi code, she dropped a piece of paper on the counter like it was a used tissue.
You may have heard of the housing crisis, but what about the desk crisis? Between 2008 and 2016, the number of freelancers in the UK has risen by 43%*, meaning there’s now an estimated two million of us on the hunt for somewhere to work that isn’t our bed or an overpriced coffee shop. I’ve got a full-time job, but I’m hoping to do more work on the side to fund my addiction to buying anything that Sarah Ashcroft’s Instagram tells me to, and I don’t have the dollar to actually pay for a desk.
Thankfully, savvy companies are playing fairy godmother and opening up their spaces to offer people like me a mobile office. Boom Cycle, the spin studio in east London where I find myself today, is one such benefactress. They used to have a small juice bar and an area selling leggings and socks. But now the owner, 33-year-old Hilary Rowland, has gone one further and
installed a desk slap bang next to reception. It’s a single desk really – you’d maybe get two people on it at a push, but I’ve had my eye on it for months. And Boom Cycle isn’t alone. Ritzy London gym Third Space has kitted out the lounge of its Canary Wharf branch with plump sofas and low tables from which you can do your life admin, while certain branches of Virgin Active have decked out their spaces with the finest Apple computers.
But, although it’s all lovely in theory, I’m unsure whether you can actually use the space like an office. I feel about as awkward as the time my dissertation tutor at university had to break it to me that ‘brought’ and ‘bought’ were two separate words two-and-a-half years into my journalism degree (I thought they were interchangeable). Sure, there are two other people typing on laptops, but I have a feeling they work here – mainly because the blonde receptionist is much nicer to them.
I decide to push my limits a little further. My phone doesn’t have signal down here, so I give my editor Boom Cycle’s number and tell her to call it if she needs to get in touch with me today. The phone rings and a guy who looks like an ASOS model (actually, everyone here looks like an ASOS model) answers. There’s an “I don’t know who Josie Copson is. You’ve got the wrong number”. Before I can get up to tell him I am THE Josie Copson he speaks of, the receiver has been slammed down. It rings again and the blonde receptionist answers this time. She knows my name, as I checked in with her, so she makes the short journey to my desk.“Your editor is ringing about a deadline.” I go up and lean over the counter, pushing the phone’s wire to its limits as I chat for five minutes. The woman looks utterly baffled.
At 3pm, I have a meeting set up with a woman who has the power to commission some of my feature ideas. She rings me, confused. “Where are you? I’m lost.”
“Just look for the motivational blackboard on the street that says, ‘Anything worth doing is worth kicking ass at!’” I tell her. When she eventually finds me, I order us a round of smoothies (I ask for Tetley, but they don’t have any), which sets me back the price of a H&M bikini – tea rounds are expensive here.
“So, I’m really thinking that the Porn Awards could work for you guys…”
“The WHAT?” replies my colleague. The juicer for our smoothies has just been fired up.
“THE PORN AWARDS!” I shout.
“THE WHAT?” she shouts back.
Around us, people are limbering up for their class, and for the first time I feel almost comfortable here. My colleague doesn’t – she makes her excuses and leaves.
I check my watch. It’s 5.40pm – only five minutes until the class I’ve been waiting for since 9.30am this morning starts. As I finally step onto a spin bike, my work husband looks about, utterly relieved. They’ve been an accommodating bunch, but I can’t help thinking that if their lone desk was used in this way every day, tensions would rise. It’s a nice idea in theory. In reality? It’s time for me to test my luck elsewhere.
The good news is it’s not just gyms jumping on the pop-up desk wagon. Barclays is giving its unutilised space (turns out no one goes into
“I tell my editor to call me at Boom Cycle if she needs me”
banks any more) to social enterprises, business start-ups and community projects, while Google has a place in east London that you can use completely free of charge if you fill out a short membership form and, you know, give all your personal data away. You can even, I’ve heard it whispered, gatecrash someone else’s office space – with companies like property agency 3Space donating one desk to a non-profit start-up or experimental project for every company that rents a desk at one of its shared-working spaces. Giving a start-up a little bit of space will mean everyone involved benefits – Harvard Business Review research found that people in co-working spaces experience better productivity, lower burn-out rates and higher job satisfaction. This is how I find myself in popcorn company Propercorn’s Islington office. Here, they lend desks to anyone who wants them (as long as someone in the office knows who they are and can vouch for the fact that they’re not a serial killer) in return for some skill-sharing and generally not being a liability.
The co-founder of Propercorn is Cassandra Stavrou, who waltzes in wearing black trousers and a crisp white shirt, perfectly matching the crisp white walls of the office.“It gives it an incredible energy, having so many passionate and ambitious young people under one roof,” she tells me.
“Who have you had in so far?” I ask, intrigued.
“Journalists, stylists, authors… We had a freelance journalist who stayed for a couple of weeks. She was fed up of working from her kitchen table and hadn’t found long-term office space, so she came and joined us. We’re still in close contact.” Oh, I get why I’m here – I can give them coverage. But what about if my dad, who fits shutters for a living, wanted somewhere to work on his sketches, I wonder…
Still, I make myself at home. There’s as much free Propercorn as you can stomach (turns out I can stomach a lot, as I sample every flavour twice in nine hours). They also have a very fancy tea selection, so I make myself a tea every hour on the hour. There’s a free lunch put on by a handsome chef called Ed every day, which is
totally exciting, as well as a ping-pong table and an abundance of dry shampoo in the toilets, which could come in handy as I haven’t washed my hair in over a week.
I attempt to start conversations throughout the day – everyone is very polite, but I get the feeling they’re not in the mood for dissecting the romantic machinations of Love Island. And not everyone seems so keen on the constant tea rounds. To be honest, it’s hard to make yourself feel part of a community when everyone else here works for the same common goal. I feel like a naughty intern breaking work etiquette, so I thank Cassandra for her hospitality, pack up my award and pen pot, and head out into the evening air.
What I really need is a place that has a communal vibe; one where I can talk shopping or reality TV as often as I like without fear of judgement. Ideally somewhere with free wi-fi and coffee. And comfy chairs. That place, according to my freelance friends, is The Timberyard, a coffee shop in Soho that describes itself as the ‘future of work.’ It has 3G and, rather crucially, something called ‘Reverse Osmosis Water.’ I don’t know what it is, but it gets me out of bed early on a Wednesday
“I need somewhere with wi-fi. And comfy chairs”
morning. The problem is, it is so early that I forget my laptop. I tell the guy behind the bar who looks puzzled, but helpfully hands over a couple of pages of A4 paper and a pen.
I settle into a squishy armchair (the other seats are taken by louche types in business-casual attire hunched over laptops) and order a yoghurt pot and a bottle of water. I notice the bottle has a note hanging around its neck that reads ‘WORKSPACE powered by PURCHASES.’ I suddenly feel bad – this is the quid pro quo. Use our workspace, spend some money. (And I know you’re all dying to know what Reverse Osmosis Water tastes like. Well, imagine a bottle of water. It’s a lot like that.)
There are long tables here designed for impromptu brainstorms and business meetings. Already, there are small knots of twentysomethings using their arms expansively as though miming ‘blue-sky thinking.’ It’s annoying. Still, there are also separate meeting rooms available for hire, should you need them.
By 5pm, I’ve had about as much free tap water as I can stomach. Others appear to spend a lot on Reverse Osmosis Water and coffee. I calculate that if I bought a bottle of ROW (its new acronym) every hour, I’d have spent almost £25 on water alone. And probably not done a lot to help the environment. As I wander home, I think about my week in all those offices. And the simple truth is this: there’s no such thing as a free desk.
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