Berlin’s desk revolution

“It’s like being interviewed for a shared flat,” my German friend, the freelance TV producer, says to me one Wednesday morning over one of those pungent Berlin coffees. Having left our laptops gently purring on our dining table desks, we are now sitting outside a local cafe reinvigorating our brains with caffeine and a vitamin-C-laden fruit salad. After three years working from home, the washing machine peeps have interrupted the flow of my friend’s creative juices one time too many and she has finally decided to find herself a real desk in a co-working space.

She is not alone: approximately 80,000 people worldwide are currently using co-working spaces, and Berlin is one of the capitals for it. In the post-financial-crisis digital age, swathes of ambitious young people are shunning traditional careers and looking instead to freelance projects or setting up their own business as alternative paths to professional greatness. And it turns out that not all of these digital nomads are happy to work surrounded by last night’s dirty dishes or with the ever-alluring TV in the corner telling them it really is alright to watching two hours of N-TV (the German new channel) every lunchtime because its ‘educational’.

In the last three years there has been a veritable explosion of places in Berlin and other major German cities for these skinny-jeans, ironic t-shirt, dark-framed-glasses-wearing desk hoppers to find their professional oasis. Copying the model of large, airy spaces with minimalistic decoration, exposed white-washed brickwork and ergonomic bug chairs, which initially served the techie brains of San Francisco, similar co-working spaces are popping up in major urban centres across the globe, with 72 across Germany and 10 of these in Berlin. Entire magazines discuss co-working space issues, websites, such as Deskwanted, are dedicated to searching for your ideal one, start-up consultants provide in-house services just for the workers who reside there. As Joel Dullroy, founder of Deskmag says, “These people have been out there, working in cafes or at home and getting really tired of it. Now the spaces have started to resemble somewhere they want to go, there’s a been a huge rush to get desks.”

Co-working spaces appear to represent a quiet revolution in attitudes towards the office environment, professional collaboration and informal networking – an anthropological pivot in the way we work. As one German co-working organisation, betahaus, which has spaces in Berlin, Cologne, and Hamburg, as well as in Sofia and Barcelona, puts it, “Value is no longer created in the traditional office block. Creating value happens in different places, at different times, in changing team constellations and without permanent employment.” A far-cry from from the stale vision of beige-carpeted serviced offices, the spaces – part-cafe, part-home-office, part-living-room but with reliable internet connection, answering machine services, and bigger bean bags then you’d ever be able to fit in the boot of your car – are always visually appealing, provide plenty of opportunity for constructive distraction and maximise that gallery-like airiness and cool of re-commissioned urban architecture. They make for somewhere you want, rather than have, to go.

But the demand for co-working spaces goes far beyond finding an attractive spot to park your macbook. Members collaborating is crucial to their success. This is why new members are first rigorously interviewed by founders and other co-workers, to check they will fully contribute in the sacred act of sharing ideas, providing a network, and pushing new connections. “In fact,” continued my TV producer friend, “it was harder than being interviewed for a flat, it was more like being interviewed for a job at Google.”

And it’s true that this unusual atmosphere – open yet exclusive, collaborative yet selective – has its origins in the open innovation of the techies who initially promoted working in this flexible way – not unlike the atmosphere still encouraged at Google. Another set of solitary workers coming together – shared artists’ studios and creative writing groups – lend their spirit too. In a similar way, co-working spaces provide an arena for people to constructively compete, but then share the solutions for the benefit of the group. On a more practical note, they also offer those who have not yet established a steady revenue stream, and may never do so given the nature of their work, a relatively cheap and professional-looking working space.

So even if more people are freelancing, going solo, curling their noses at the corporate office block, it turns out that most aspects of business are not solitary activities. Only a lucky few pursue purely creative careers, where their own isolated genius is enough. In other roles, freelance or employed, people thrive from external input and validation – it’s no wonder then that these co-working spaces are booming. Nor is it surprising that such places have taken off so well in Berlin, a world capital for digital and artistic innovation, and a city overflowing with abandoned warehouses.

Now slowly meandering our way to our respective flats, my friend tells me she is particularly excited about the man she hopes she will be sharing room with.”He writes film scripts,” she says turning towards me with a smile, “so he’ll have some amazing contacts.” Just before we part at the corner, she adds nervously, “I should hear back from them today. Let’s just hope they accept me.” “Fingers crossed,” I say as I turn and head back to my own dining table desk, wondering on my caffeine-high if perhaps it might feel a little solitary there after all. Now where did I put those dark-framed glasses … ?

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