Here in the UK, we have a relative oversupply of urban retail space and a distinct shortage of commercial premises for small business workspace. Entrepreneurs wanting to work away from home often find themselves occupying a corner of Costa or McDonalds, while meetings regularly take place in hotel lobbies under the resentful stares of reception desk staff.
As a consequence, a new market has opened up for open-plan collaborative office environments. These provide spaces where sole traders and executives can work, conduct meetings or simply be among like-minded creatives. Brands like societyM and Workspace are well-known examples, though the market leader is undoubtedly WeWork. Aggressive expansion has seen this New York firm establish a presence across 90 cities within eight years of its launch. Valued at $20 billion, its UK presence currently comprises 37 offices in London and two in Manchester; projected growth levels should see other locations follow shortly.
Work to rule
WeWork provides office space on a subscription basis. Mancunian entrepreneurs can pay £250 per month to hot desk, with an extra £35 per month securing their own workspace. A private one-person office in the No.1 Spinningfields tower is available for £460 a month, though it’s possible to pay a five-figure monthly sum to acquire a space big enough to accommodate 50 people. This three-storey complex incorporates conference rooms, soundproofed alcoves for phone calls, and tech support for the communal printers and high-speed broadband.
However, WeWork has evolved into more than a mere workspace provider – it’s increasingly attracting almost religious levels of fervour. It hosts a three-day Summer Camp in Tunbridge Wells, which in 2018 was headlined by Lorde and Bastille. Almost ten thousand devotees were present to eulogise about a company which claims to provide everything needed “to make a life, not just a living”. A basket of related services includes IT support, payroll assistance, legal advice, and even healthcare. Their Spinningfields office hosts everything from after-hours cheese tasting to a meditation room, while The Bower in Shoreditch contains showers and an arcade room. This is also possibly the only collaborative workspace where dogs are actively welcome.
A glimpse into the future
Putting aside the disconcerting sensation of having your ankle nuzzled while conducting a Skype interview, WeWork is banking on a seismic shift in the working patterns of tomorrow’s businesspeople. Office for National Statistics data suggests 15 per cent of the UK’s labour force are now self-employed. A key attraction of being your own boss involves liberation from the tyranny of HR managers and the creative straitjacket of 9 to 5 office work. In the age of MacBooks and Galaxy Notes, people can work from home one day and head into an office the next for a meeting or tech support. It’s also refreshing to periodically immerse yourself in the hubbub of an open-plan office, or brainstorm ideas over a coffee, before leaving at 3.30 to avoid the traffic. Like the days of clock-in machines, professional environments like WeWork and other workspaces hopefully mean the scourge of rush hour is approaching its end…