No working like Coworking?

Over recent weeks I’ve enjoyed remote working on the move. A borrowed desk in Zürich, a cafe in Chamonix, a hotel in Stockholm as I visited the furniture and light fair and this blog is coming to you from a creaky old wooden hotel near St Moritz. Ben, you’ve changed I hear you say. Maybe so. I’ve also developed an expensive croissant and caffeine addiction, but that’s just how I roll. Ahem.

I find it easy to work almost anywhere whilst on the go, but I also recognise the attraction of dedicated coworking spaces for those without a permanent office. Coworking is undoubtedly the buzzword of 2015/6 and has become staple diet for mobile workers and start ups.

Factory, Berlin.

But it isn’t new, it just got itself a name. People have been strewn throughout Starbucks and Costa for years with their heads in MacBooks. Others shared offices, leased premises in startup incubators or rented desks from local businesses. What’s new with today’s cool coworking is dressed down start-up style has reached the high street. Try saying that 5 times in a row. Add edgy utilitarian furniture, fast reliable wifi, flexible membership and multiple locations. When compared to high street coffee shops, the carrot cake-eating Grannies and the screaming toddlers have been quietly disposed of. Nothing sinister mind, but these places are for work. Cowork.

wework, London.

The co-world keeps turning

And so the trend spreads through our cities.  We are now witnessing the battle for market share as the big guns pump out their hip schemes, similar to the battle for prime coffee shop sites in the noughties. Landlords rip out false ceilings, expose brickwork, make plywood coffee counters and hire tattooed baristas quicker than you can say ‘Yo, where the bike-rack at homie?’. Coworking even has a Wiki definition now – it’s a household name like Simon Cowell or Gok Wan. And soon the term itself may be just as irritating as they are.

Central Working, Manchester.

People want the productive Google-esque working environment with trendy colleagues. The quality of the coffee, connectivity and building locations are all potential deal breakers. Coworkers like the routine of ‘going to the office’. For solo professionals used to working at home, this environment provides a focused and positive place to get things done amidst the buzz of the city, with the added option to meet and collaborate with like-minded ‘CEO & Founder’ type dudes.

betahaus, Berlin-Kreuzberg, August 2013
betahaus, Berlin-Kreuzberg, August 2013

And many coworking spaces offer additional facilities, member database info, help desks, IT troubleshooting and concierge services. Some host events and seminars. Communities and networks are formed; new companies too. These workplaces are shaping a new generation of caffeine-fuelled businesses. Bigger businesses are paying attention too with banks opening branches in co-working spaces to support (capture) new start ups. Your local branch manager is now called ‘Dee’, wears shorts and always has one earphone in. He’s down with the kids.

Impacthub Zürich

It doesn’t stop there. Some high street banks are now offering free coworking facilities to account holders in next-gen premises.

“Will we see Starbucks own brand co-working soon?”

So the ageing coffee shop has to respond right? They need to fight to keep Colin, the grey suited Dell laptop carrying area manager, who’s peckish and low on battery. I’ve read some co-working spaces have partnered locally with coffee chains, but will we see Starbucks ‘own brand’ co-working spaces soon? Or Costa Cowork? Surely they’ll respond as the trend snowballs, taking an ever larger slurp out of their coffee takings.

On the other hand, many large commercial landlords are still peddling the traditional ‘serviced office’ model, complete with bookable meeting rooms, generic suites, grey carpet tiles and black leather executive chairs. Seriously?

Traditional serviced office model: shoot me now…

“…but that’s the cost of being cautious: you miss the edge.”

Two or three years back I pitched a coworking style scheme to a large commercial landlord. I suggested they lose their partition walls, strip out and open up their ground floor space to increase ceiling height whilst making it more visible from street level. Ditch the bookable (aka empty) 16 seater meeting rooms in favour of informal open spaces that are flexible, multi-purpose and IT supportive. Build a coffee bar with stools, soft seating and coffee tables. Soften the lighting. Add focus study spaces and an open meeting area. The PM loved the idea, but his Director stalled. They delayed and deferred making a decision and ultimately the project didn’t go ahead. Now they are trying to catch up with the coworking invasion. But that’s the cost of being cautious: you miss the edge.

Neuehouse NYC

So I’m waiting with anticipation, wondering who will make the first big (global) move. Will a big coffee house buy out a coworking company, or strike a partnership deal? Has it happened already and I just haven’t heard? What about other food and drink chains like Pret in the UK or (currently under pressure) Mcdonalds – do they fancy a bit of the action? Will a big serviced office landlord dust off the cobwebs and unveil a cutting edge coworking scheme? Either way a few businesses need to wake up and smell the co-coffee.

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