Hybrid working isn’t turning out as expected

Last year, as companies recognized both the value of face-to-face interaction and the fact that not everyone wants to go back to the office five days a week, the concept of hybrid working went mainstream. As lockdowns subsided and work-from-home mandates became advisories, some started asking office workers to go back in for two or three days a week.

But where would they work for the rest of the week? Older execs, with houses big enough to have space for a home office, often relish the relative peace of WFH. But for many others, having to work at the kitchen table or in a bedroom is a chore, not a joy, and their family’s initial supportiveness is wearing thin.

I was one of many who saw this as a likely opportunity for growing the ‘third space’. That’s somewhere between the home and office, but which isn’t a noisy café or silent library, say, and where you can have a desk to yourself without having to take a crowded bus or train into a city centre.

The obvious solution was co-working spaces. Basically these are shared open-plan offices, and they emerged several years ago to provide business-grade facilities and a sense of community to a growing population of freelances and small companies.

Lots of co-working spaces, not so many co-working users

So how come they don’t seem to be as popular now as we thought they would be? I’ve visited half a dozen co-working spaces in recent weeks and none were anything like full – indeed, only one was more than one-third occupied.

Sure, part of it is lack of awareness, and another part is increased competition, with many new co-working sites having sprung up – spurred no doubt by mid-lockdown optimism. But part of it is also that hybrid working has reframed the question.

Increasingly, I hear people saying that, yes, they’re fed up with working five days a week at home, and a co-working space is attractive because they’d like a change of scenery. But if they’re now going to be required in the office for three days a week, maybe two days WFH won’t be so bad – and renting a desk elsewhere for just two days a week won’t be cost-effective.

Plus, the change of scenery aspect (although not of course the avoidance of commuting aspect!) was already happening in-office, with sofas, break-out rooms etc. This idea also seems to have spread, by the way, with some property developers now providing café-like shared workspaces within apartment buildings too.

Some of the co-working operators are trying to respond. As well as whole-month subscriptions they offer lower cost alternatives – for five or 10 days usage a month, say. Another option, which is more flexible for the user but less reliable as an income stream for the operator, so it’s less widely offered, is a carnet-type scheme, where you in effect buy a book of day passes to use as you need them. There’s also apps that let you choose from a variety of locations and book workspace by the hour, day, week, etc.

Is simple hot-desking enough, or do you need more?

The trouble with all of those is that they only really work for basic hot-desking, where you just look for a chair and a desk in a pleasant environment that isn’t your kitchen. Sure, it’s better than a café – it’s a real work environment, and you can stay there all day – but it’s unlikely to have the external keyboard and monitor you might expect on an office hot-desk, for instance.

And of course they all cost money, unlike the kitchen table or the in-building shared space.

I guess there’s a couple of conclusions to draw from all this. One is that for many of us a third space is essential – and I don’t mean the office break-out rooms that some try to label as that. Sure, those in-office spaces are useful for a change of scenery, but they don’t address the desire for near-home working that avoids crowds and the commute.

And the other is that for the third space to take off, employers need to recognize the opportunities it offers and build it into their hybrid working plans and procedures. That means allocating budget for staff to book co-working if they don’t have home offices, because otherwise their productivity is likely to suffer.

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