My London experiences of shared workspaces

I feel like Alice – I have dived down a rabbit hole into a world that resembles my own but is clearly different. Without wanting to labour the rabbit analogy, I must say it is more like a warren. Everyday I follow a new tunnel into the world of adult co-working. I think it will take a long time to sort out all the information and experiences, not to mention work out what to do with this understanding of adult workspaces and worktrends. However, I think it is worthwhile to sort out a few key gleanings from these weeks before the impressions flee from my mind or are supplanted with new impressions and more websites.

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Gleaning #1: co-working is not hot-desking.

Current trends are falling into a number of patterns. New spaces are choosing between a model that seek a set up that fosters co-working – which is working in the same space of other businesses (usually freelancers, sole operators, small groups from remote companies) with the chance of collaboration between associates and colleagues in similar industries. Share the space, the coffee breaks and conversations or don’t. It is not one organisation that occupies the space, so there is no company culture just the necessary etiquette to make a space workable for everyone. The benefits are two-fold: access to resources that the average start-up or freelancer can afford and human interaction. The chance for conversation and assistance with your business comes with the physical space.

The other trend is simply just to the physical resources of an established office, somewhat like using a hotel. At its simplest level, it is a hot-desk and at its most complex is access to a full suite of office resources and support services. The benefit involves the portability of your office space. As the access to global markets increases, small and big businesses look for cost savings while still allowing for physical contact with clients and customers. You do not know where you will next do business, so access to an office no longer has to come in the form of coffee shops, hotel foyers and airport lounges.

Co-working spaces still have the hot-desking model as a way of allocating their resources but rather than ensuring the isolation of each space user, these spaces guarantee interaction as one of their resources. The people are a resource to each other and to the space. It is a very human way of living but not necessarily a very natural way of doing business. The people in the space are colleagues in the world of work, not clients (eventhough very profitable relationships have been struck up in these places). Trust and a mutual expectation that people give away some of their skill and time to promote others are the cornerstones of these co-working environments.

Co-working is not collaboration in the strictest sense of work practice. Collaboration in a world of work focuses on the teamwork approach typical of design thinking. One would usually do it from within an organisation or as part of a business-client team or with identified associates. Setting up the projects is not serendipitous and usually a deliberate strategy for solving a problem or completing a project. Co-working can supply the serendipitous element to individual working as it uses collaborative approaches of bringing together people in the one physical space, sharing resources and time. However, the individual is working on their own project, drawing in resources from the environment and typically the online world.

Incubators and start-ups are another take on the co-working and collaborative environments. The focus here is upon accelerating the development of new ideas, businesses and products, thus encouraging enterprises to make it to the marketplace as quickly as possible. Campus London is one such place.

So, where might these notions and work practices fit into the work world of the teacher? How might they find their way into the way we organise teacher workspaces? Are we already doing these things but by other names?

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Gleaning #2: people are integral to the co-working movement

Physical spaces are the stage, the behavioural setting for human work and interaction. Therefore, what co-working really relies upon for a deeper experience is people. People host, turn up to the space to model work and share, people maintain the property, people bring in people. People who co-work are usually happy to be nomadic but not isolated – if everyone plays their part, there will be people there to meet, assist and ask for help. You can work alone but there is feeling that there is a chance you may just miss out on that great conversation that will lead to a breakthrough in your own work.

Spaces like the Impact Hubs, structurally operate like membership co-working spaces but are conceptually driven by a spirit of collaboration. I visited all three Hubs in London, and while each one looks different and has a different membership profile, they all demonstrate the influence of effective hosting. The collaborative spirit is constantly reinforced and enabled by the hosting team, who are present in the space during opening hours.
Gleaning #3: Do not be beguiled by an aesthetically beautiful space – ask, is there any life behind the facade?

Apologies that my blog is not overflowing with photographs of fantastic buildings, awe inspiring interiors, spaces that make you envious of the so, so beautiful Eames chair. Designers and architects can take care of that for you or take a virtual tour of “I wish I worked there” offices.

I have been spending most of my time talking to the people working in the spaces I have been visiting. The ideas behind the design and the brief the physical space was seeking to address have been far more important. I did visit a fabulous building today, the recently completed Royal College of General Practitioners on Euston Road. It was the location for the Workplace Trends Conference, but the building itself was a great example of what the conference was talking about all day. It was a bespoke design, seeking to address the needs of a large membership and specific needs for clinical examinations. The building was also listed, so the design had to take into account the historical elements of its Edwardian wing whilst designing a structure for the new century. Of course, it cost a fortune to bring it up to the desired standard of finish but the concepts behind the way in which people moved through the building and made use of incidental spaces for key activities can be translated to other projects.

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So, if money is stopping you prioritising teacher workspaces, think again. It costs less cash than you think to redesign a teacher workspace/ environment. It is about the way people think about work – it about connecting the right people with the plan and then focusing on a few key physical environment drawcards. The other resources needed to complete the work environment, schools would already provide – they might just need some reconfiguring and repurposing.

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Different models and different spaces for co-working

Week 2 and I continued visiting a range of co-working spaces in Central London. However, before coming back from my seaside weekend in Brighton (gale force winds, squadrons of seagulls, huge seas, drenching rain and more cakes than I have ever seen in the one postcode – apparently a full dose of the English weather & holiday fun) I paid a visit to the new co-working space in Eastbourne. Take up amongst the self-employed, established tech community has been excellent, thus ensuring a solid financial base for the space to survive and grow – according to the owner a particular success since co-working is new to the area and the town does not have a huge freelance community at the moment. The space is well appointed with a brand new fit out – meeting room, large central desk area with both casual and permanent desk occupancy, loads of natural light, an outdoor terrace, open plan kitchen area and secure building. It is located next to the railway station and central shopping area. At the moment the space is not hosted but there are plans to grow this aspect of the co-working approach, and establishing some long-term members will encourage greater “buy in” from the community.

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Back in London, I visited another Impact Hub – this time at Islington. This Hub is similar and different to other ones in the network. It was busy and fitted out like other communities focusing on freelancers/self employed individuals who want to make an impact in some way. The Hub provides a place (that is not home) to work and opportunities to connect with other like-minded businesses. Key to the space is the hosting team – the team that does everything from property management to office manager to spotting opportunities for connections and innovation. The faciities are on the top floor of an old commercial area – plenty of natural light from skylights, a range of working tables (in a variety of configurations) and sitting areas and a separate meeting room that can be booked. Membership is diverse and reflects the context in which the Hub exists (both in terms of demographics, profiles of local business, levels of support and funding available).

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I then attended a pop-up co-working event @ WorkHubs. It is a newish space that aims to support freelance, small businesses or companies that do not require permanent daily accommodation. It provides a complete business  environment – physical resources, opportunities to interact with other members and attend events that extend skills or make new contacts. The pop-up was organised by KindredHQ – look them up – an organisation that focuses on co-working and networking for freelancers and people working on their own enterprises. The conversations around the table were fantastic.

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A P.S. Comment: the art of hosting and the use of humour are evident and have a powerful influence on the interaction between the spaces and those who use them. Avoid the passive aggressive signage that springs from exhaustion on part of the “volunteer” employee who has had enough or someone who cannot face unpredictable situations. Set up the space with clear prompts, expect variable standards of tidiness/attention to detail, deal directly with specific difficulties and use some wit (not sarcasm) to encourage the preferred way of doing things.

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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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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