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By James Geekie, Design Director, Area

Co-working spaces are springing up everywhere right now, and for very good reasons. They solve some of the most important challenges for the way a growing number of people work in the 21st Century.  Chief among these are the high rents and long leases that are no longer attractive to the burgeoning numbers of micro-businesses, self-employed and freelance workers in the UK.

 A London and Regional perspective

It's no surprise that London has rapidly become a global hotbed of co-working spaces. According to the online directory Coworking London, there are currently some 156 spaces in London but the number is rising so regularly that it is presented as a counter on the website. WeWork, the global giant of the sector, offers 11 spaces in London. Impact Hub, which opened its first co-working space in London in 2005, now has 81 centres worldwide and 15,000 members.   

Regional co-working spaces are also recognising the benefits, with new facilities opening in most of the major towns and cities outside London. Croydon, a town in the midst of extensive private and public sector regeneration, is using co-working space as part of the redevelopment of designated areas.  Croydon Tech City, a recently completed project for Area, is a ‘not-for-profit organisation responsible for growing, managing and sustaining Croydon’s tech cluster and community.’  This concept of being part of a group is what is attractive to the many workers who are adopting this way of working. 

Creating communities

One of the core ideas espoused by the co-working movement is that they create communities of people as well as serving their immediate needs to access flexible office space at a good price. Impact Hub's website make this explicit by describing its space as: "An innovation lab. A business Incubator. A social enterprise community centre." 

The idea that groups of individuals should create enclaves of common interest has a longstanding history. For example, a form of co-working space that predates the name and still exists was created in Clerkenwell in the 1970s by the architect Mike France. With the help of the Greater London Council and an organisation called Urban Small Space, he set up the Clerkenwell Workshops to offer inexpensive, short term spaces for creative entrepreneurs in an area known for its associations with artisans and the arts and crafts movement. The space still exists although nowadays it is more likely to be home to start-ups working in the telecoms, media and technology sectors than metalwork, print and fabrics.

The benefits to small and large businesses

Co-working has an obvious appeal to smaller businesses. A study by Regus of 2,600 small business owners found that nearly three quarters believed that co-working spaces would be the ideal solution for them at their current stage of development. 83 percent said cost was their most important characteristic. The opportunity to collaborate with other entrepreneurs (70 percent) was also identified as a major plus point, 63 percent said they thought shared space provides more inspiration than a traditional office setting and 61 percent said that this kind of workplace offered a more creative environment than a traditional office.

Larger firms are now starting to pick up on the potential of co-working spaces and offices and are utilising their form and function to help them implement flexible working policies and engage employees. A 2015 report from CoreNet Global found that two thirds of its member organisations in the commercial property sector said that flexible working environments was the most disruptive trend in the market and would continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  The main reasons given for using shared or co-working space were the ability to collaborate and share ideas with others (62.5 percent) and the potential to make use of available space when working remotely or overseas (50 percent).

Challenging user misconceptions

The findings are mirrored in a report from CBRE Group which challenges some of the misconceptions about co-working especially that this type of space is typically only aimed at entrepreneurs and small businesses and that the users are exclusively Millennials. It found that more than 40 percent of large global occupiers are already using or are planning to use shared workplaces including co-working spaces. According to the study they are attracted to these spaces as an alternative to the traditional office as a way of engaging with employees who prefer the buzz of a shared space. 

This is the office as an experience, rather than merely a location, a principle that appeals most to people about co-working. That is why the impact of co-working is having such a profound influence on office design outside of co-working paces themselves. It is an inherently 21st Century notion and we shouldn't be surprised that this is rapidly turning into the century of co-working.   

Co-working influencing office design

When considering the benefits co-working, it’s little surprise that the concept is now influencing office design.  Efficiently utilising less space for more people, encouraging a greater sense of community and enhancing collaboration, the co-working notion is being adopted by many of today’s workplaces.  Fourfront Group’s new office in London Bridge provides staff and clients alike with a 95% agile working environment.  Able to host 160 people at any one time, the dynamic work environment consists of collaborative, concentrative and communicative zones.  The shift towards a more agile work setting not only facilitates productivity, but also encourages serendipitous moments amongst staff and encourages communication across teams.

Co-working is the hot topic of the moment, but the idea of people wanting to be a part of a community suggests that the concept of co-living will have a huge impact on how future workplaces are designed.  Appealing to millennials, co-living allows users to live and work within one building and facilities such as Eden and WeLive – WeWork’s soon to launch project – are already cropping up in London.  Decreasing the gap between work and play, one can only imagine the implications this concept, which is still in its infancy, will have on workplace design in the future.

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