Co-working: future of work or fashionable fad?

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When Galen King tried establishing a shared office in Golden Bay in 2006, he didn't even know co-working was a thing. He'd set up digital design company Lucid and hated working alone. He figured working with other inspiring people would help build a great company culture.

"Working in isolation is extremely hard. It's just great to be able to interact with other human beings and talk through the challenges ... It just makes the whole day more fun. It definitely I think leads to less burnout, and more productivity and more joy at work."

But people just thought he was weird, and he never found any friends to fill Lucid's big office.

By the time he moved to Nelson in 2009, co-working was an emerging global trend, and BizDojo had just set up. So King tried again, setting up the Bridge Street Collective, which he shared with landscape architect friends.

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Seven years on, Bridge Street has members varying from freelance health workers to a Māori architecture firm. It's sustainable, but King warns that co-working spaces are not a pathway to a quick buck. He's sceptical that the rash of new co-working hubs in small places will survive.

"I think a lot of people think you take a big building, you paint it white, you get some really cool furniture, you put some art on the wall, you put some music on and put in some nice couches and you have a co-working space. The reality is it takes years and years of nurturing and community-building."

Matt Knight reckons he'd go crazy trying to work from home. He was also one of New Zealand's first co-workers, as one of BizDojo's first 12 Auckland tenants. He then set up his own downtown Auckland co-working space, called Loft503. In Auckland, he could afford to be picky, restricting membership to creative digital businesses.

"It's like choosing a flatmate. Your office was in some cases more important, because I was spending more time in my office than I was in the flat."

People often ask – but what about competition and trade secrets? While he lost one tenant to competitive tension, Knight reckons problem-sharing and referral work outweigh the risk of idea-stealing.

King agrees: "It's very unlikely that it's such a good idea that nobody has thought of it. The reality is it's going to take a special person and a special mix of the right things to happen for it to actually become successful."

Galen King now works out of a shared space in New York's WeWork. With 210,000 members globally and 53 sites in New York alone, WeWork is a global co-working colossus, which is predicted to arrive in New Zealand in 2019. But size can erode the sense of community that co-working is supposed to foster.

In King's building, WeWork occupies floors 6-11. Every floor has a different craft beer on tap – for free. It's made up of glass offices, with communal spaces and phone booths for calls. Despite the lack of privacy, it's populated by hedge fund managers, stock brokers and day traders – businesses that two years ago would never have considered co-working. "Now it's kind of trendy."

"But because it's so big and so busy and people come and go so much, nobody talks to each other ... People come in for their shared breakfast, which we have every Monday morning at WeWork. A lot of people go up, get their bagel or cream cheese waffles and, depending on what's on, they take it back to their office and they won't interact."

King has moved his team to an open-plan tech accelerator inside the main WeWork, to get back to an environment of shared ideas.

Across town from the linseed porridge BizDojo, the company's new waterfront office is a taste of where co-working in NZ might go. Housed in the glassy, corporate building formerly occupied by tech darling Xero, it's all white walls, blond wood and fancy teas.