'We Bond Over Tea': What It's Like To Co-Work With Strangers

Co-working spaces have seen a rise in bookings. Are they the perfect balance of flexibility and office life?

After being practically housebound for the past year, staring at our own faces instead of paying attention to colleagues over Zoom, and forgetting to put ourselves on mute, working from home has been a lot.

As lockdown restrictions ease for the third time, there’s speculation over what our working lives will look like post-pandemic. Earlier this month, the minister for women and equalities, Liz Truss, called for flexible working to be normalised as part of the UK economy’s Covid-19 recovery. But is that realistic?

Whether you’ve enjoyed the last 12 months working from the comfort of your own bed or found it an isolating experience, it’s clear there needs to be a middle ground between office life and at-home remote working full-time.

Co-working spaces have seen a rise in bookings in the past year – co-working space The Fisheries in London reported an 182% increase, says founder Hugo Warner – with many opting for the “halfway house” between their home and the office. And back in September, a survey found more than three in four managers in UK businesses felt ‘collaborative’ workspaces are now more suitable for their post-lockdown business models when compared to a full-time staffed office.

Provided they meet Covid-19 safety standards, and are open to those unable to work from home, some co-working spaces have been able to stay open under lockdown. But now the ‘stay at home’ message has been dropped, and lockdown is easing, it’s likely more of these spaces will open up once again.

They’re typically filled with private and communal desks with plenty of natural light, homely furniture, meeting rooms, coffee stations, and green foliage. So what’s it actually like to work in an office with strangers (at first)?

The Fisheries Co-Working Space in London Fields
The Fisheries Co-Working Space in London Fields

HuffPost UK spoke to three people who have been using co-working spaces for the past few years. They work freelance or run their own businesses, and opted to use these spaces rather than work from home full-time. Here, they tell us why.

Fiona Chow, 42, a freelance marketing and communications consultant in Cheshire, has been using AltSpace in Altrincham for three years. She loves having a change of scenery that gets her out the house – but close enough that she can pop home to take out the washing and check on the cats. “I love my ‘commute’ which is a 15-minute walk, as it really invigorates me,” she adds.

Aside from flexibility, Chow enjoys the social aspect of co-working. She’s met lifelong friends, which is a bonus, she says, as freelancing can get lonely.

“My co-work husband, Jack, joined shortly after me and along with four other old schoolers, we’re a pretty tight gang,” says Chow. “We bonded over tea rounds, after-work beers, and runs to ‘Barry’s Cafe’ across the road for their hangover special. Our kids are a similar age who like to play together too.”

“We bonded over tea rounds, after-work beers, and runs to ‘Barry’s Cafe’”

She has a favourite desk, like in any office. “When I get in I chuck my handbag down, scattering makeup and biscuit crumbs, lean over and grab Jack’s cable for my phone and say ‘Alright lads? Who’s doing the brews then?’”

The group all work in very different fields – “PR and marketing, web design, financial advisers, architects and one owns a taxi transfer company serving the major European ski locations” – but Chow sees this as a bonus. “I get a lot of my working energy from other people and I like that we all have very different jobs and I’m not a PR and media ‘bubble’.”

A concern many have with these spaces is the cost. Chow used to have a three-day-a-week membership, which cost less than £200 per month. Now, she pays £20 a day for WiFi, coffee, a printer and cake – yep, cake! She thinks it’s well worth the money.

AltSpace, where Fiona Chow works. 
AltSpace, where Fiona Chow works. 

For Nicholas Byng, 46, owner of Grapevine Birmingham, co-working spaces have been a “godsend” during the pandemic. Byng has worked from AlphaWorks, a co-working space in Birmingham, since 2018.

“I find lockdown immensely limiting,” he says. “I’d moved to a new area and couldn’t see mates. The weather wasn’t good enough to do my usual runs so visiting a workspace helped so much with my mental health.”

Byng pays £300 a month for his own designated spot in the office, which they’ve just dropped down to £195 to attract more members. He thinks the money is worth it. “Co-working is a great way to spice up your work life,” he says. “It adds a fresh dimension to the daily grind and can take you out your old routine with the fluctuation of new co-workers trickling in and out each week.”

Nick Byng in Alpha Works
Nick Byng in Alpha Works

Co-working spaces give you the best of both worlds, says Chloé Adelia Watts – there’s the structure and feel of an office, as well as the flexibility to work to your own schedule. Watts, 32, has been a member of Soho House in London for four years and uses the Soho Works space for meetings – she’s the founder of her company, Chloédigital.

“If I need to be really creative and think through strategic ideas, I benefit from being alone and undisturbed,” she says. “However, on days where I’m much more fluid with my workload, I love working in a buzzy environment where there is great energy.” Watts also says connecting with others, where she can talk ideas through and share challenges or wins, is a bonus.

Chloé Watts in Soho Works co-working space
Chloé Watts in Soho Works co-working space

It’s also great for networking. “I looked for opportunities to seek out other young women on this path,” she explains. “I value these connections so much and they’ve become my friends. I definitely carve out time to work in a co-working environment so that I can continue meeting people who I vibe with personally and professionally. It’s always very organic.”

Watts, Chow and Byng are all self-employed, but co-working spaces could soon become an option for the employed. It may give people the chance to work flexibly – although, they’re unlikely to want to cover the costs themselves.

Perhaps a hybrid-working model could offer the ideal balance; less need for businesses to have huge overheads of a permanent office, but an important hub to allow others to collaborate, network, and have a desk away from home.

“What the last few months have shown is that we’ve seen the demand and need for co-working spaces,” adds Warner. “They offer the flexibility that people value (and will start to demand from their employer) and are also a great halfway step between working full time from home or full time in an office.”

Wherever you work, Watts adds that it’s important – after this difficult time – to open ourselves to connect with people – “to put ourselves in a social environment again and remember the benefits of community”.