Setting up your own business, or launching a career as a freelancer, takes courage and self-belief. The temptation to stick within the safe boundaries of a wider company can be overwhelming, and often this instinct towards security will be backed up by risk averse family and friends encouraging you to stay put. One of the toughest things about going it alone is literally that: you will be working on your own – initially at least – with only your own ego to keep you going. Your head may be filled with dreams and plans but they can quickly feel unrealistic or harder to achieve when you find yourself working out of your living room, or, even worse, your old bedroom at your parents’ house.
If this scenario sounds familiar, the solution may lie in co-working spaces. Over the last five or six years, flexible office spaces designed for individuals or small businesses have been popping up all over the world. Their premise is that they offer the best of both worlds: the community culture of an office space with access to professional necessities such as meeting rooms, but with the flexibility and freedom essential to the freelance worker or start-up. This can mean use of a desk for just a day at a time in some spaces, or on a rolling month-by-month basis.
Co-working spaces come in many styles and shapes, from faceless corporate boxes to carefully designed spaces that intend to foster a community within them. The latter approach works particularly well for the creative industries, where collaboration is increasingly becoming the norm, and where support from peers is usually gratefully received. We visited three spaces in Manchester and Salford particularly geared towards creative companies, to see how they are encouraging this new style of working.
Central to all the co-working spaces we saw was the desire to foster a sense of community. This is encouraged in various ways: at Old Granada Studios in the centre of Manchester, for example, the owners Allied London have created a co-working space titled OGS Works, which offers space to hotdeskers as well as ‘residents’, who can hire a fixed desk. The company also rents out larger studio spaces elsewhere in the building and attempts to bring together the various companies and individuals there via a series of gigs and events (which take place in the cavernous space of the old TV studios) and talks. “The idea is we include all the building so you have people that are startups that can network with people from larger companies that have been around for ten or 15 years,” says ‘hub host’ Tanya Grady. “It’s a really good opportunity for them to meet people and work with people that they may not have been able to before joining a space.”
Over at Islington Mill in Salford, the vibe is more arty, but those working there are still regularly encouraged to socialise and collaborate. Like Old Granada Studios, Islington Mill is also a highly distinctive building, with a great heritage – previously a cotton mill, it looms grandly amongst its edgier urban surroundings. In existence since 2000, the building contains studios that are home to over 50 businesses (including fashion designers, record labels, magazines, illustrators, graphic designers and more) but it also hosts an events space, a bar, a gallery, a B&B, and an annual festival, Sounds from the Other City. This brings the wider public to the Mill but also encourages the residents to meet and hang out, but only if they want to. “You have to have your own initiative and make your own way here,” says Verity Gardner, director of events space Fat Out’s Burrow on the site, “if you want to be involved, great, if you don’t, that’s fine.”
At Beehive Lofts, in Ancoats in the north of the city, managing director Steve Hanton has worked hard to create a social, collaborative environment for those who use the space. Set on the top floor of a listed mill, Beehive Lofts is beautiful and distinctive (it was previously used as a set for TV shows including Queer As Folk, Dragons’ Den and, um, Ryan Giggs’ yoga video) and Hanton originally moved there two years ago when his animation company, Studio Distract, outgrew its space elsewhere in the building. Keen not to miss out on the opportunity to take on the floor, but not yet in a position to fill it with his own staff, he decided to offer out desks to others in a style similar to a shared house. A mix of companies from graphic designers to web developers to hip food delivery service Deliveroo now use the space.
Hanton describes himself as an “informal matchmaker” in a work capacity for those who use Beehive Lofts. “We never push people together but from a social point of view we encourage…. In my opinion a co-working space isn’t complete without a host. If it’s just a space for desks, it’s not doing its job.”
Unlike some co-working spaces, Beehive Lofts deliberately doesn’t offer hotddesking, preferring to encourage a deeper commitment. “People that come here take a desk for a month or more – there’s benefits to taking longer terms,” he says. “Really we want people to sign up for six months – the community builds because of it…. The longer people see themselves being here, the greater the community gets within the space. I wanted to build a space that people don’t see as the cheap option, I wanted to build a space that a company with four desks in their own office somewhere would consider moving to as an upgrade, not a downward step.
“My vision is that co-working spaces and collaborative working spaces are a better option than an office,” he continues. “When you subscribe to a co-working space there is a social aspect, a collaborative aspect, the perception of you being much bigger than you are, if you want that. You get so much more, and it’s cheaper.”
As well as community, Hanton believes that it is essential that the space feels as if it belongs to all those who use it equally, that it can become ‘your’ space. “I don’t mean put your logo on the door,” he says, “but could you bring a client in and be proud that it’s your space, and it’s not a façade. You’re not lying – you might just be one person in the space, but it is your space, you are part of a collaborative work space.”
Other things to consider are growth – can you expand in the space? The good ones will make sure this is an option. “You’ll underestimate the potential of your success,” says Hanton. “You’ll always think ‘oh this will do forever’, but you should pick an office space that has got flexibility.”
Each of the spaces we visited admitted that a certain amount of curation goes into which businesses use the space, or at least that diversity is encouraged, to foster an exciting, varied environment. “It is important to get a good balance and a good mix,” says Gardner. “If the whole place was being used by bands recording or whatever then it wouldn’t work…. What we want is a good mix of people, and things that will support each other as well.”
From here, the hope is that the spaces not only offer a place to sit and work, but also foster creativity too – and the sum becomes greater than its parts. “The directors’ dedication to the whole ethos of being free and independent and creative has really transcended everyone and everything in this building,” says Gardner of Islington Mill. “It really is them spearheading it and then allowing people the freedom to be independent and creative and take responsibility and make a life out of art. Which is what most people want to do but often you’re too restricted. But they’ve created this space where you can do that.”
“If people start co-working spaces as a way of cutting up offices and making some money, then they won’t work out,” agrees Hanton. “But if people start co-working spaces as a better solution for work-life, then they’ll be more successful. I think the idea of being able to work and being happy about it is really important. There’s absolutely no way a small, boxy office could compete with that.”