Is coworking working? Or: A desk of my own

A desk with a notebook and pen, some books, a picture and a toolbox full of stationery.
A desk of my own.

I’m writing from my desk. My desk. I love saying that.

This is the first time I’ve had a desk of my own in seven years. I’m not alone in being desk-less: hot-desking is becoming more and more common, and coworking spaces seem to be popping up everywhere. But for me — and for many others — they just don’t work.

Before I started my business, I worked in an open-plan office where we didn’t have assigned desks. It was a lovely space, but it didn’t suit me. I’m introverted, my job is thinky, and I will procrastinate given the slightest opportunity; the worst kind of person for that kind of environment. I can’t settle in a space that’s not quiet, comfy and private. So I looked for corners, hugged the walls, tried to find a closed-off space of my own, and made the best of it.

It’s not just me…

I’m sure there are plenty of people who enjoy an open plan, flexible workspace. But this isn’t just a case of personal preference. Plenty of studies show open-plan offices aren’t great for many workers. They:

  • have a negative impact on attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction,
  • reduce your sense of being in control, which can make you feel helpless,
  • increase the chances you’ll get sick.

Reference: The Open-Office Trap, Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker

Hot-desking has issues too. A Unison survey of social workers who’d made the switch found:

  • 90% said it had a negative effect on morale,
  • 90% said it increased stress levels,
  • 80% said it made it harder to get support from peers.

Reference: Bargaining on hot-desking policies, Unison

From hot-desking to coworking

When I started my business, I needed somewhere to work. Working from home wasn’t an option. My flat isn’t big enough for a desk of my own, and paper-thin walls plus my neighbour’s daytime pirate radio show don’t make a great atmosphere for deep concentration.

So I tried coworking. In theory, it’s great: an affordable, flexible place to work that gets you out of the house and gives you access to a network of other businesses. And I know many people love and thrive in these spaces.

But I don’t. I’m still introverted, thinky, and easily distracted. And everything I disliked about open-plan offices and hot-desking were still there. And this is despite the obvious care and thought that had gone into designing the space to make it a great place to work.

Pile ’em high

The real issue is the business model.

Open-plan offices and hot-desking are popular with businesses because they cut costs: you can fit more people in the same space. Coworking takes the idea further: rent an office space and sub-let to as many people as possible. According to CB Insights, once-lauded, now-foundering coworking giant WeWork runs at about 50 square feet per person, compared to 250 square feet per person in a typical office building. Reference: The WeWork Strategy Teardown, CB Insights. [Incidentally, this podcast about WeWork is a good listen. ]

Most (but not all) coworking spaces exist to make money. So naturally they have a higher number of members than they have the capacity for, to maximise the profit per square foot.

I saw this cause issues. There were days I’d get to work and find the place so packed that I ended up going to a cafe instead because I couldn’t find somewhere to sit where I wasn’t elbow-to-elbow with other people, there wasn’t an electrical plug free, or the noise level was more like a pub than an office. I never expected a desk of my own from coworking, but I didn’t expect to be sharing with quite so many other people.

Hell is other people

People are the other big issue with coworking. In an office, at least you’re around the same people each day. You know one another, you (hopefully) respect and like one another, and you know you’ll be spending a lot of time together so you try to be considerate. In my former workplace, open-plan was bearable because people were kind and considerate.

In a coworking environment with a high number of members (and a high churn too, I’m guessing) it’s hard to get to know people or feel part of a community. And for a minority of people, it seems to make it hard to realise that those around you deserve basic courtesy. I spent a lot of the 18 months I was a member writing and deleting increasingly bitter and petty tweets about the selfish, entitled behaviour I saw from a small number of people.

The first draft of this post was a list of shitty things that happened. I decided not to share them because I’d like to think I’m better than that. But let’s just say, you probably shouldn’t conduct a disciplinary meeting with one of your team in the cafe area of a coworking space. Or close the veg drawer in the communal fridge with your foot. Or spot that there are two beers left, open one and put the other in your bag for later. (Oh look, I’m not better than that after all.)

I’m sure I have some annoying habits too. I sigh a lot (I’m trying to stop). No one’s perfect, but my point is: when you’re working with strangers, there’s no culture to say what’s okay and what’s not.

So what’s the solution?

I’d go back to coworking if there were affordable spaces offering:

  • a small, stable long-term community of people,
  • spacious desks with screens and high-quality chairs,
  • some kind of shared culture and perspective on how to act.

But I can’t see that happening, because it doesn’t fit the business model and the real purpose of these spaces, which is to make money.

So for me, the solution is to hire a desk in a small office with a handful of other people. It’s great. I have my own space, there’s always a plug, and because there’s just a few of us, it’s a considerate, calm atmosphere. It’s reduced my anxiety, and I’m much more productive.

One day maybe I’ll have a room of my own, but for now, a desk is all I need.

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User-focused content strategist helping clients who make the world better, fairer, more beautiful. Founder of La Pope content consultancy and Curio Conference.

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Lauren Pope

Lauren Pope

User-focused content strategist helping clients who make the world better, fairer, more beautiful. Founder of La Pope content consultancy and Curio Conference.

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