Europe’s Capital of Co-Working: Is Sharing Desks Worth It?

By Conor Rushby |

Co-working is a very modern phenomenon – the first shared office space was reportedly set up in 2006 – and yet many of you reading this will have used such a facility, perhaps as a freelancer or in an early-stage startup. It’s a reflection of a global change in working practices, and it has been enthusiastically taken up in Berlin especially, making the city Europe’s capital of co-working.

But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Is it worthwhile sharing your work space with people you don’t know, in a city where renting your own place would actually be quite cheap anyway? Silicon Allee took a look at the pros and cons, and spoke to some of the people who have been there and done that.

Co.up, betahaus, Wostel, Studio 70, Agora Collective, RaumStationSankt Oberholz – for anyone looking for a co-working spot in Berlin, the possibilities are almost endless. And it won’t come as a shock to find that Germany is number one for co-working in the EU, according to Deskwanted, a working space platform. That is just part of a global trend, with a total of 2,072 shared offices springing up worldwide since the first set up shop up in 2006.

To explain why it has taken off so much, not least in the German capital, you need to look at the labour market and technological change, according to Julianne Becker of Berlin-based Deskwanted.

She told Silicon Allee that employment structures have changed the game. “We see that many companies are looking at more independent contractors (or freelancers) over full-time employees. The biggest case we have seen is IBM’s ‘Liquid’ strategy, which is billed as a way to promote creativity and individualism.” The program will see a reduced, core workforce, with more work being done remotely by freelancers. It is being tested in Germany, where it is planned to cull 8,000 of the 20,000 permanent IBM jobs in the country.

Cheap and Increasingly Popular

This trend is made possible by technological advances, Julianne added: “The fastest-growing industries are knowledge based, or require only a laptop, like creative industries and developers. Many large companies are downsizing their physical spaces and giving employees the option to choose where they work from.”

One option is to work from home –  though that does not always ensure the most productive of working environments. And so co-working spaces have become a cheap and increasingly popular alternative. At betahaus, for example, membership costs €229 a month, compared to €180 at co.up and €199 at mobilesuite.

It’s not only the costs that makes co-working attractive – there is much greater flexibility on offer for startups who don’t want to sign lengthy rental contracts when they hope to be expanding in the near future.

Indeed, the 3rd Global Co-working Survey undertaken by Deskwanted (admittedly a company which benefits from the increased popularity of co-working) makes for interesting reading: 71 percent of respondents reported an improvement in their creativity, 68 percent said they were better able to focus and overall 62 percent believed the standard of their work had improved since joining a co-working space.

So what is it really like in Europe’s co-working capital?

Thilo Utke, who helps run co.up’s space, placed emphasis on the overall benefits spaces bring for the relative cost here in Berlin: “I think co-working spaces help to build high density networks, where startups find talent and investment through personal connections. They also offer a platform for events to find early adopters and helping hands. On top of that they offer neutral ground to learn and exchange ideas.”

A Very Inspiring Surrounding

Ben Roth of mobilesuite said the flexible nature of co-working is a major attraction for young companies: “Early stage startups often have a planning time frame of not much more than three to four months. Having an office that is both affordable and has convenient terms takes a lot of pressure off the teams. Many people also tell us that they work way better and get more stuff done away from home and that the co-working surrounding, with a lot of like-minded people, can be a very inspiring element.”

Alex Napetschnig works in mobilesuite alongside his fellow Klash co-founders. He said he was particularly happy about working together with people from different organisations: “It was very helpful in terms of networking and meeting new people. Webmonday was the event where we met our brilliant CTO. Unlike in a normal office, in mobilesuite networking events come to you. And meeting other startups and leveraging from their knowledge is only one of many other side effects.”

Pressed to name some disadvantages, Alex added: “Of course you have times where you need to focus 100 percent on your work and the open space offices make it harder for you. But in general I could not see any major drawbacks.”

Giuseppe Colucci of Ploonge originally decided on co-working for similar reasons to Klash: “I chose betahaus because of its easy outlook. It seemed to me to be a really relaxed place where people could easily interact and exchange ideas and contacts. And [we also chose it] because it was cheaper than other options.”

Alienation Rather Than Interaction 

But his expectations were not exactly met. “Except for the networking breakfasts every Thursday and some meetings organized for new arrivals, there is not much interaction but rather alienation, in the coffee shop. In the co-working space there is a bit more interaction, but I noticed there are many designers, so not really related to the kind of people I’m interested in.”

In fact, one of the oft-cited key benefits of co-working – the networking opportunities – can depend entirely on not only the location you choose, but also on the make up of users (which can change rapidly) at that particular moment in time. Giuseppe hasn’t made any business-useful contacts from betahaus, and plans to move out in December to a shared office with Art Connect Berlin to feel more at home to organise meetings, workshops and presentations.

Deskwanted’s statistics support the idea that it’s pot luck whether you walk into a good co-working environment. Respondents were asked what interactions they had with their co-workers regularly. ‘Small talk’ scored highly with 77 per cent, as did ‘enjoying each other’s company.’ However only 62 per cent said they often ‘share knowledge and advice,’while ‘sharing contacts’ comes in at only 48 per cent, and giving feedback for other’s project was only a regular occurrence for 43 per cent of respondents.

Ultimately, the very nature of co-working spaces means that the advantages which draw people to them, while often in place, aren’t guaranteed to be present. But ask anyone who has arrived at a new job in a traditional office only to find themselves sat next to the deskmate from hell, and they will argue that there is something to be said for not being committed to a particular desk.

How did you find the experience of co-working? Or are you considering joining one? Tell us what you think below.