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Human touch

The rise of co-working may be making our big world feel a lot more intimate – but is it really also the seedbed for the next wave of big tech giants? Anna King reports.

(Credit: WeWork)

19 May 2016 | By Anna King

There is something uniquely human about work. The average individual spends between 21 per cent and 30 per cent of their waking hours at work during their lifetime, so it is little wonder that we also spend a lot of time thinking and talking about it.

There is something uniquely human about work. The average individual spends between 21 per cent and 30 per cent of their waking hours at work during their lifetime, so it is little wonder that we also spend a lot of time thinking and talking about it. 

Whether we acknowledge it ourselves or not, work defines us in many ways. Whether we love or hate our work, or are completely indifferent, we all make assumptions about others based on their jobs. Ambition and drive is often gauged through commercial success: no job equals ‘lazy’, doctors and lawyers are ‘respected’ and creative types spend their days being ‘cool’ – the suppositions are endless.

The way we work has changed enormously over the past 20 years. Technology has freed the workers from their office desks and helped firms avoid some very expensive real estate costs.

Heads of property and facilities have been able to look at their real estate portfolios and the needs of their workforce afresh. Dreaded phrases such as ‘hot desking’ have been replaced by the more palatable ‘activity-based working’ and ‘task-orientated workspaces’. And since the early noughties, workplace professionals across the spectrum have searched for ways to measure productivity to justify and provide evidence for this unstoppable evolution.

Beyond the hard real estate issues, workplace cultures have been affected both positively and negatively. Some employees feel empowered, others disenfranchised; many embrace the freedom these new working environments give their employees, others try to maintain control.

In 2016, the momentum continues and we are in phase two of the flexible working revolution. This time, there is another key influence driving change – the rise of ‘co-working’.


It is a paradox that in an increasingly digital world with the potential to empower us all, human contact is if anything becoming an increasingly valuable commodity.

Freelancers or short-term contract workers still require human interactions while organisations need to sustain a sense of belonging for their nomadic workers.

Credit: Hufton+Crow

Co-working - a history

Originating in San Francisco in 2005, co-working describes spaces that provide infrastructure for a growing collective of people (often start-ups and creative) who work where, when, how, and why they want. It also challenges the traditional tenant/landlord relationship. There are thousands of co-working spaces across the globe (in his 2014 survey, Bruno Moriset of Jean Moulin University Lyon 3 in France estimated that there were 2,498). 

The aftermath of the global economic crisis transformed the knowledge economy, through redundancy and bankruptcy and a new wave of freelancers were produced and many of these people have flourished away from the larger corporate structures. In the US statistics suggest that 33 per cent of the workforce is freelance and this could rise to 40 per cent by 2020 (Forbes, the Bureau of Labour Statistics, Deshmag and Kap Design).

Crucially, these well-educated and intelligent people didn’t want to work alone; instinctively they recognised the value in sociability with its exchange of ideas and collaboration.

So what impact is this having on blue chip companies? Remarkably, one of the larger co-working space providers, We Work, is now worth £15 billion. It counts KPMG and pharmaceutical giant Merck as two of its tenants, providing evidence that the magic of a co-working mentality is desirable to many, as are the clear advantages in managing real estate needs.

We Work and The Office Group are two organisations offering this type of space, deploying a design aesthetic that appeals to their target audience.

Post-financial apocalypse, the new world order of workplace strategy and design is one that places happiness, wellbeing and comfort above productivity (although common sense dictates that getting the first two right should lead to an increase in output).

Working with workplace designers and strategists, organisations are seeking to couple the increasingly high expectation of socio-economic conditions required by workers in the knowledge economy with the needs of organisations to remain profitable.

Credit: Hufton+Crow

Beyond people and technology

Design is clearly a key component in achieving and maintaining a sense of place, but today there’s a balance to be struck in allowing workers to flourish and develop while still ensuring that the corporate brand is inspiring and desirable.

Colin Macgadie, creative director at BDG architecture + design, recently moved Ogilvy & Mather Group UK from Canary Wharf to Sea Containers House on London’s Southbank.  Ogilvy & Mather comprises nine different businesses and brands. In this vast open space, intelligent planning and design has allowed every company to have a ‘front door’ to its own personalised space. Just 38 per cent of the workplace is accommodated with traditional workstation settings; there is not one single cellular office but a diverse range of spaces from open to private, formal to normal, small to large, bookable to non-bookable.

Macgadie explains: “The design provides alternative spaces that allow people to move – spaces that multi-task and that don’t have an obvious function attached to them. It allows the employees to be free-flowing and intuitive in the choice of work settings rather than having to pre-plan and stick to rigid structures.”

He adds: “The space was required to bring people together in a state-of-the-art environment that created a culture of  ‘familiar strangers’, actively facilitating dynamic relationships, accommodating unpredictable and hopefully unforeseen way of working.”

Beyond understanding these softer culture elements and what technology has done for the workplace, we also have to acknowledge that we have ‘stuff’ we need to put somewhere. And whatever form it may take, we also need seating and a place to position a laptop.

Furniture manufacturers have developed programmes that provide the widest selection of workplace types from the most logically derived kit of parts, in a manner whereby these assemblies remain beautifully detailed and uncompromised by their modular construction. Ranges such as Be by Bisley, Level 34 by Vitra, and Parcs by Bene seek to accommodate all types of work styles with one central system.

Helen Owen, Bisley’s director of business development, says: “The combination of the post-banking crisis economic squeeze, liberating advances in communications technology and a heterogeneous staff mix of Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and New Millennials has altered the office landscape forever. 

‘Manufacturers have to recognise this. The new millennium office requires a mix of furniture types than can be flexed to suit changing needs. The only contact will be where personal possessions are stored, hence we have seen a huge surge on the requirement for lockers.”

Furniture also needs to become more intelligent. The ‘Apple effect’ that dominates the consumer world also heavily affects our business lives. Companies want to have intuitive products that require the minimum amount of human interaction with no recourse to installation manuals and no need to be trained in how to use hardware or software. This means developing products that react with the same spontaneity as workplace behaviours.

Our reliance on technology also means that electrification is a key development to support the future workforce. Says Owen:  “Every industry is susceptible to disruption from the tech powerhouses. We can be sure that if we don’t stay ahead of our own game then we leave ourselves open to be challenged by less traditional sectors. We need to hard-wire the capacity to accommodate flexible and collaborative working styles into such furniture systems.”

Credit: Hufton+Crow

Could we all become  co-workers?

Co-working enables new and young businesses to flourish in a professional, serviced, ergonomically sound, hardware-equipped, networking-rich, trend-driven environment that would ordinarily be prohibitively expensive as independently owned or rented spaces.


These environments almost certainly position such companies and individuals years ahead in terms of their facilities. They enable them to represent themselves as more than they are; co-working offices are stepping stones to a company getting its own office space.

But once a company begins to really thrive it amasses stuff. Architects and designers have plans, stationery and samples. Publishers have publications. Accountants have abacuses. And then a company really booms and more hands are needed on deck – but maybe the current co-working space cannot provide the extra desk space. Suddenly, co-working offices can’t keep up. Their flexibility starts to stiffen. They can’t provide a lot of storage space or expandability.

Not that these issues seem to unduly concern the growing number of co-workers, but the nature of shared spaces means that disruption is common. People come and go, ambient noise carries and there is potential for a lack of common understanding. The vibe might be collective but the details won’t be.

Despite these issues the growing community of co-workers aren’t unduly concerned. These hybrid, high-trend, high-tech spaces are influencing more traditional offices to rethink, providing alternative working spaces to the desk, creating informal meeting spaces, encouraging eco tendencies, going wireless and flattening out hierarchical office design. 

And so to graduation. Co-working nurtures talent through to success and sees it move on out to its own office, clearing out space for the next big thing.