Features of coworking are popping up everywhere

As soon as you start focusing on something, you begin to notice that object/idea/group of people/way of doing things everywhere. Obviously, it has been there in the same quantity and distribution but now these details mean something more.

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The ultimate “pop-up” – in Trafalgar Square

Since looking exclusively at adult workspaces, I have noticed the ideas present in coworking spaces popping up all over the place. Even the idea of “pop-up”s have exploded on to the scene – the year before last this phrase was new and edgy, now it seems to just signal temporary. Unfortunately, such is the fate of new ideas becoming mainstream and less than what might have been originally intended. In the old waiting room in Brighton railway station, there is a new combination of cafe, workspace and waiting room.  The styling is the pleasing blend of industrial vintage and tech – the coffee is barrista brewed, the food a bit gastro-pub and the sitting area provides variety for people waiting and wanting to either relax or work. Of particular note, is the amount of floor space given over to just standing and circulation room. It would be easy to pack in more tables and chairs, but that would lock the space into one type of use over others. 

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New ways are easier in new places

The other evening, I met up with some colleagues from Australia and they reminded me I had visited a school that had introduced a totally different way of approaching the way their staff worked.

iPad log-in

ESSA is in the Manchester region and was a new build. It was also totally online, in the sense that all staff and students worked off iPads and mobile devices. Texts and resources were served up in digital form through large presentation screens and individual devices. The classrooms were equipped with a full range of technologies to support the teaching and learning processes, and the agile physical environment was further enhanced with walls painted with whiteboard finishes, flexible furniture and a variety of storage options. The only place where digital devices were not used was the library containing resources and literature in hard copy. This space was placed in a prominent position, reminding students that all resources were valuable supports for learning.

ESSA

All the students and staff were assigned storage lockers. These lockers were placed in a large atrium. Everyone had a locker in this area. Behind reception, in a central part of the building, was a communal cafeteria. Staff worked, met and socialised in this area alongside the students. The space was large, with refectory style tables, and of course the Wifi was fast. There were no staffrooms, and since the entire school was housed under the one roof, staff and students could work anywhere due to the connectivity of the Wifi and the flow of the physical spaces. These way of working was part of the design and processes of this academy from the start.

Lockers

By means of contrast, I visited a school in Melbourne a number of years ago. It was a substantial, well established school with plenty of buildings spread across a large property. In one relatively under utilised section of the property a decision had been made to set up a large, open plan work area for staff. It should have worked in the sense that there were sufficient funds to plan an effective design, there were teaching areas nearby and there was one (of a number) library on the floor below. The space was large enough to accommodate a variety of working spaces and activities. However, it was like the Marie Celeste. The staff had not taken up the space. Why? Location was a factor – it was centrally placed but to only one section of the school. The staff had many other alternatives and they chose their traditional haunts. There was no specific reason, pedagogically or social, for introducing the new way of working for staff – no purpose for the change other than it was a new idea for a spare space.

So, it would seem it is easier to introduce new ways of working in a new build. It is easier to design new types of environments in a new build. It is more effective to have a driving purpose for making changes to the ways staff work before introducing them to new environments – new physical conditions support change that is led by people.

HUBbing, Pop-up CoWorking and Jellies

One aim of this project is to experience for myself all the different types of co-working styles and new adult workspaces on offer. Before leaving for London, I visited three different types of adult workspaces in Sydney. One was a HUB, one was a small co-working area and the other was a new office building. Each place had a specific purpose and therefore, design.

HUBs are collaborative workspaces where people buy access memberships (somewhat like a gym). The ImpactHubs have a clear goal at present. This may change over time as the global movement expands through six continents – it currently has over 40 Hubs in the network with many more preparing to open during the next year, and each hosting city tends to put a different spin on their Hub. According to the HUB network, their goals are to inspire, connect and enable independent workers and creatives. A Hub is part innovation lab, part business incubator and part community centre. They offer “ecosystems of resources, inspiration and collaboration opportunities” by supply spaces (that inspire), community through co-working (connection) and events (that engage and enable members).

In my view, opportunities is the key factor. It is all about linking people with like-minded people, who have similar or complementary skills and knowledge, in a physical space in real time. All other types of working can be done from a home office or coffee shop but co-working spaces allow for both the ad hoc collaborative moment and organised opportunity.

The Sydney Hub opened this year and is growing rapidly. It is planning to expand to a second floor of the current building. One great opportunity in the Hub movement, is the chance to involve the membership in activities of designing the space and processes. The membership attracts the tech-heads, the designers and the creatives, so when things need to be planned and designed there is a vast supply of talent onsite. These activities also build business connections and professional opportunities between members volunteering to be involved. In May, I volunteered to help paint the mural in the “play” area. One Saturday was exchanged for the opportunity of meeting some members, local artists and the Hub founders – and the mural has not been painted out yet … which was a relief to see.

hot desking

The next place I visited was an organisation’s new accommodation in an old warehouse. The design was sensitive to the historical fabric of the building, as well as the needs of clients visiting the organisation and those who worked daily within the building. The architects had solved the problem of needing privacy for confidential worktasks, whilst fostering connection between the employees. The offices were placed side by side, back to back along a central spine. The rear connecting walls of each office were glass. The corridors ran around the outside of this central block – allowing for enjoyment of natural light and a view for everyone. Catering facilities were distributed throughout the building but there was also one large kitchen/lounge area that ensured everyone could meet and eat and work together in one space.

The small co-working space I visited was modest in design and size but still captured the essence of co-working. It was placed in the central shopping street and had all of the necessary facilities of internet connectivity, toilets, kitchenette and variety of table configurations. It was also aware of the drawcard of membership. By this I mean, these spaces are different to hot-desking and casual desk rental because of the type of person who choses to work in these environments. They want a creative environment and the opportunity to spin off other people’s ideas, skills and energy, without missing out on the all the practical services of an office space. If you do not attract the right mix of members, the space will be affected. Corner Table is currently thinking through the sectors it wants for members. Some co-working spaces specialise in tech start-ups, others attract designers and digital/web companies and others are targetting social enterprises. The ideal is probably a combination of all of these, with some creatives and freelancers thrown in. At the heart of the mix, is creating opportunities amongst like-minded and like-skilled people, who want to focus on work and their businesses but not spend the entire week alone or isolated.

I have also paid for a one-day Hot Desk experience. The space had many more permanent members, so there was a distinct difference between the casual desk user and the permanent residents. The permanent residents had been allowed to move in lots of personal equipment and resources and had desks against the wall. Their spaces changed the ambience of the coworking environment. There was also a lot more socialising and chat going on between the regulars, which made concentrating difficult. Hot desks were also the worst ones in the room – limited power, in the walkways, worst chairs and no privacy (in comparison to permanents’ areas) – but these coworking offices need permanent membership to remain viable. I was reminded on the importance of space management to ensure fair and equitable access for everyone.

enspiral transport

Now to some London co-working locations …

KingsCross Hub

The space at Kings Cross is well planned and incredibly flexible, even though it is not that big. It is a complete building, and when the Hub moved in, the space was just a shell. This enabled them to design everything from scratch and with a fantastic fabric of old industrial architecture. Membership is large and managed by a full time team of staff. Events are opportunities of drawing in new members, skilling up existing members and giving members opportunities to network and share their expertise. The ambience of the space creates a feeling of working in the presence of people but not at the frenetic pace of a high-powered office. The demographics were diverse in age, gender and background training, and the hosting team is constantly monitoring the balance of tech/digital, social enterprise, designer and freelance balance.

cafe and open workspace

The Busworks and KindredHQ Pop-up and going to a Jelly in Hackney

jelly icon

Basically, there is little difference between a pop-up and a Jelly. Strictly speaking, a Jelly is a free event hosted informally just about anywhere the host can guarantee a basic level of facilities will be provided, but even that is changing with Jellies being hosted in parks. A Jelly is a get-together of people working – a nomadic workers flash mob. A pop-up usually comes with the expectation that it you are getting one-off access to a fully equiped working space, but like with Jellies, this definition is constantly being challenged by new ideas and new ways of doing things. The important thing to remember is that they are informal, irregular but always aim at creating working opportunities. They are not the most reliable way of making regular contacts nor finding a spare desk. However, with all types of co-working spaces, how well attended will depend on the type of people attracted to the opportunity and perception on the “cool scale”. But for a nomad researcher from Sydney, they are a blessing in terms of shelter/seating/table/wifi and an interesting way of seeing the city and meeting different people.

A P.S. Comment: As I just typed that subheading, I was struck by the new language of the co-working movement. Must remember not to drown the concept with jargon, acronyms and “in the know” phrases – works counter to the goal of collaborating.

Here is a link to the two sites –

http://www.busworks.co.uk

http://www.spacestudios.org.uk/whats-on/events/jelly

Mind the Gap – form driving function and the cool factor

Days 1 and 2 of this London trip were spent doing a long-haul flight, however, the time was not wasted. For the sake of this project, I watched “The Internship” – a story where a pair of out-of-work salesmen, who become summer interns at Google HQ in San Francisco. I chose the film for a look inside the Google workplace – and there it was, the ultimate creative work environment with vivid colours, gadgets, interesting workspaces, funky flexible furniture, fun places to think and play, nap pods and populated with the brightest IT crowd. However, the 24/7 work playground comes with strings attached – Google is watching for the next innovation, the next product, the next genius. The purpose of this environment is to generate future business opportunities and accelerate product design. No guessing the end of the story – human relationships and genuine collaboration are the elements that make all the difference.

So, which gap do we need to mind? The subtext behind the environment and a reliance on form driving function. An environment that will support the work of the organisation is a vital precondition for success. Google embodies the notion of innovation combined with driving focus. They have thoughtfully branded technology as being witty, accessible and desirable through their physical environments and online presence (think about the changing graphics on their search page). However, behind the environment is a carefully focused business with clear strategies for staying on top of their business. The employees may look like they inhabit a utopian workplace but what the company brings to the workplace will not be enough. The working relationships between the employees are vital to the success of the company.

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A P.S. Comment:
After spending time at Campus London, I can see the “cool” factor has great pull. If it is the place to be seen and be noticed, then the co-working place will be packed. I had to start out on pieces of furniture that had style over function (note to self – desklettes with wheels and crazy shaped seats may look great but make sure they have a predictable/stable footprint when you lean forward) and then”upgrade” my position as people left. By the end I was a success in a very cool crowd – two lounge chairs and a coffee table in the cafe zone, but it did take an hour of space hopping and upgrading 🙂 There is an awkwardness that comes with working in this type of coworking environment – there are no hotdesk or permanent desk arrangements in the cafe (you can buy a resident membership, which gives you a guaranteed space on one of the other 7 floors). When the cafe is as full as it was today, it would be difficult to focus on your work and people looked uncomfortable when hunting for a spare seat or powerpoint – the rules of negotiation were not clear and there were certainly some dominant personalities in the room today.

KingsCross Hub, just across the road from megalopolis station, most definitely has the cool factor. The space is urban, ecco-chic with a reminder that its focus membership is social enterprise. With a membership of 300+ and a daily attendance capacity of 120, it is working well.

By contrast I attended a pop-up coworking event in Islington. The people were more friendly, the space was cleaner and far better maintained, the space was quiet but it just wasn’t popular. The Jelly event at Hackney was more popular – it had the feeling of a well equipped community college and people came during the day to work on projects but with little interaction.

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Start-ups, incubators and coworking in the tech world

I visited Campus London near Finsbury. It is a coworking space sponsored by Google and Central Working – well, that’s the cafe area. The rest of the complex is devoted to start-ups, fostering social enterprises, hosting events and courses that will equip entrepreneurs with skills and contacts necessary to launch themselves and their enterprises. The focus is on technology and digital industries but freelancers and designers are also welcomed into the fold. The space provides power outlets, toilets, outdoor space, tables, stools and chairs. WiFi is free and the cafe serves good coffee and food. No one is precious about mixing liquids with laptops – after all, you supply your own technology, so an incident becomes your problem.

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The day I worked in the space, it was packed. Around 100 people were working on their own projects and businesses – all day people came and went. Sometimes people helped each other with a bit of technical information or tips on running the business side of their enterprise, but in the main it had the intense and competitive feeling of a university library in the week before final exams – if your idea does not work, then you might lose out to the person across the room. Surprisingly, the noise level was quite tolerable but the constant movement around the cafe and toilets was distracting – people working in this area were always keeping an eye open for a vacant seat further down the room. There is no prebooking of facilities in this workspace – you just have to wing it every time you visit.

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Trend spotting in central London

Being in the centre of London has reminded me how cloistered the world of a teacher is during the workday. We may stay connected to the world through technology but are usually physically remote from the world that passes outside the school gates. Due to this isolation, teachers have not been part of the new ways of working that are evident in the heart of busy cities and urban areas. People are on the go. They do not need to wait inside their office block or sit behind a desk at their street address. Meetings are taking place in coffee shops, hotel foyers and temporary workspaces. People meet over their phones and laptops, and when the meeting is done, they can log straight back into their personal work tasks.

While this may generate too much multi-tasking and an even busier work schedule than ever, the trends have an element of dynamic energy that can engage people more actively in their work. Flexibility and a sense of choice over how to manage your tasks can give autonomy and a greater sense of independence in your work day. Obviously these trends do not suit all types of work, but they are rapidly becoming part of the way creatives and knowledge workers are doing business.

My hotel is a great example of the new style of design that blends living, holidaying and working into one environment. The entire property is serviced by effective WiFi connectivity. The decor is subdued but luxurious in terms of finish and fabric. The public areas flow into one another, so foyers can be meeting areas and corridors places to read or drink coffee. All the spaces have mulitple purposes and have only a few prompts to signal their primary function. The public areas are numerous and spread throughout the lower floors – however, within the spaces furniture is clustered into small groupings so that you can still maintain personal conversations or sit/work alone without being crowded by stangers. Lighting directs people to areas – brighter lighting for areas where the hotel wants you to sit, read, dine informally and more subdued lighting in areas where they want people to move through.

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