Hierarchy, petty politics and gossip are the bedrock of working life. But are they about to go the way of the secretary and the fax machine as co-working grows in popularity?
The trend for workplaces where freelancers and entrepreneurs can congregate — to combat loneliness and get out of their pyjamas — has been lauded for replacing cut-throat competition with kinder collaboration. In these former warehouses and office blocks, the emphasis is on the sharing economy, community and serendipitous conversations.
Sawsan Mohamed, a consultant turned freelancer and entrepreneur, has found the atmosphere liberating. “In a corporate environment people can be sharks,” she says, whereas her experience of co-working in Paris and London has been about “giving things back”. David Farquharson, a lawyer who has co-founded a start-up, agrees. “There is more joy perhaps because people have escaped the big boss.”
Such workplaces have done more than boost happiness. They boost the professional identities of the self-employed, argues Richard Greenwald, author of the forthcoming book The Death of 9-5. “Ten years ago, the freelancer was a loser.” Then, he says, the trend was for the self-employed to call themselves “consultant” rather than appear unemployed. So is this the new work-topia? Recently I took my laptop to a variety of co-working spaces in London and spoke to co-workers to find out.
Actually, I have been here before. Seven years ago when the isolation of freelancing became too much — the nadir being holed up in my flat for three days without human contact — I signed up to work part-time in a shared workspace. The converted warehouse in north London was packed with designers, social entrepreneurs and programmers.
I was not exactly breaking new ground. For all the hype, co-working is not a modern invention. My mother, an illustrator, used to rent deskspace with other freelancers in the 1960s. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review argues that modern co-working resembles a Renaissance workshop.
When embarking on this project, I did so with some prejudice: I never really took to warehouse working. Perversely, it made me feel more isolated than working at home alone and it sometimes resembled being stone-cold sober at a party where everyone else is chatting and laughing. That some people had given themselves job titles like “chief fun officer” only reinforced the fact that I was not having any. I take responsibility for that. Prone to bouts of shyness, I made few attempts to join in.
Matt Haworth, co-founder of Reason Digital, houses his agency in a shared workspace in Manchester. He is a member of other communities so that he can hotdesk in cities when travelling. His advice is to go in when one has enough slack in the day to take a break from the keyboard and chat. “You have to make an effort,” he instructs.
But surely when you work for yourself, the last thing you should be doing is spending money to enable you to chat in someone else’s kitchen. That is surely the perk of employment?
Daniel Jung, chief executive of Doctify, an online doctor booking service, is blunt. “Co-working is about sharing . . . If you are shy or secretive about what you are doing or planning, you should go somewhere else . . . If you care only about yourself, then don’t bother.”
Co-working spaces are not all the same. Some are vast, with multiple floors, others are in modest rooms. The biggest one struck me as profoundly alienating — like a warehouse of atomised workers, albeit clutching MacBook Pros. Employees often describe feeling like a cog in the machine but there is potential here to feel like flotsam in a sea of quasi-colleagues.
So most co-working companies have appointed community managers. They help with WiFi glitches and combat social isolation by introducing members with overlapping interests, bringing workplace wallflowers out from the shadows. Today all co-working companies sell themselves on community, but in practice this might mean little more than a digital message board. Some community managers flit like a host at a party, making small talk and introductions, others sit back like the haughty keeper of a nightclub guest list.
A friend who is a contractor for financial services companies and shuttles between European cities as a digital nomad is sceptical about the value of good vibes from his quasi-colleagues: his most fruitful contacts have been made through the work. There comes a point, he says, when you realise, “enough networking over single estate hummus, I need to get some actual paying work”.
To be frank, everywhere I worked was more aesthetically pleasing than the Financial Times offices. The prevailing co-working aesthetic is cool, utilitarian shabby chic: pop art, neon signs and exposed brick. The quirk factor is a selling point — one former City worker turned entrepreneur told me that he likes to bring clients to his co-working space because its chaotic appearance indicates they are paying only for his professional services rather than costly overheads.
But shabby chic gave me backache. At one place, I found myself working on a low sofa with my laptop perched on a wooden stool. After 15 minutes, my shoulders hunched and I moved to a private meeting room; the table and chairs were still wooden.
While some workspaces offer ergonomic, padded office chairs these come at a premium. Cheaper options may prove a lucky dip. One co-worker told me people turn up early to reserve a good spot, using their Macs like towels round a swimming pool.
The other problem is that you often have to thread your way through higgledy piggledy laptop cables. It is all too easy to pull the plug on someone else’s work, as I discovered.
The most striking irritation is the music. Many co-working spaces have a loop of pop or dance music played through the offices. My friend reports that Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” was a song he used to love but now, as a result of listening to it repeatedly, imagines it will be the backing track to murder.
Beyond the co-working hype it is the boring details that can derail working days — the chairs, the noise, the kitchen mess. For this reason, prospective co-workers should ask for day passes to test the facilities.
As to whether these places are free of politics and hierarchy: dream on. While most co-workers told me they were happy, there are signs that they might be replicating corporate culture, according to Professor Greenwald. His research finds that, just as bankers become sucked into presenteeism, so freelancers tend to subconsciously compete on long hours. Moreover, he observes, the unspoken hierarchy is that those with the private offices or permanent desks are at the top of the food chain, the hotdesker is at the bottom.
Despite the buzz, co-working is not so different after all.