After tinkering at FCA’s Trafford HQ for a few days, I was Berlin-bound to continue my research into different ways of working as an arts organisation in the current slash it-n-see funding situation.
I was aware of a few co-working spaces in the North of England, but sad to hear that Fly The Coop – based in the centre of Manchester – had recently closed – and wanted to explore a number of different spaces elsewhere. From looking on Desk Wanted [ http://www.deskwanted.com ] – an online, worldwide directory of co working spaces it seems that the majority of spaces in each country are located in the capital city. Not necessarily particularly surprising, but I am surprised there are not more co-working spaces in metropolitan cities such as Manchester – especially as there’s such a big tech scene there. I can only find reference to one more Manchester coworking space – Open Space in Hulme [ http://www.openspace.coop/ ] – which is run as a member’s co-operative as well as offering coworking spaces in their shared office.
Coworking spaces in Berlin
The first coworking space I visited in Berlin was co.up – situated on the third storey of a factory / office block. The atmosphere was lovely, and after a quick introduction by Thilo + Alex I was made to feel very welcome. I could have grabbed a desk but decided to work from one of the comfy sofas in the informal chill out room.
As well as holding regular events such as the Berlin Processing user group, and up.front.ug user group, co.up also has regular informal ‘co.beers’ – a chance for the freelancers based there to chill out, have a chat about what they’re up to and spend some time together, meet new members, etc. It just so happened that I had turned up on a co.beers day, so ended up meeting + chatting with most of the people who were there.
As my friend Imran [ http://twitter.com/imran
] has said to me before – it’s the people who make a coworking space – and I think he’s right. The community / group vibe of a coworking space is what makes coworking so valuable for freelancers and small businesses who would otherwise be working alone or in an anonymous office on the nth floor of Office Block X. This was apparent at co up – and all of the other spaces I have visited – by holding events, meet ups and socials the coworking space becomes much more valuable than simply an office – it is a place for networking, collaborating + sharing ideas too.
One comment from a coworker there that stuck in my mind was – coworking spaces allowed him to arrive in Berlin [from another country] and start working pretty much straight away – very little set up time, hassle and so forth.
Offering more than traditional ‘hot desk’ coworking space – the betahaus was a great place to visit. Spread over 3 floors there is a real mix of different activities and spaces here. On the ground floor there is a big, airy cafe selling food + drinks, and also a workshop space with hand tools, a 3D printer and space to make things and store materials. The first floor is dedicated to freelancers and ‘hot deskers’ and the second floor has fixed desks and small offices for startups / small businesses.
I booked on to one of the semi-weekly tours and very soon got the impression that the betahaus has room for a lot of people to work, their website says around 120 people have been working there since April 2009. The betahaus was certainly one of the more dedicated, full on coworking spaces that I have been to; what most intrigued me was the addition of the tooled workshop as well as the cleaner office spaces.
Having different spaces encourages more variety in the type of work people can do in a venue – it seems that coworking spaces are traditionally occupied by people who can do most of their work on a laptop – which makes sense – but the addition of a workshop or specialised equipment may draw others to a space, creating different opportunities for collaboration.
Like any good coworking space the betahaus hosts many events and meetups and I went back for an Arduino / electronics / DIY making night, had a lot of fun and met some more lovely people.
One thing that caught my eye at the betahaus was the ‘Skype booth’ – essentially a small cupboard with a light that people could go in for a bit of privacy when making Skype or phone calls. There seemed to be quite a nice ‘funky’ / playful approach to how the coworking space was laid out in general, including some great chill out / social areas alongside the more ‘office-y’ bits.
Much more chilled out than the rather business-y website would suggest, this coworking space was a real pleasure to visit. Founded in 1996 by Manu – an architect and artist – BCN-Berlin is a lovely example of a small inner-city coworking space[also quite cool as it is in the same building as Hard Wax – the place to buy techno records in Berlin]. Manu told me that back then he hadn’t seen anything like a coworking space before – and perhaps the BCN-Berlin was the first coworking space in Berlin – and he was fed up of working on his own in such a large studio space. So he decided to offer space to friends, visitors to the city and others who were interested in coming down to work from his studio. There is more detail on the website but I really got the impression that Manu has benefited from having other people around – and with such a friendly vibe to the place it’s hard to imagine why anybody would want to work alone.
Like co.up BCN-Berlin seemed mostly occupied by laptop based workers – not only freelancers but small companies / groups of people working together. It turns out that Deskmag – the online coworking magazine that conducted the recent global coworking survey – were based at BCN-Berlin and so I had a good long chat with them – thanks guys!
[image taken from The Wostel website]
I found out about The Wostel coworking space from Kriesse [ http://kristinaschneider.com/ ] [thanks Kriesse]- a member of the co.up coworking space. The Wostel is a fairly new coworking space with small but very stylish and well formed rooms for coworkers. Similar to the betahaus in that there were separate rooms for hot deskers and fixed desk / small office space – but different in scale and style – there was more retro and antique furniture here compared to the very modern feel of the betahaus.
I spoke with Chuente – one of the founders – and she said that they were trying to create a particular feel and atmosphere for the Wostel that was different to the other coworking spaces in Berlin – and I think they’ve done a great job. Big communities and open spaces aren’t for everybody – and The Wostel is an example of how a smaller coworking space can be the right place for some people. Despite being relatively small The Wostel still holds events and shows including the lovely sounding ‘Kreativ-Speeddating’.
There are many more coworking spaces in Berlin [Deskmag alone lists 29!] but I reckon I managed to see a decent cross-section of different sizes and types of coworking space whilst I was there. I’ve got many fond memories of the people I met and spoke to whilst in each different space and a much clearer idea of why coworking spaces work for freelancers and small businesses. Like Imran said to me, it’s the people. By putting yourself in a position to meet new people and see what others are doing you are inherently more likely to gain more work and have fun doing it. It’s a given that you need to be able to shut yourself off from this from time to time to get things done – you can’t just meet and greet all of the time – but headphones can help do that, or even moving to a quieter part of a coworking space. People will soon learn when you don’t want to be disturbed.
I think a good balance may be splitting your working time between a coworking space and other places, perhaps a coffee shop, a library or maybe staying at home if you need to really focus and have some quiet time. Of course we all have our own needs and demands and should be able to determine what we want – especially as freelancers – but I would encourage anybody to try coworking, even if it’s only for a short time period. Many coworking spaces offer a free trial, or very short term contracts meaning you can get out if it’s not for you.
Each coworking space has it’s own identity, ways of doing things and differences that may suit some people more than others. If you have had a bad experience or don’t like one coworking space there’s a chance that another may suit you down to the ground.
Despite the majority of coworkers being self employed, freelance or part of a small startup company I think there may be ways of full time employees of larger or more established companies taking advantage of coworking spaces. There are some examples of larger companies allowing their employees to spend some time at coworking spaces – as a way of getting to know talent outside of the company as well as having a break from their usual office environment.
I am curious as to how an organisation that is used to having a full time office would fare without it; relying solely upon time at coworking spaces and working from home. I have yet to come across any companies that have downsized, or changed their operations in this way. My next post will look at what needs to be thought about and tackled if a company did want to get rid of their permanent office and make more use of coworking spaces.