Co-Working Spaces and Their Benefits
How shared work spaces can bring out the best in people
I’ve been self-employed for nearly ten years now. Over the years, I’ve learnt that for all the freedoms of self-employment, it can sometimes feel like an uprooted existence. A cycle of weeks without the anchors of defined working hours and office colleagues. In such circumstances, peculiar feelings of waywardness can arise, especially if your workload and income are as erratic as mine have been. In many ways it’s a paradoxical impulse: as if your freedoms can only be measured by seeking patterns of routine. The most obvious of these is a permanent workplace.
My first attempts to occupy a more scheduled existence was to take myself off to the range of coffee shops in my home town, if only to “make an appearance” in the world of the waking. Stroll into any coffee bar these days and you’ll find a wall of laptops, and behind them ranks of self-motivated freelancers searching for relief from the caverns of their home office or kitchen table.
In the coffee shop, precious is the space near to the plug sockets, whilst deflating is the sight of a room full of leisured idlers assuaging themselves with chatter and cake: families of decibel-hitting children, attention-snaring raconteurs, and all the other recreational drinkers of macchiatos and cappuccinos who remind you that, after all, this is not really a place of work.
Prompted to find to more reliable conditions, I went searching for rented office space. A great many options were available, and yet, thanks to my inability to search on the internet for anything more imaginative than “office space for rent”, all of the alternatives were gloomily corporate and corporately expensive, not to mention surprisingly tatty and unrelentingly dull. Nothing happened for about a year, until chance opened up a new frontier. One conversation led onto another, which led me to a co-working space called Impact Hub Birmingham, part of the global Impact Hub network. It was the least office-looking workspace I’d set foot inside in all my searching.
To be honest, at first glance I was not too sure. I saw a modish collection of work spaces, with a cheerful collection entrepreneurs, designers, charity start-ups, photographers, social improvers, urban innovators and old-fashioned techies. A place full of optimism and enterprise, certainly, but also a little bit hipster for my tastes. Notices on the wall proclaimed the spirit in unambiguous terms: “Be an encourager, the world already has enough cynics.” Members were given their own mugs with their names written on it, and on the wall, a grid of Polaroid photos of every member of the community.
Nonetheless I joined, and in the intervening months I learnt to drop my suspicions. What I hadn’t envisaged was the consensus of positive change that seems to run through the building like a pulse. My first impressions, after being there for a few weeks, was that it felt like the physical embodiment of a digital network, a LinkedIn nexus made flesh and given the spark of genuine momentum. Members appeared to co-exist and cross-pollinate with optimistic bravura. People weren’t just sitting and working; they were taking part, joining in and consorting.
Housed in a converted warehouse, sheltered by the railways arches of the mainline to London, the ambiance is fresh and fashionable. Between the exposed, cleaned-up brickwork, there are as many clean lines and panes of glass as possible, creating a modern, naked environment which is both animated and permeable. The emphasis on fluidity seems specifically engineered to encourage conversation and cross-pollination. The furniture is moveable and interchangeable, so that underlying any particular arrangement of tables, desks, chairs and screens is a sense of the spontaneous.
The vibe gives more than a passing nod to the hipster culture of artisanal crafts and healthy eating, so often the visible sign of twenty-first century regeneration in the unleafy suburbs. There are croissants and grapes in the morning, there is a barista-style espresso machine and a twee selection of tea fusions, there is a break-out space, a quiet zone, a sleeping den, a small library, an array of invitingly polygonal desks, private booths and a children’s play corner. The hipster reference is not a slight: it is recognition that the Hub is home as much to urban bohemians as it is to business-minded start-ups. And it is this blend that I find most intriguing of all.
There is undoubtedly a political aspect to this — a belief in the values of democracy and social inclusivity, and of the principle of sharing (space, time and skills) for the benefit of the whole. This is all remarkable and rather contagious, even if, I admit, I’m at an stage in my life where my political values are in disarranged flux.
Such diverse political categories are not necessarily in conflict any more. For those who associate socialist activity with the underfunded, dimly lit corridors of civil service and community drop-in centres, may find a co-working space like this a distinctly salubrious, even high-end place. And unlike the sometimes sceptical atmosphere of local government, this co-working space is a bloom of positive thinking.
As far as I can make out, there are two threads to all this: the first is an explicit concern for politically left-leaning concerns, such as social equality and community inclusion. The second, it seems, is a belief that entrepreneurialism, technological innovation and creative disruption can help make real changes where old methods have failed. This growing community wonders how it can help tackle the challenges facing the city. Themes of concern are childcare for working parents, affordable housing and how young creatives can create a sustainable practice. In this post-post-modern era, a new type of narrative arc is emerging, characterised by grass-roots collaboration, the sharing economy, and the power of the fresh thinking from inspired individuals.
Absent is the traditional standoff between left and right: the socialist’s sense that profit and ambition are dubious forces; the capitalist’s distrust of government intervention and the suffocating effects of regulation. Indeed, the Hub seems to render this old distinction antique. In its place is a new faith in the values of inclusion and democracy, and perhaps above all, the role of innovation to help solve pressing issues of the day. The correct term might be Left-libertarianism, stressing both individual freedom and social justice, supportive of private enterprise but under the condition that the advantages are made available to all.
It is in this spirit that I think the Impact Hub, and other co-working spaces like it, are striding forward. Outright political positions are omitted from the literature; instead there seems to be an open-mindedness towards all political and economic ambitions, the very openness driving the benefits: free of hierarchy and prejudice, and at the same time, abundant in pro-activity. In other words, this is a place where ‘ethical business’ is not an oxymoron. Whether or not all these threads can be hewn into a single, logical programme I remain a little uncertain. But what is indubitable is the sense of purpose and ownership: you get the feeling that the members truly have a stake in the project — and since it is indeed a project whose outcomes are uncertain, so the stakeholder’s role is all the more significant.
Perhaps what underlies the proposition is the distinctly uncomplicated idea that honest effort and personality can spread great rewards. As if to underline the gratification earned by aspiration and industry, there are lots and lots of smiling faces. This seems important. For this is a workforce that is, through its efforts and its honesty, and through its non-competitive premise, happy. This strikes me as the proposition par excellence of the modern co-working phenomenon: that the effectiveness of the construction is evidenced and perpetuated by the sheer positivity of the people.