Sharing an office… And coffee… And WiFi

Mari Schourie is the CEO of Workspace. (Picture: Supplied)
Mari Schourie is the CEO of Workspace. (Picture: Supplied)

A revolutionary movement has exploded in the global workplace, one in which thousands of entrepreneurs, freelancers and other independent professionals are abandoning secure corporate jobs to pursue their goals in environments that allow them to be more flexible, collaborative, and creative.

The shift to what is described as “co-working” takes place in an office or workspace where people who are self-employed or working for different companies share technology, infrastructure, ideas and knowledge – served up in a less costly package than they could set up for themselves.

The first official co-working space was opened in San Francisco in 2005 by computer programmer Brad Neuberg, and the idea quickly spread.

By the end of this year, an estimated 1.2m people worldwide will have used a co-working space as membership surges, premises expand and big corporations shift some of their employees into those environments to interact with start-ups that could become clients.

More than a serviced office

The companies who create the workspaces arrange networking, workshops and social events to allow their clients to improve business skills, share information, and meet investors or customers interested in what they produce.

Independent professionals benefit by escaping the distractions of working at home and battling with isolation, while small businesses can rent offices for periods of as short as a week and get access to WiFi, meeting rooms, boardrooms and video conferencing.

The workspaces normally include the traditional open-plan areas with “hot desks”, as well as dedicated desks for individuals. Coffee and tea are always available, and usually free.

“You don’t have to get your own internet, printers, receptionist, security guard, bathroom or parking area – you want everything on site for maximum productivity,” says Luke Dominique Warner, CEO of South African start-up InterGreatMe, a personal information management app.

He says that although for his team renting an office in a shared and serviced space works out to be more expensive, the cost is justified by reduced administration time and the benefits of interacting with other motivated, innovative people.

“What is important is the DNA of your business. You need to focus on your customers and your core business, to spend time on value rather than low order tasks, and you want to employ people for their core skills,” he says.

Africa getting on board

Africa was a bit slow to join the co-working marketplace, but according to the Global Co-working Census last year, the number of active spaces on the continent reached 250 last year, up from just 24 in 2013. Egypt and SA are leading the trend.

Mari Schourie, CEO of the shared office and co-working company WorkSpace, has opened 11 branches in SA in the last three years and is busy with five new developments.

“It’s a new way of working which we have begun implementing in our branches that has become more and more successful. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but the shift is happening, especially with the young generation millennials,” she says.

“It’s definitely the way of the future – small businesses are popping up everywhere and we need to boost them and assist them in growing their business. Small and medium-sized businesses want to discuss things with each other – they walk into a community of like-minded people,” she adds.

Warner points out that co-working spaces give people the chance to informally “bump into” others at a coffee canteen, printer, or corridor – and later exchange ideas which can create opportunities and solve problems.

“It’s part of the trend towards a shared economy – you don’t want to own a car or an office, you just want access to it.”

Support for small businesses

Shana Derman, co-founder of the online authentication business Intellicred, works in a four-person team at the Rosebank branch of the Business Exchange, which runs several workspaces across SA and plans to expand throughout the rest of the continent.

“Our lease expired in our old premises and we couldn’t sign a new one. We came here for a month and stayed for a year – and we have no plans to leave,” she says. “The great thing is they are not treating us as a fly-by-night company – the environment is supporting and nurturing.”

Derman says a start-up could save money by working from a garage, but within a co-working space it is possible to have a completely professional “face” with a three- or 23-man team – which would not be possible operating from a private home.

“You can set up an office with a front person and boardrooms which you wouldn’t have been able to afford. If you’re on a road trip, they pick up your telephone calls and redirect them – they take care of all the things that entrepreneurs don’t have time to worry about,” she adds.

Like many other co-working spaces, the Business Exchange encourages tenants to gather at social events on the premises, hosts workshops on how to grow and pitch a business and schedules events where they could meet potential clients – all at no extra cost.

“They really try to give entrepreneurs exposure and an opportunity to go to the next stage,” Derman says. Intellicred’s success speaks for itself – it is a home-grown South African business which has created a global product focusing on brand and identity protection in cyberspace. Most of its clients are in the US.

Growth in freelancing

Part of the success of co-working can be linked to rapid growth in freelancing across the world. In the US, the freelance workforce grew from 53m people in 2014 to 55m in 2016 – representing 35% of the total. It earned an estimated $1tr over the past year, according to a 2016 survey commissioned by Upwork and the Freelancers Union.  

“The freelance workforce is the fastest-growing component of the economy. Figuring out where it is going is the most pressing question of our digital age,” says Louis Hyman, associate professor and director of the Institute for Workplace Studies at Cornell University.

The survey showed that people were increasingly choosing to work independently as the job market changes – 63% said they were freelancing by choice, up from 53% in 2014. The majority said that today having a diversified portfolio of clients was more secure than having one employer.

More than three-quarters of freelancers said they viewed freelancing as better than working at a traditional job with one employer and 85% described themselves as “more engaged” in their work. Half of them said they wouldn’t go back to a traditional job no matter how much money they were offered.

Variety in co-working spaces

There is plenty of variety in the co-working spaces available – some appeal to digital innovators, others to more traditional forms of creativity. A recent newcomer to Johannesburg is Better, a co-working space aimed at writers and artists, based in a house with a garden in Saxonwold.

“Better is focused on people who want to do creative work – we’re not aiming for a corporate look but one which is cosy and homey,” says co-founder Judy Backhouse.

At the other end of the spectrum is FutureSpace in Sandton, launched by Investec Property and workplace specialists Giant Leap. Director Linda Trim describes the offices and open workspaces as a mix between “a five-star business class lounge and on-demand, sharing economy services”.

There is a gym in the building which members can have access to for a nominal fee, and lockers where people can charge their cellphones and computers when they leave the building. It is open 24/7 so that people can be completely flexible on when they work.

Like most co-working spaces, free coffee and tea is available – but there is also a café and showers complete with power points for hairdryers. “When we embarked on this project I travelled around the world looking at service office space, not just looking but trying out how I would feel when I got there and how functional it was,” Trim says.

Mariam Isa is a freelance journalist who came to SA in 2000 as chief financial correspondent for Reuters news agency after working in the Middle East, the UK and Sweden, covering topics ranging from war to oil, as well as politics and economics. She joined Business Day as economics editor in 2007 and left in 2014 to write on a wider range of subjects for several publications in SA and in the UK.

This article originally appeared in the 25 May edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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