Co-working, co-working, co-working; it’s taking over our cities’ workspaces. There is a co-working space provider, called WeWork, which is the biggest occupier of office space in London after the government. It has surpassed JP Morgan as the top commercial real estate holder in New York. This week we learned it is being paid £55m in “inducements” to fill Brexit-related office vacancies in Canary Wharf.
It’s not just WeWork. Amsterdam-based Spaces (Regus’s answer to WeWork) just unveiled 9,000 sq ft of co-working spaces in New York’s Chrysler building and is speedily adding new locations across Eastern Europe and Asia and the Pacific to its already impressive arsenal.
Co-working was originally practised by artists and other creative workers whose work was, by definition, off-the-cuff: project-based and commissioned. These workers would “co-work” in order to share resources such as client and supplier networks, as well as materials. Co-working spaces would typically be found in abandoned, derelict industrial sites where rent was cheap and the space could be used for whatever purpose, albeit temporarily. Co-working as an aesthetic, with its casual and multifunctional design, was born of necessity – of often needing to live as well as work on these premises.
Co-working as we know it today – modern, hip, and for the digitally powered – originated in San Francisco in the early noughties. Whereas, previously, co-working went hand-in-hand with tight budgets, this revamped version of co-working preached something rather different: freedom, individuality, creativity and eventually privilege. Co-working 2.0 markets itself as a break from tradition, as a way of rebranding for companies looking to attract and retain new talent.
But beyond that, it implicitly promises a way to transition from the rigid, hierarchical structure of the traditional workplace to a more casual and accommodating one, in which employees can feel independent and free. As a result, these co-working spaces have the look and feel of Google and Facebook offices, and yet they also prize independent (freelance) and no-strings-attached work over full-time (dreary) employment.
Generally speaking, the casualisation of work has enabled businesses to reduce their costs and space requirements. But the problems it has created for workers are all too familiar: lower take-home pay and higher levels of insecurity, with all the knock-on impacts this can have on mental health.
Co-working spaces are the spatial expression of the casualisation we see in the labour market. In theory, they cater to the “digital nomad”, offering a place and a community as an antidote to the isolation and loneliness of most casual forms of work. In practice, they are not about co-working per se, but about constructing and profiting from a workplace culture that is essentially based on trepidation. And much like their users, co-working spaces are more often than not temporary.
So as commercial property developers look for quick fixes to fill vacancies, we should be aware of the unstable and increasingly precarious nature of the work that these spaces host. And for businesses considering the move, instead of paying the premium for co-working spaces, they should be more focused on improving the precarious nature of contemporary work.