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

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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

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