For all the excitement of striking out alone as a freelancer, startup founder or remote worker, many are soon hit by the fact that working alone for long periods is isolating and hard to manage. Enter: coworking spaces.
“Working at home was just a catastrophe,” says Maria Reiner, a freelance cultural project manager, who has a daughter at home to look after and has run Managerie, an eight-person coworking space in Graz for 18 months. “You need to separate work-life from home-life”.
For many, the relief of escaping the petty irritations of regular employment often evaporates into a yearning for a convivial and stimulating working environment. Working in isolation, otherwise organised and highly-motivated people may find their productive work time gradually sliding into the small hours, and their wakeup alarms moving comfortably into double figures.
A recognition of the widespread need for camaraderie and a break from home-life means many people decide to club together and share a single office. True coworkers, however, look for other benefits from such an arrangement, like chances to collaborate or exchange know-how.
Coworking arrangements often grow up organically among existing networks of self-employed friends, but there is also a new breed of professionally-managed off-the-peg coworking spaces in Austria, as in other places around the world.
“It is a bit like living together”
There are about a dozen such coworking spaces in Vienna, while most of Austria’s provincial capitals have each sprouted one or two. Added together the turnover of these coworking spaces must add up to a few tens of millions of euro, a figure which can only grow as the internet makes independent and distance working more common.
The social and business benefits expected by coworkers means it is not just about renting desk space as a raw commodity. Many coworking spaces try to ensure they provide an attractive, sociable environment shared by compatible people. Some organise events for networking and knowledge sharing.
Those renting out coworking spaces also sometimes need to be aware that less-positive dynamics can also come into play. Two coworkers might be in the same narrow field in which there is limited work, or in which sharing ideas or contacts too freely could mean a loss of business. Coworking space managers generally play it by ear.
“It is a bit like living together,” says Reiner. “It is important that coworkers have similar values,” she says. “People need to be reliable, it doesn’t matter if they are a bit chaotic,” says Rainer, who would particularly like to provide coworking spaces tailored to the needs of mothers.
But it is not just freelance mums who can find working at home a menace to mental health. “I tried working at home, but it is not possible with a child,” says Managerie coworker Stefan Zimmerman, a mobile application developer. “Coworking is the cheapest possibility.” Consideration for other coworkers is vital, Zimmerman says.
Co-operating rather than competing
Vienna has coworking spaces on a far larger scale. sektor5, for example, has 70 desk spaces. Co-founder Yves Schulz says the original idea when it opened in 2010 was to target designers and other “creatives”, but in the end the demand proved to be strongest from coders, particularly those who write PHP.
sektor5 does, as it originally intended, host some film-makers and designers. And it has also had its fair share of internet startups. Among the current crop are mySugr (see inventures.eu’s profile on co-founder Fredrik Debong here).
Schulz says there is no formal policy on who can take a space at sektor5. He says it is possible to tell within a few minutes who would fit into the community. It is very rare, he says, for coworkers to be in serious conflict or competition. “People tend to co-operate with each other rather than competing.”
Sektor5 has divided its offerings ito cater for different needs, the elements include: a ten-day ticket, the option to rent a conference room. All but eight of Sektor5’s desks are occupied, but Schulz says there are no immediate plans to expand. Instead he hopes toenrich the current offering by laying on networking events.
Not so much business as adding a social aspect to worklife
Architect Gottfried Prasenc does not have plans to do anything quite so pro-active for his coworkers at GAFT, perhaps the first coworking space in Graz’s bohemian Lend district, next door to Managerie. “The original idea was that people would work together on projects, but in reality there is usually only a couple of people working on a project at one time.”
For Prasenc renting out coworking space is not so much a business he hopes to make money from, but an affordable way to add a social aspect to his own freelance working life. At the same time renting an office larger than his own current needs means it would be easy to expand his own business if he ever needs to.
The Austrian coworking scene is a patchwork of old-school, organic coworking, like GAFT, and a new breed of offerings looking to professionalise the sector. Such variety can only be good news for the happiness, health and productivity of Austria’s rising numbers of remote workers, freelancers and entrepreneurs. Their office arrangements need to be as unique as they are.