Nearly half of the Swiss workforce should no longer be bound by location due to digital technology and the sharing economy. These trends have fueled a rise in co-working. I joined the bandwagon and here is why I ‘co-work’.
As an Indian journalist, I have been schooled in noisy newsrooms with excited fellow reporters and hovering editors. Even in my life outside of journalism, few offices were quiet, where reflection was genuinely valued. That’s not true with co-working spaces.
As any co-working evangelist will tell you, first and foremost such spaces are more about communities they host, than merely the physical space they inhabit. In such spaces, people work, together or individually, but often not for the same employer.
Co-working or hot-desking as it is sometimes called reportedly began in Berlin in the mid-1990s and took shape in San Francisco before becoming a global movement spreading around the world. Switzerland has also witnessed a mushrooming of co-working spaces as an alternative to traditional workplaces with the number now reaching about 100, up from 25 two years ago. Predictably Geneva and Zurich have the greatest concentration, but interestingly there has been a surge in new spaces in suburban areas too, according to the association, Coworking Switzerland which represents nearly 80 such communities.
Finding the ‘space’
My journey into such a community began nearly two years ago in the midst of a career transition of sorts. It was also preceded by another solo journey. On a day long boat ride on the Irrawaddy river in Myanmar a few years ago, I had finished reading Susan Cain’s bestseller, ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. Cain questions the “new groupthink”external link that has come to emphasise collaboration and open offices. What people really need is a quiet place to actually think and work. In an earlier interviewexternal link Cain says: “The way people, particularly introverts like to get work done is by focusing for chunks of time and getting into a psychological state called flow.” The book spoke to me.
When I found Work’N’shareexternal link, a modern space, flooded with light and soft colors, I knew I had found my refuge. A big, open office - formerly a garage and an architect’s studio, close to the shores of Lake Geneva in the beautiful city of Lausanne - has co-workers from diverse fields doing their mostly ‘chosen’ day jobs. While there are about 100 enrolled people, on an average day there will be about 25 of us.
The community is an assorted mix, from entrepreneurs launching food and beer companies, to coders, geeks in tech, life sciences and a few marketing professionals. I have also had the pleasure of working alongside scientists and designers, making special friends along the way.
I usually sit by the window. There is no fixed space really, but somehow it has come to be my spot whenever I am at the ‘office’. Of course, one can rent a desk, grow roots and become a resident. Or you could simply be a ‘nomad’, come as often as you want. You can even wander in once a month and just pay for the day, and perch yourself at one of the many spots at the tall tables. We even had a trader who worked standing.
The place is full of adults who give each other space, and are fluent with the codes of respectful, quiet working. It will be hard to find bickering colleagues here. The atmosphere is congenial, perhaps because we are not competing as some colleagues would. While it is ‘too quiet’ for some, it is a paradise for those like me in the business of writing, and others, among them coders and developers.
Take a break
Once in a while, you will hear squeals of laughter and a lot of French (Lausanne is in French-speaking Switzerland) in the coffee space. Workdays are punctuated with small conversations ranging from uncomfortable political conversations to sharing experiences on raising venture capital. Some might step out to stretch their legs, go for a smoke or simply take in the fresh air. Come midday, folks end up having lunch together, or go running by the lake. If it is a Friday, you can grab a beer with the gang, or even do Yoga midweek.
“I love the ambiance here with a lot of people working independently,” fellow co-worker Arthur Veenhuys, who runs a company offering carpentry design for offices, told me. “They enjoy what they do and are happy to go to work. It's also nice to be exposed to people in such a wide variety of fields, which helps me get out of my world of construction.”
Events are also held to connect like-minded professionals belonging to other co-working spaces and others who may be interested. Such spaces are becoming important urban conduits with potential for creativity and innovation, when people meet others outside their work context often resulting in unexpected collaborations. Registered as a non-profit association, Work‘N’Share has a model where the operation is sustainable through scale - the more coworkers the better. The community expands when others visit the space for such events, my co-working colleagues explained.
A 2016 Deloitte Report, The Workplace of the Futureexternal link found that one in four people in Switzerland currently works as a freelancer. Among the remaining, a third would prefer to become freelancers in a year. Deloitte predicts that in future, half of all Swiss employees “would be able to perform their jobs on a mobile basis”.
Karl Frank Meinzer, Head of Real Estate Services at Deloitte Switzerland told swissinfo.ch that there are three driving forces behind the growing global trend of co-working that also apply to Switzerland. “The transformation of the economy towards a service-oriented, knowledge-based economy and the growing importance of digital technology have led to increasing numbers of people that can work on a mobile basis, unrestricted by location,” Meinzer says. In addition, the rise of the sharing economy has increased the number of freelancers which has also boosted the demand for co-working spaces, he adds.
The report found that companies have come to recognise this trend. Flexible work arrangements can reduce costs, make more efficient use of space, and lead to more productive employees.
Meinzer suggests that companies can also expand their external networks and benefit from the knowledge of others by offering co-working spaces themselves.
The trend in Switzerland is maturing although not yet saturated and “is no longer an underground option for bloggers and programmers,” says Jenny Schäpper-Uster, president of Coworking Switzerland.
Co-working is also a privilege, provided you are not tied to an employer who needs you to be at a traditional office every day.
And working from home is not always a good alternative since it can be lonely or distracting or both. “Those who find it lonely miss the social interaction and discipline of a workplace. It is also easier to set limits between work and private time,” Schäpper argues.
There are several factors coming together - sociological, cultural, and economic - that favour co-working. The future of work may have arrived already.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Woolf may well have been alluding to a modern day co-working space, albeit not only for women. I think she would have been happy.
Agile working – the challenges
Requires high levels of trust in workplace relationships
Requires new management skills to ensure teams work effectively
Data storage and security is an issue when employees work from a remote location, including the home
Remote workstations must be designed with health and safety, and ergonomics in mind
(source: enei – Agile Working. A Guide for Employersexternal link)
Agile working – not for everyone
Depending on personality, only 44% of people considered to be an ‘influential’ type and who thrive in team environments felt agile working improved their productivity
Workers considered ‘conscientious’ – or perfectionists, liked the flexibility but are at risk of working long hours and burning themselves out
(source: enei – Agile Working. A Guide for Employersexternal link)