Bisley invited Clare Dowdy to share her experience of working from a number of locations and why the office and human contact is still so important.
"Sometimes I work from a former Victorian cricket bat factory in Peckham, and on other days I can be found in the old Guardian building in Farringdon. I’m one of a growing number of freelancers, sole traders, entrepreneurs and start-ups. This trend is thanks, in part, to the global recession of 2008, which saw great numbers leave full employment, and to mobile technology, which allows for mobile working. The UK now has 600,000 more “microbusinesses” (with up to nine employees) than in 2008, according to the RSA. The Mayor’s London Business Survey at the end of 2014 found that over 80% of business units have fewer than ten employees, and that SMEs employ one-third of London’s private sector employees.
Not so long ago, these individuals were hidden away at kitchen tables and in back bedrooms, until they migrated to the serviced office sector. But with so many people doing their own thing, a new model has evolved to meet their changing needs: the shared office. There are high-profile chains that include the Office Group, WeWork, SecondSpace, and one-offs, like my two places. These environments often go out of their way to be attractive to so-called knowledge workers. They do this by primarily creating appealing spaces which accommodate a host of different ways of working – whether that’s knuckling down to a computer-based task, having a brain-storm, holding a formal meeting, or taking a breather. “We are in the hospitality industry,” declared The Office Group’s founder, Charlie Green at a recent event on the future of work hosted by Italian furniture manufacturer Arper.
Employees of conventional businesses also need these sorts of areas, particularly those in the knowledge industries. It’s got to the stage where on average only 30%-45% of traditionally allocated desks are occupied at any one time, according to CABE. And workplace designers have been quick to introduce variety to their schemes for corporate clients.
But the joys of the hub go way beyond furniture and funky graphics. Crucially for the tenants, these environments are also keen to promote the business benefits of sharing. In a nutshell, that means encouraging collaboration between members. Some set-ups, like The Office Group, have formalized this, giving members access to a network of different businesses through its ClubSpace. And conversely, while it is the progress of technology that aids the modern worker, Green suggested that there is a backlash against that very technology in some circles. Human contact is increasingly valued.
This makes perfect sense to me. As a freelance journalist I could work from anywhere, why would I need a base? Particularly as home can so easily double as the workplace, when your only office equipment is a laptop and a mobile phone. But I think the home as anything more than an occasional place of work is highly overrated. I want company! And I want that company to be inspiring, entertaining and supportive.
The third floor old Guardian building provides this for me, and for the 16-or-so other freelance journalists in there. We ask each other for professional advice, we console when a commission has gone awry, and we sometimes team up on projects. We also make large rounds of tea, eat our lunch together (deadlines permitting), celebrate birthdays, and pull each other’s legs, and hand out politically incorrect awards at our Christmas party. In fact we’ve bonded so well that we see each other socially, and two of us have made that biggest commitment of all: sharing an allotment. And because no one is anyone else’s boss or underling, there really is no hierarchy. Nor do we suffer from a single ‘big personality’ who controls, intimidates or undermines. In our experience, bullies don’t go freelance. If it sounds like the utopian office, I think it is. And if this is the model that is being replicated around the country, then the workplace is looking up."