Spare a thought for the people who work hard to make hubs a home. This week’s guest post is from Anna Levy, host at Hub Islington a well-known coworking space in London
Freelancing can be a lonely game. Sitting at home in your living room with only your MacBook and cat for company can drive you stir crazy, and it’s hard to be creative without outside stimuli.
When cabin fever hits, many venture out in search of a more sociable working environment. Cafes offer the promise of communal working alongside the cappuccinos and free Wifi, but often disappoint (and can cause havoc with your caffeine levels!) Regular Jelly events like those organised by Kindred HQ are an exciting development and offer variety and a nosey into new working environments, but you might also want a more permanent physical space to work from.
The coworking revolution
In response to this, we have seen a huge increase in dedicated coworking spaces springing up in the last few years. The one I work at, HUB Islington, was one of the first: it opened in 2005 and has sparked a movement that has gone global with over 30 HUBS in our network opening in communities across five continents. The rapid organic growth of the coworking concept shows that organisations like ours are meeting a real need in the mobile worker / entrepreneur sector and giving our members what Starbucks can’t provide: community.
However, coworking spaces are as varied in vibe as the bars of London, so how do you make sure you choose the right one and don’t end up being a square peg in a round hole? After all, space alone isn’t the point: it’s the sense of community, joint purpose and opportunities for learning from your peers that really make it worth it.
Here are some of the things to look out for when choosing a coworking space:
1. Check out the events programme (if they have one!) – Any good coworking space will run events that offer added value to members and a chance for them to network and find inspiration. The themes chosen will give you an insight into the type of community housed there. Are they very tech focused? Is there a creative or a sustainability angle? Are they solely training/education events or do they provide inspiration in the form of debates and speaker series?
2. Ask about regular informal community gatherings – A formal events programme is important but sometimes the richest encounters happen in more relaxed gatherings, such as shared lunches or down the pub. At the HUB, we have a weekly community event on a Thursday called Sexy Salad (no idea where the name came from, but it stuck!) in which our members share ingredients and recipe ideas, and come together for a lively shared lunch. I’ve seen countless business ideas and partnerships emerge while chopping vegetables in the kitchen or during the washing up – but most of all it is just a whole lot of fun!
3. What’s the mission? – Shared values are very important in creating community and a sense of shared purpose. People generally join a coworking space because they want to network and build partnerships, and this won’t happen unless there is synergy between members and a feeling that you are working towards some degree of a shared objective. This has certainly been the secret of the HUB’s success. People come here because they have strong social or environmental purpose. Other coworking spaces have technical innovation or creative collaboration at the heart of their communities. If you’re looking for community, you should make sure you choose a coworking space that has a clear vision – otherwise it will just end up being desk space.
4. Observe the space – It’s an obvious one, but the design of a co-working space will speak volumes about the community (or lack of!) within. An office rammed full of compartmentalised desks laid out in rows is unlikely to provide an inspiring, collaborative working environment. Rounded tables and ‘pods’ are a good sign as they encourage groupings and encounters with other coworkers. And check out the communal areas. Just as in a great house party, people usually end up congregating in the kitchen. A kettle or – the classic – a water cooler can end up being a conversation magnet.
5. Ask what the ratio of fixed desk memberships to hot-desking is – This can really affect the community dynamics. You probably don’t want to feel like you are gatecrashing somebody else’s office – nor do you want to be in a very transient community or you might as well be in Starbucks!
6. Call on a host – To return to the party metaphor, one of the most important factors in bringing people together is having a great host – someone to make you feel at home, introduce you to the right people and create an inspiring environment where exciting things can happen. In my opinion, too many coworking businesses neglect this crucial element to community building and just assume that if you put a load of people in a space together, connections will just happen. Hosting is an art form (as the global Art of Hosting movement proves) and is especially important in a community such as the HUB, where we aim to bring people together for positive social impact. We don’t want to leave anything to chance – however fruitful those impromptu chats around the teapot might be!
7. Seek the extra-ordinary – What has the coworking space done to add value for members? I’ve suggested the importance of rich and inspiring content in the form of events and community programming, but other things can really give a coworking space the X-Factor. Some spaces, such as the pop-up Library Lab in Willesden Green now have crèches – perfect for entrepreneurs with young children – while others offer free one-to-one business coaching for members, or access to a dedicated virtual social networking platform.
Obviously, everyone has different priorities when selecting a coworking space, and not all of the above will have equal importance for you. If possible, you should see if you can get a trial membership, or join a coworking space without a long contract so that you can try it out and see if you feel at home.
You’ll know once you find the one for you (or several – I know plenty of coworking ‘polygamists’!) Then those lonely days talking to the cat or checking Facebook every five minutes to reassure yourself of the world outside your living room will be behind you. Although your Starbucks loyalty card might take a hit!
Anna Levy manages HUB Islington, the original in a global network of over 30 spaces and 4,000 members. HUBs provide a space for socially responsible entrepreneurs to work, connect and collaborate for a better world. Members of KindredHQ are entitled to 50% off their first month of membership.
KindredHQ’s next Jelly co-working session at Hub Islington is on November 8th, 2012.