When co-working becomes no-working

Co-working isn’t always unalloyed joy. Rawpixel

Co-working spaces are all the rage. Why not leave a stuffy office to work in a funky warehouse full of ambitious people doing amazing things? I thought so, once. But all that co-working was not unalloyed joy. In 2013, two colleagues and I packed up our start-up dreams and laptops and made our way to New York. We wanted to change the face of mobile shopping and this seemed a good place to launch. On arrival, several people suggested we check out various co-working facilities.

I researched spaces in Manhattan and discovered new locations were opening all the time. I shortlisted eight spots and made appointments to check them out. The first one I visited was quite strict. It had rules about the hours people could work and about leaving nothing in the space overnight. The other end of the spectrum was like a hippie commune house. Loud music blared across the offices, people slept on the floor or in hammocks, the walls were covered in graffiti and coffee cups lay everywhere.


It can be tricky to establish a culture of hard work when the co-workers next to you watch YouTube videos and go home.

Cultural fit

I chose a place I thought was somewhat structured and a good cultural fit for our team. For $200 each per month, we scored a desk, WiFi, access to meeting rooms and other shared facilities. We would be working alongside other companies in a similar position to ourselves and might make some friends. On moving in, we attended the mandatory orientation session. First, we were presented with a raft of sponsors and their offerings. We could obtain a lawyer, accountant, insurance, server hosting and a range of other services at introductory rates. We learnt the rules of the community. Don’t talk in the quiet areas, clean your coffee cups and so on.

At first, the place felt like a utopia. We were in the centre of the tech community surrounded by people designing products to change the world. The desks were laid out in rows facing each other with power points in the middle. There was a quiet side (no talking) and a noisy side where groups could sit and converse. We decided to sit on the quiet side and use a meeting room when we needed to talk. It took a week for the gloss to wear off. Day one’s little annoyances became distractions by day seven; after two months, I gave notice that we’d move out. Here’s why.


Moving desks every day made our team feel transient, homeless. HandsOnPhotography

1. Distractions are dangerous

Small companies such as ours needed focus. We had limited time and money to prove our ideas and we wanted to work hard. Few people in our co-work environment respected the quiet areas. Some people even appeared to show off their important phone calls by talking as loudly as possible. The space provided a stream of peripheral activities. Cheery folk breezed through the office every other day offering free coffee, pizza, massages and so on. There were regular after-work events, so we often had to clear our desks by 5pm or 6pm.

2. It’s difficult to establish culture

Every morning we had to find new desks. If we’d paid more we could have rented our own office space, which I’m sure would have proved a better option. Moving desks every day made our team feel transient, homeless. It weakened morale. As our company has grown, I’ve learnt how people influence each other. The co-working space was full of people I’d never hire but who influenced our team. When co-workers sitting next to us arrived late, watched YouTube videos and went home, it made it difficult to establish a culture of hard work.

3. Competition isn’t always healthy

There were more than 200 companies operating from our co-working space, and some used the “community” to their advantage. There were at least three start-ups working on similar ideas to our own, and they often invited our team members to lunch. Other entrepreneurs noticed when we received a positive press story or investment and hassled me for introductions. Finally, a competitor tried to entice one of our engineers with a more lucrative job offer. At that point, we moved out.

The co-working industry has evolved since then. Done well, it facilitates collaboration and motivation while allowing companies to remain focused on their goals. Accelerator offices designed to foster a group of start-ups appear to have succeeded best at this. I eventually decided to lease our own space. It was daunting at first, but it enabled me to build our own culture, give our team a sense of permanence and focus on building our product without distraction.


CATEGORY: Australian Financial Review, Culture, Team

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