Co-working and collaboration: the role of design

We spend a lot of time observing and thinking about office design and the effect it has on people’s behaviour, so what better working environment to study than the ever growing and fashionable phenomenon that is co-working space? Our interest was particularly piqued by a visit we made during last September’s Open House London weekend.

Faced with the ever growing list of buildings to see during Open House London, Second Home in Hanbury Street, just off Brick Lane, jumped out of the website search of office spaces. Open House ‘weekend’ turned out to be the operative word, when you find yourself walking round an old carpet factory, which has been re-purposed as a co-working environment for innovative start-ups and is an integral part of the founders’ objective to build ‘a diverse ecosystem of creative people and organisations that are capable of having a collaborative and synergistic relationship with one another’ …and there is no one working in it – because it is the weekend!

So the aesthetic is what dominated the senses – the curves, the 1000+ plants and trees, the shininess, the eclectic mix of mid-century furniture. But anyone who knows us, also knows that, although we can fall in love with a beautiful building with the best of them, we also care a lot about investigating how buildings really work for their inhabitants in practice.

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Labyrinthine co-working spaces at Second Home, Hanbury Street, London

Indeed the HOK report Coworking: A Corporate Real Estate Perspective published last year, also raised several questions in our minds on the subject. According to the report, ‘the majority of coworkers come because they want to feel part of a community. They are looking to connect, socialise, share knowledge and brainstorm’. What most co-workers (74%) like about co-working is ‘interacting with others’. In a world of office design where affording collaboration is often seen as some kind of holy grail, we have been intrigued to understand what exactly it is about the design of co-working spaces that people are obviously experiencing as a place to make connections. So much so that, as the HOK report mentions, ‘KPMG may redesign some offices to look more like WeWork spaces.’

Fast forward 6 months and we have recently been lucky enough to get an insiders’ tour of the two relatively new Interchange co-working spaces in Camden Market – ‘Triangle’ and ‘Atrium’. OnOffice featured ‘Atrium’ in a write up after it opened last year and talked extensively about the physical design features of the space, (by architects Barr Gazetas working alongside Tom Dixon’s DRS), as the underpinning of a community ‘aimed at startups and creatives,’ where ‘the design looks to foster a more collaborative approach to co-working’.

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Communal co-working space at Interchange Triangle, Camden Market, London

This time our visit was on a weekday morning and we could not only observe people at work, but also interrogate the very helpful Operations Manager about patterns of use and member feedback.

What we discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a high level of difference between all three co-working spaces, Second Home, Triangle and Atrium. Get past the aspirational Tom Dixon lighting, floor finishes and pot plants and what you have is a very different vibe in each space, yet all three are espousing collaboration as a design objective. So how does this work?

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Co-working at Interchange Atrium where cellular spaces are linked by an internal ‘street’, which snakes up around and above the communal space in the atrium itself

The Interchange spaces are consistent with each other to the extent that they believe that space for concentrated work is as important as communal collaboration space. Much of the total 43,000 sqft in both buildings is dedicated to cellular, sound proofed offices, which can be flexibly sized to fit a range of business from two or three up to around 100 people. Second Home by contrast, majors much more on open plan areas, which can be shared with others from different enterprises, although they also provide dedicated cellular space, especially to meet the needs of businesses that are becoming successful and are growing.

But it is the configuration (or the way each space is connected with other spaces), which reveals the real differences between the three co-working examples. At Interchange Atrium there is a ramped walkway around the outside of the central atrium connecting all the cellular spaces together in what was originally designed as a market hall. This feels more like a street, and the distances required to reach the majority of central and sizeable communal areas are relatively large. Interchange Triangle is much more densely occupied with short distances to relatively small communal facilities that are dotted around each floor plate.

In addition, at Atrium, the visibility around the whole building (that is how much on average is visible from each point in the building to the rest) is high, but in Triangle by comparison very low, where fields of vision within each floor plate are quite short, even with full height glazed partitioning and there is no visibility between floors at all. However when it comes to the interface with the outside, Triangle has superb views out into Camden Market and London beyond, whereas these external views are much more limited in Atrium. At Second Home, visibility is quite high locally, for instance between the communal hub at the front of the building and the work space immediately behind and above, with a wide interconnecting staircase and mezzanine that provide visual links between floors. However there are several work areas which are very hidden away – some have been deliberately set up to provide intimate informal meeting or individual quiet working areas – but others feel very disconnected from the main bustle of the rest of the building only accessible through a labyrinth of meandering corridors. It is likely that those occupants will spend much less time ‘ bumping into’ other people on a random basis. External views are not really a feature of Second Home, which is maybe one of the reasons why the thousands of plants have been brought inside.

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Configurational differences in the three co-working spaces

So the factors at play are: internal and external visibility; distance; and proportions of space allocated to communal or individual business needs. We do not suggest that one way is somehow better than another. What does matter is need – the needs of the people and businesses that these spaces are hoping to attract and retain. Despite the attraction of flexibility for users, co-working space operators understandably, for economic reasons, want members to stay and grow with them. Interchange emphasise the need for separated quiet space which they say reflects what members tell them they want and many of whom are past the first phase of entrepreneurial start up. Collaboration and community is however, also seen as important and Interchange invest resources in setting up regular events that members can attend – they indicated that a significant number do, although it is a minority who are regular attendees. In Second Home, the ‘hosts’ have a very active role in bringing start-ups together who might have a mutually beneficial interest. They also run a punishing schedule of events with high profile speakers, which seem to attract big audiences. We have a hunch that given the variability of the design of our small sample size of three, that the role of collaboration facilitator could be crucial and perhaps more crucial than the design of the space itself. Spatial design can certainly be used to facilitate bringing people together or to keep them apart – it is a complex field and the factors are multiple and interconnected. If we were in KPMG commissioning new office designs based on the co-working space model, we would be spending a lot more time investigating what it is that the business is really looking to achieve and be delving into the complex detail of the design configurations that could support that. And only then would we allow ourselves some fun with the Tom Dixon lights.

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