Co-working: when one size doesn’t fit all
Fledgling business owners are flocking to shared offices – but their benefits do have a limit, reports Matthew Caines
Tucked away on the second floor of an unremarkable building on an everyday Brighton street, 15 founders are hunched over their laptops, each one trying to build the next British start-up success story. This secretive spot is a co-working space – a shared office for entrepreneurs who can’t afford their own digs, but want to avoid the distractions of working from home.
It’s called One Girl Band and caters for women-owned businesses, providing not only desks and a steady web connection, but regular skills workshops and meet-ups.
Design-wise, it has all the trappings of a trendy start-up space, with open-plan desks, modern Ikea furnishings, and a scattering of inspirational books and cacti, which is precisely what encouraged Lucy Smith, of Postcards Home, to join. “It’s a relaxed, creative and stimulating environment,” says the homeware and gifts brand owner, who hot-desks three days a week for £95 a month.
It feels collaborative, not competitive, she says. “Even though we have very different enterprises, the diversity of skills and experiences means there’s always someone who can give me a tip on how to tackle a tough challenge. I feel included, rather than isolated, which has improved my productivity and mental health.”
It’s a glowing review for coworking. So popular is the practice that co-working company, WeWork, welcomed 11,000 new members to its 42 London locations in the first half of the year, increasing its total membership in the capital by 73pc. Four out of five city members reported increased productivity. Also reaping benefits is the economy, with its businesses contributing £6.3bn to GDP and directly employing 26,400 people in 2018.
While it is worth noting that not all of WeWork’s residents are small (large corporations rent its offices to house remote teams, such as
San Francisco bureau), there are clearly gains to be found from co-working – especially when it comes to hiring staff, says Jeff Kofman of automated transcription tool, Trint.
“These spaces excel at looking cool,” says the founder, who previously used IDEALondon and Second Home in Shoreditch before moving his 36-strong team into their own office.
“One had living walls of plants and the other was full of Seventies furniture, bright colours and swooping plastic curves. They’re essentially offices for Instagram, but hiring is very competitive and having an uplifting, trendy space really helps.”
But it was as his enterprise grew that the flaws of co-working became apparent. “When you’re a bootstrapped small firm, you take advantage of some terrific, otherwise unaffordable facilities: professional breakaway spaces and fancy reception areas,” says Kofman, who found it easy to share until his workforce hit 20 people. “The lack of our own rooms became an irritant.” If meetings ran even a minute over, his team was kicked out by another.
Sally Bunkham, of gift box brand Mumsback, adds: “If everyone around you is talking about their numerous employees and mega-buck investments, it feels overwhelming. It certainly doesn’t help with impostor syndrome, common among founders.”
Crowded offices also mean more noise, distractions and mess, explains Nikolay Piriankov, founder of custom jewellery start-up Taylor & Hart. “That’s not ideal for staff or visiting clients,” he says. “There’s also a general lack of privacy; you can’t put sales dashboards up on the wall, for
‘We don’t consider ourselves a co-working company; we’re a community company’
example, because other people will see your numbers.”
Another potential disadvantage is flagged by Joao Baptista, associate professor at Warwick Business School. “They’re often quite hollow in terms of their culture,” he says.
The result is a start-up that adopts its hosting environment’s vague, one-size-fits-all ethos and practices, which don’t work in the long run.
“It limits the potential for a business to create its own identity and ways of doing things, which are vital as it grows,” he adds, advising that founders properly research a location before jumping in.
“Not all spaces are the same,” says Piriankov. “Some focus a lot on directly supporting entrepreneurs through seminars, mentorship and so on, but others have a hands-off approach, where they’re essentially just office-rental plays.” That’s a common criticism levelled at the larger providers such as WeWork, prices for which vary depending on location (hot-desking starts at £200 per person per month in London, while a private office starts at £660).
General manager Leni Zneimer sees the brand as much more. “Human connection is crucial for personal and professional development,” she says. “Being able to meet, collaborate with and learn from people who aren’t necessarily from the same company is important in [achieving] success in a shared office environment.”
That’s what WeWork is about, she adds. “We don’t consider ourselves a co-working company; we’re a community company.”
To check if a provider really does what it says, Bunkham suggests asking for a taster day to get a feel for a space’s
A WeWork space in Hammersmith, one of many in London offering budding entrepreneurs the space and networking potential to grow their business