Andrew Patterson finds a new way to work that is catching on fast; cross-pollinating technology, entertainment, and design

Andrew Patterson finds a new way to work that is catching on fast; cross-pollinating technology, entertainment, and design

By Andrew Patterson

A new generation of workers is redefining the traditional work space and it looks nothing like your typical shared or serviced office environment.

Known in the trade as ‘co-working’ or ‘co-space’ it could even be described as the office version of flatting, where it’s all about sharing the space and the facilities.

But the fascinating thing is that it works.

And with Gen Yers increasingly oriented towards a collaborative working style the environment is both practical and functional.

Best of all though, it’s significantly cheaper.

Auckland based co-space the Biz Dojo is probably the closest thing you’ll find to a Silicon Valley style work space in the City of Sails.

Ideally situated on Auckland’s Karangahape Rd, well known for its bohemian if slightly alternative feel, the Dojo is located within the trendy Ironbank building.

Complete with its glass lifts and colourful bean bag cafes, you feel as though you really are stepping into the future of work.

A new approach to work

Established in 2009 by founders Nick Shewring and Jonah Merchant the idea was to create a unique space that effectively brought together a community of like-minded creative workers with a range of skill sets and business interests that would allow cross-collaboration to occur naturally.

But as Shearing points out, apart from the talent mix, there are two other important ingredients for the success of the co-space model: good coffee and good wifi.

He says the idea for the business came about during the time the two founders were working for Air New Zealand.

“We worked under then CEO Rob Fyfe, in the innovation venture team where we had the pleasure of working with the global innovation company IDEO on some of the new design for the long-haul travel experience.

That project, and the fact that we had so many individual freelancers who came from so many different disciplines including product designers, industrial web engineers, psychologists and lots of others all collaborating forced us to look at doing projects in a completely different way. I suppose it ruined us forever, being able to work on our own again, without doing something like this.”

“That made us think, how could we create, or how could we build an IDEO-style operation that was more accessible to New Zealand businesses. IDEO are one of the most transformational companies in the world, and obviously they’re out of reach for a lot of organisations to work with. In true kiwi fashion we thought, let's just give it a go. So we went out, signed the lease for a space, thinking maybe we could attract more freelance guys like ourselves, who have been doing their thing overseas or whatever, and maybe there's an opportunity for us to all come together.”

“At that point the whole notion around co-working was starting to pick up pace and we completely underestimated how fast and how quickly it would grow, but also how many people were out there, just like ourselves, working remotely and feeling very disconnected.”

Bringing together like-minded people

Walk around the Dojo there’s a real sense of energy and intensity evident, though it’s notably quieter than you might expect with the ubiquitous apple mac or ipad the obvious device of choice.

Conspicuous though by its absence, is the lack of conventional office equipment.

There are no filing cabinets, stationery cupboards, partitions and separate offices to be found anywhere. Just rows of desk space with very few empty spaces. This is about as communal as it gets with just a few separate meeting rooms available for residents, as they’re known, available to book on an ‘as-required’ basis.

But is the model better suited to certain businesses or personality types more so than others and does everyone adapt to what is a very open plan work environment?

“If you've ever had the fortune to be a freelancer or contractor, where you feel that you don't quite belong within the organisation that you’re working with, or you feel that you're always a little bit transient and you're constantly floating between different projects then that’s the type of people we tend to attract.”

“But what we found was that when you get all those like-minded, generally creative people in the same environment there's a sense of belonging that emerges and there's a real sense of camaraderie and connection that you just don't get working alone. It's actually been amazing observing incredible friendships forming out of two people who’d never met each other before and they came together because they sat across the table from each other. They started to talk, they started to share projects and from that they've really bonded. It's been quite incredible just to observe that and watch it happen.”

Bringing the generations together

While most people might conclude this is purely a Gen-Y phenomenon, it seems there are plenty of Gen Xers and one or two youthful baby boomers who enjoy being part of the scene.

“We actually get asked quite a lot about the demographic make-up of our residents and it’s actually about 37.”

“We've found that the really interesting thing around co-working is that it's not exactly age-determined. You'll get people who have quite a bit of experience working with people who might be greener and fresher to it. Because there's this common theme around collaboration and sharing of ideas and an openness to work together, we find that it bridges that age gap. We've got some amazing young people who've come in who are just 18, working with someone who might have started their third or fourth business, and they're kind of reinventing themselves again from the ground up. It's definitely non-ageist, if that’s the right word.”

Anyone who has had the experience of flatting, particularly as students, will know that there usually has to be a few simple rules established just to make everybody is on the same page. The co-working space is much the same, though it’s far less regimented.

“There are some no-go areas, like not knowing how to froth milk properly on the coffee machine, can create a reasonably high level of tension in a shared working environment! Generally speaking, because everyone's professional, it's reasonably self-regulating. For us it's more around providing a bit of a framework so that people can work within it. We don't have a totalitarian way of laying out the rules you must abide by, this is a community-led venture in a lot of ways, where our success has been driven by the success of our residents and their businesses growing. They have as much input into what's done as we do. I think that's the way it needs to run. Unless they can't do the milk, and then there’s a problem.”

Collaboration made easy

The other advantage the Dojo provides is the ability to cross-pollinate and cross-collaborate which makes it very easy to engage with other residents. Think it almost like having lots of people with multiple skills sets on call at a moment’s notice to work with.

“Yeah, it's quite rewarding when you can see someone come in with the genesis of an idea, and throw that idea out into the room, and you'll get someone who's a systems architect for a telco in Australia, who happens to love living in New Zealand because he's a surfer, and then you'll get someone who'll pipe up who's the head of community development within one of the largest not-for-profit community groups in New Zealand, who'll go, oh, I can help there.”

“Sometimes you get these really strange overlaps of ideas and experiences that give you a completely different outlook on the idea than you had before. Because our community is orientated around the whole TED concept, technology, entertainment, and design, there's common ground, but there's also a lot of diversity, and there's a lot of different experiences, and so some of the outputs are really bizarre, but also quite amazing at the same time.”

Business model comes with risks

While the personality and collaborative side of the idea have obvious advantages, Shewring says the need to maintain a sustainable business model is equally important to ensure the Biz Dojo remains financially viable. The recent closure of Ponsonby based social enterprise co-working space The Kitchen being a case in point.

“I have to admit, the way we operate the Biz Dojo, it's designed to be a very lean and efficient model, so that we keep it accessible for the community that we've chosen to have in this space. It's safe to say that we do reinvest a lot back into this business, as the founders. It's a tough one. I mean it can be profitable, it is a great model, but it does require careful consideration of how you make the model work, because there are a lot of co-working spaces that launch every day around the world, and there are plenty that close just as quickly. It's the really simple things that close them, poor ability to negotiate with landlords, not being able to contain costs, because things just don't go in a linear fashion. One day you might have five residents, the next day you have ten, but suddenly you use five times the amount of coffee!”

“There are lots of areas that can catch people out, so you have to be very considered about it. You have to constantly be focussed on how you add value to your residents and your community so the customer service aspect is equally important.”

But is there also a risk that comes from many of the residents being in the very early stage of developing their own businesses that you’re also dealing with the riskiest of risky customers?

“Interestingly, our membership terms are only a month, but the general resident will stay with us for around two years. Some have never left.”

“It’s a bit like leaving home I suppose. You know when you’re on to a good thing when the parents are looking after things. We have a very open dialogue with our community, so usually there are very little surprises. Like any business, whether you're a first time start-up entrepreneur, or if you're an established consultant who's been doing things, we all go through cashflow challenges, and the reality for us is having an open enough dialogue that if someone is in that situation, we're putting processes or measures into place to support them getting themselves out of that. Often we can help them by suggesting they talk to this person or that person so they can tap into our networks as well. I think it's about having that openness with our residents that’s important.”

Expansion on the horizon

With the Biz Dojo now almost at capacity within its existing premises, the question of expansion looms large on the horizon. Shewring says that they’ve already secured additional space in the building to grow but there are other growth opportunities that also beckon.

“What we're looking to do now around expanding Biz Dojo is how we can collaborate and work more closely with others. There is an absolute limit to what the three of us [founders] can do on our own. So now what we're looking to do, and this has been a big focus for this year, is around how can we work with the other regions, how can we work with other entities, central, local government, to try and build a more cohesive, more connected community and get more opportunities flowing through nationally, because there's only so many leases that we can personally sign. Like everything, we've learnt some good lessons and we want to share those lessons. That’s the nature of the way we work.”

Having recently spent time at the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco, a new initiative allowing kiwi start-ups to immediately have a base when they land in the home of Silicon Valley, it's obvious that there is significant potential for this model to grow in the future. Shewring agrees.

“Ten years ago, the term co-working didn't really exist. We've just secured Alex Hillman, the founder of Indie Hall in Philadelphia, which was one of the first co-working spaces to launch in the US, who we're bringing out here in September to deliver a few talks - sorry, shameless plug - about what's actually happening on the world stage, it's kind of exploding.”

“I came across an amazing stat out of the US recently, that up to 30% of the workforce will be contract based in the next five years so this isn’t just an idea, it's really becoming a dominant force.”

Co-working has the potential to revolutionise the work environment in the future. It’s obvious that things are really only just getting started.

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