Author: ELLY EARLS
Illustrator: WILL FRANCIS
There’s such a buzz around coworking these days, it’s hard to imagine that a decade ago there were less than 200 coworking spaces worldwide. By 2017, that had shot up to 15,000 and another year later it will have almost doubled again, with global coworking space members set to number nearly 4 million in 2020.
London alone is home to more than 10 million square feet of coworking office space, dominated by WeWork, which became the city’s largest corporate office occupier in 2018. But there are also hundreds of smaller spaces across the country – from women’s only concepts like We Heart Mondays and One Girl Band to coworking spaces focused on specific industries, from media to education.
The premise is simple and certainly works in theory. Freelancers get the best of both worlds – the autonomy to work on their own business and the benefits of working with ‘colleagues’ in a space designed for work, the community, the accountability, the productivity. But what do freelancers really think? Are we paying out to get less done than we do at home?
Business mentor and marketing strategist Natalia Komis thinks so – for her at least. “I like to be in my own space when I’m working and have that focus, clear space and clear energy so I can get on with it and not have distractions from other people, because it’s mostly people that distract me rather than tasks,” she says.
“I also feel a little bit like it’s basically creating the same corporate environment everyone seems to be running away from. One of the reasons I started my own business Remote Mission, which promotes remote working, is so that people don’t feel like they have to be in the office environment. I feel like coworking spaces are becoming another trap where people feel guilty that they’re not in a coworking space.”
Brenda Della Casa, who runs branding and content agency BDC Digital Media, isn’t a fan of coworking either. “While there are those who enjoy these spaces, there are some, like myself, who find them distracting and assembly line like,” she says.
“As a writer and strategist, I need to focus and single task. When working in a shared space, I am constantly interrupted, either directly or indirectly, which forces me to multitask – something that only 2% of the population can do. The rest of us lose up to 40% in productivity.”
I have a different take. Because I’ve forked out a chunk of my hard-earned freelance wages to be at a coworking space, I have extra motivation to be productive. Plus, just the fact of having other freelancers with their heads down around me encourages me to do the same.
I’m not on my own. After downsizing from an agency set-up to a one-man-band, freelance graphic designer Nic Aylett tried working at home for three months but found that not only was he distracted by household chores – “one afternoon I found myself up in the loft and thought ‘What am I doing here?’” he laughs – but the lines between work and home were blurring.
“When you’re a one-man band, it can be quite lonely and uninspiring working from home. There can also be issues when you want to clock off because your brain thinks it’s in the place where you work.”
Just over two years ago he signed up to a coworking space within walking distance of his home in Croydon – TMRW – and hasn’t looked back. “I feel that I’m more focused because I’m in a work environment without any of the distractions of home,” he says. “This is work time.”
Aylett also finds he gets problems solved quicker when there are other freelancers around to bounce ideas off. “Using other people as a sounding board allows you to move forward more quickly, which you just don’t have at home,” he says. “Plus, when bigger jobs pop up that you might not be able to take on alone, you can potentially go and pick out three people under the same roof – say a developer, a copywriter and a designer – and take on a project together.”
As TMRW community manager Marcela Donatello explains to me, the space has been designed to foster productivity and creativity. “It’s super spacious, every desk has a window right next to it, which you can open, so you have natural light and fresh air. In terms of design, there are loads of diagonals and angles, which creates a bit of chaos for the brain and helps with creativity.”
TMRW also features various break-out spaces, where members can take calls or mingle with other freelancers. For Jonny Tindal, co-founder of Harbour84, which connects freelancers and remote employees with high-quality workspaces across Europe, that flexibility is crucial to creating a productive atmosphere.
“We’ve got around 200 points that we assess each workplace on before it goes live and flexibility is one of the key ones. People need to be able to go wherever their mood dictates, whether they need to be on their own to focus or they need some vibe and buzz around them,” he says. “If you feel comfortable in your environment that leads to productivity. Obviously there are also the standard pieces – damn good coffee and really fast wi-fi!”
A barrier to signing up for a coworking space for many freelancers – particularly in London – is cost. Diana Szpotowicz has been growing her online plastic-free shop primarily from home for the past year because she found that coworking was too expensive for a very small start-up.
And while she’s found a workaround – partnering with coworking spaces to host pop-up shops and working on her laptop while she’s there – she says she’d use them a lot more frequently, perhaps even full time, if they were more affordable.
“For now, my personal trick is to go into a chain pub – because they’re very quiet during the day but you’re still getting that outside interaction,” she says.
It’s something Sanj Mahal and his wife caught onto a couple of years ago too. Their company Andco, turns hotels, bars and restaurants that would otherwise have been empty during the day into coworking spaces. Freelancers can access any space in the network for a bargain £20 a month.
Another cost-effective option is ‘virtual coworking’ whereby a few of you sign into a Zoom session, work intensely for 25 minutes, chat for five and then repeat. I do this through the Digital Nomad Girls Inner Circle and feel I get the double benefits of productivity and community for less than £15 a month.
Ultimately, it’s a personal decision. While some of the freelancers I spoke to were passionate about how distracting coworking is, others felt their mental health and productivity suffered too much at home not to do it.
For his part, Aylett believes signing up to a coworking space really can pay dividends. “Yes, there’s an expense you have to pay every month but I really don’t think it’s that much if you weigh things up,” he concludes. “It’s a great environment to work in and it gives you opportunities that you just wouldn’t have at home.”