Is It Time To Make The Office Redundant?

Is it useful to work in an office?

by Emily Maddick |
Published on

Sophie, Sal, Jenna and I are two G&Ts down, sitting poolside in the sun at London’s Shoreditch House, delighting in the chance luck of our impromptu meeting. However, this isn’t a lazy Sunday afternoon, or indeed a Saturday night, but 3pm on a random Monday; my first such Monday as a freelance journalist. I had duly accepted the invitation from my

pal Sophie, a self-employed interior designer, to join her, armed with my MacBook, for a full day’s work at a private members’ club, with the promise that

we would have a well-earned drink at 6pm, at the end of ‘office hours’. It hadn’t quite worked out like that.

Fast-forward two weeks and, having vowed to stay away from friends and private members’ clubs, the impetus to get out of my pyjamas and summon a modicum of self-motivation was hovering at around 15%. My conversations with Jemima, my tortoiseshell moggy, were becoming ever more insightful.

Here was my freelance conundrum: I needed the routine of a destination and social interaction to motivate me, yet when I got there it was LOL-o’clock with even more distractions than staying at home with Netflix – or, in my case, Jemima – whispering in my ear. I needed a co-working office. In the past few years, ‘co-working’ – the practice of freelancers congregating in a serviced communal office space to fulfil working hours – has become increasingly popular for the rapidly growing army of self-employed workers.

The Office for National Statistics claims there are nearly 1.9 million self-employed workers in Britain and women are leading the freelance charge. The flexibility offered by Britain’s freelancers is estimated to be worth £21 billion to the UK economy. As Anniki Sommerville, a senior director at global insight and strategy consultancy Flamingo, explains, ‘Millennials coming into the workplace are simply not interested in the rigid, traditional “clocking in and out” culture.

‘For a while, it looked like technology would mean we’d all soon be working from home, but there’s a move away from this now [Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, famously said she didn’t want employees working from home]. Indeed, if your workspace is your sofa, it can be isolating and difficult to switch off, as there is less delineation between work and home. And it doesn’t always foster creativity. Being surrounded by like-minded people is good for the soul and creates more chances to network, share ideas and collaborate.’

Now, to plug the gap, a plethora of co-working spaces are popping up to cater for all budgets and needs, like Second Home, WeWork (with 39 locations across the world and worth £7 billion) and top-of-the-range NeueHouse (used for external meetings by Anna Wintour), which is opening in London later this year.

Leading the way in providing a boutique-feel hub for the creative self-employed is Soho Works (from the owners of Soho House) in London’s Shoreditch. The space boasts all the hallmark fittings and fixtures of their members’ clubs: leather sofas, wooden furniture, beautiful reading lamps. But this is very much a working environment, complete with old-fashioned lockers and a library. There is access to workshops, including legal advice, a photo studio, standing meeting rooms (better for efficiency), 3D printers, laminating facilities, showers and even old-school phone booths for private calls.

Even companies who have their own office space, such as Google and Facebook, often hire these co-working spaces when they want to spark their employees’ creative juices. But these offices are not the gimmicky environments we associate with start-ups from the early noughties.

‘It’s no longer about bunging a bean bag in the corner,’ says Sommerville. ‘Now the office space is somewhere aspirational and comfortable, where you want to spend lots of time but also do your personal admin.’

The Government recognised the value of co-working when in 2013 it announced that it would be applying co-working principles to a new pilot scheme strategy across 12 local authorities in England, encouraging councils to put aside buildings for co-working space. Indeed, Second Home’s co-founder, Rohan Silva, was formerly one of David Cameron’s most trusted advisors, charged with developing some of the UK’s key enterprise policies.

In a article published last June, entitled ‘How freelancers are taking over the world’, forecasters predicted that we are on the threshold of a new economy, and that by 2020, half of workers in the UK and US would be freelance.

It all sounds very futuristic. But the proof is in the pudding. When I quizzed Calypso Rose, who operates The Indytute (an online company that offers ‘brilliantly inspired lessons’ in anything from flirting to plate-spinning) out of Soho Works, I was refreshed to hear how – in a world where it can seem that human interaction all takes place online – she found great benefits from interacting with people IRL (in real life).

‘Working alongside strangers is very productive,’ she says. ‘Business carries on at a surprising rate around you and it’s infectious. I forged a bond with Kathryn Parsons, CEO of Decoded, a start-up company that promises to make you more digitally savvy. We bonded when we realised we were both trying to make some tricky decisions. Kathryn sent me on her Code In A Day course when I was battling with our website re-vamp. I repaid the favour with a hula-hooping lesson for her colleagues – a team-building must!’

So where does this leave the regular, run-of-the-mill David Brent-style office? Well, if you go with LA-based architect Clive Wilkinson’s vision for the future of London, pretty damn redundant. Last December, Wilkinson, who designed Google’s Silicon Valley HQ, unveiled an extraordinary vision for our capital: a ginormous co-working office hovering above London in the sky that would cut out commuting and carbon emissions. ‘You are essentially in an endless co-working space, and will develop relationships with co-workers from different disciplines, forming village-like communities,’ Wilkinson says of his vision. ‘With this concept, one recovers something of the medieval model of collaborating with multiple disciplines in your local village and leveraging the healthy cross-pollination aspects of that.’

Now that’s something to ponder over the water cooler...

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