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Holly Allenby started The Acey, an online retailer for ethical clothing, working at her kitchen table and “hopping around cafes”. It was only when she got her first part-time intern that she made the decision to move to Netil House, a sixties office block overlooking London Fields in East London.

She says: “It’s a community, which is nice, and I find this important for my mental wellbeing. Having my own business, if I was still sitting at my kitchen table, it would be tricky.”

Like many small businesses, she opted for a co-working space that offers desk space or studios, with shared facilities for the tenants.

Co-working spaces, which bring together small businesses, sole traders and freelancers under one roof, have enjoyed explosive growth over the past decade. An estimated 1.7 million people worldwide were working in these hubs at the end of 2018, according to a study by Nexudus, a co-working space software provider.

These spaces range from basic to very high spec, with onsite climbing walls, childcare and wellness centres. Crucially, co-working spaces offer flexibility, with short leases and a promise to accommodate the needs of companies as they expand.

Holly now employs one other person and several freelancers. She pays £1,000 a month for a dedicated studio on a 12-month lease. She says it is “definitely” worth it, as she holds stock there as well. “It kills two birds with one stone. For us it makes sense, it means that we’re able to have up to four people in here when we need that.”

Her neighbours are the offices of a hair salon that specialises in organic products and a group of freelance textile designers. Holly says: “What’s nice about that is the others that work in the studios are like-minded people to us. So it feels like we’ve got our own little ecosystem within Netil House. We all say ‘hi’ and make each other tea.”

Holly smiles in a lovely jumper
Holly Allenby enjoys the community spirit in her East London co-working space

A supportive environment

The best shared offices and co-working spaces work hard to develop a strong community of members. Ian Elwick runs The Werks Group, which has nine buildings across Brighton, themed around the sectors its members work in. Ian says: “What we’re trying to do is provide affordable space; we’re trying to make it very flexible, and we’re trying to provide various kinds of support.”

Often the support comes from other members and happens naturally because of the way the buildings are organised. The Werks also offers its members one-to-one business support.

“If you’re starting up, you’re trying to grow, you need to talk to someone else with parallel experience. Very basic things like, are you charging the right prices? There are things that are automatically picked up in a collaborative environment,” Ian says.

This has contributed to The Werks having an impressively low drop-out rate, he adds. Just 2-3% of its members have seen their businesses fail, compared to a national average of around 40%. “It’s this intangible, helpful flexibility that provides people with a firm base they can develop their business or small company from.”

Members of shared offices also cite the work opportunities and leads that come out of their community as another crucial reason for being there.

Holly says The Acey has worked with photographers and web developers based in Netil House. “If we’ve needed a particular service before, we just asked the receptionist, is there someone in the building that does this and they’ve tried to connect us. So there is a lot of cross-collaboration.”

Co-working spaces can also act as a focal point for investors and large businesses looking for startups to partner with; so companies can attract the right kind of attention simply by being there.

 Giving up control

Choosing to move out of the comfort of your own kitchen, or a home office can be a difficult decision. If moving into a co-working space, business owners will have little control over their workplace. You cannot pick your neighbours; you can’t turn the heating up or choose the décor.

Other concerns are noise levels, although most open-plan offices have phone booths and meeting rooms where people take calls.

But co-working spaces can be distracting, with their rooftop bars, table football, and well-stocked kitchens, which critics say make for an excellent social space but not necessarily a productive working environment.

Then there is the risk involved in incurring additional costs in the precarious early stages of setting up a business.

But, Ian notes that staying at home has its own risks because you’re not “out there”.

“Just the physical act of getting yourself ready in the morning and going out to work or to meet people has an effect on what you do and the way that you see your work,” he says.

“If you get up and work in your pyjamas until midday, you’re not really helping yourself.”

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