Is coworking about to make a comeback?
At Hatcham House, a hub in south east London, affordable Covid-safe desks have been full since the business reopened in June. John Burgess, a 56-year-old father of two and associate director for real estate and assets at advisory firm Grant Thornton, joined up as soon as restrictions lifted – and was pleased to find that coworking spaces are not just the preserve of millennials with fledgling tech startups.
“Just because I’m not young, free and starting up an internet business doesn’t mean I can’t get something out of working in a different place and a different environment,” he says. “I’d be disappointed if people saw that as the entering credentials to go into a coworking space.
“What a lot of people miss most of all is the ‘pushing back your chair’ moment – raising your head up from your laptop and asking your colleagues a question,” Burgess explains. “I’m talking to young colleagues who have just joined us in the September graduate intake that haven’t met anyone in the organisation. Perhaps they’ve moved to London because of this job opportunity, and they’re really feeling lonely.”
Sara Hailan, head of digital at communications agency Full Fat, says that while lockdown did help her get some sense of work life balance for “the first time ever” at the outset, more recently, working from home became more of a psychological challenge.
“It’s just got to the point where people have been struggling,” says Hailan, 29. “For people who live in one-bed flats or a house share, it’s very difficult because they feel like they’re living, working and sleeping in their room and they have no difference in environment. People’s mental health has definitely struggled.”
Like so many businesses, her agency decided not to renew the lease on its Islington office in May: instead, it now gives employees a monthly allowance to spend on a coworking site of their choice, and has signed everyone up to Hubble, a search engine for shared office spaces so people can find one near home.
Not all of them come complete with a games room and party room like those at WeWork. Former CEO Adam Neumann’s own office is said to have resembled something more akin to a trendy wedding venue than a place of work.
The book describes: “a kitchen canopy draped with hanging plants, several water coolers were stuffed with a rotating orchard of fruit… and a dozen taps serving beer, cider, cold brew, seltzer, Merlot, Pinot Grigio and kombuchas, plural. A placard helpfully explained to the company’s fresh-faced workforce, where 30-year-olds felt like senior citizens, that tilting your glass while dispensing a beer would lead to a smoother pour.”
For Karen Chambers, a 41-year-old nutritionist who had just left her job as a TV producer to start up a lifestyle business before the pandemic hit, community is far more attractive than cold brew. “It’s not just somewhere you come and work; you get to know people,” she explains.
“I live in a small flat, and you can start to feel a bit crazy doing your work from home. I’m much better working around people and teams. I bounce off that energy even if I’m not working with those people directly. Just being in the buzz of activity motivates me and keeps me going.”
Coworking spaces haven’t been immune to the pressures of the pandemic: 41 per cent reported a negative impact on membership and contract renewals since the outbreak, according to a survey. But as time wears on and businesses continue to suffer under restrictions, local councils should repurpose units to gather office workers together, Burgess says. “It doesn’t need much to work well. You need desks, warmth, good coffee, great Wi-Fi.”
The price (an annual joining fee of £25 plus £10 per desk per day) is just one of the many things Burgess believes Hatcham has going for it. “What’s different between WeWork and this model is affordability,” he says. “At the moment, corporations haven’t yet caught up with the fact that if they’re going to provide this to people it’s got to be at a commercially sensible level. There really is an opportunity for corporates, local authorities and people to come together and go ‘what space can be repurposed?’.”
Hatcham has provided Burgess with the opportunity to separate work and home life during lockdown: “You’ve got to put some time in your diary for what I would call the virtual commute,” he says. Others, meanwhile, are willing to blur the personal and professional: Birch – a new “lifestyle membership community” in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire where members can go on holiday to a home-working hotel – has seen interest soar, possibly due to its rural, un-office like setting.
Whatever happens post-pandemic – Burgess is adamant the office is “not going to die” completely – coworking in some form could well be the future. “We’ve really seen how much people are enjoying the flexibility,” Hailan says of her team. “The general consensus is that people want to work from an office two days a week to get that contact. Moving forward next year, that is likely what we’ll be doing.”
Kombucha taps optional.