“They dreamt of freedom from the cubicle. They got it. They dreamt of freedom from the coffee shop. They got it. Now they dream of freedom from roots.”
They dreamt of their freedom. Long days, watching the clock on the grey wall above the grey cubicle; long hard days, punctuated by tea-, toilet- and fag-breaks. Their freedom was an intangible pipe dream drenched in the dank reality of watching that clock tick away for the next forty or fifty years. Then, like a Holy Grail, that backlit Apple icon shone like an ethereal searchlight rescuing them from being lost at a dull, grey sea. Flat whites and smashed avocado; Fjällräven backpacks and reclaimed wooden benches; filament light bulbs and the sweet taste of liberation.
No more quiet words in the manager’s office, no more meetings about a meeting that could’ve been an email. They had dreamt of their freedom, and now they had it. But like a bird that flees his cage before realising that migration is a little strenuous on the old wings, a lifer on parole who no longer recognises civilisation; the effects of institutionalism creep in. There are only so many coffees you can drink. You have exhausted all episodes of Homes Under the Hammer. The cube calls, and now you’re paying to be there. It’s a funny old world.
In the last decade, the co-working phenomenon has spiralled (some reports suggest that the number of spaces has doubled each year since 2006) in tandem with the nomadic freelancer revolution; startups and sturdier WiFi having fuelled a workforce that was uniquely 21st century. The coffee shops had filled with those incandescent Apple icons; meetings had become Skype calls or Google Hangouts; but a need for order signalled an opportunity for owners of industrial properties in places like Brooklyn or San Francisco. The indignity of answering the door in your pyjamas at 3pm was washed away — welcome back to the office.
Of course this office couldn’t be a soulless replication of the one you’d spent £10,000 on coffee to flee. This office looks like the bars you go to and has yoga sessions on the rooftop. It has a third wave coffee counter where your water-cooler used to be, and a hammock in the meeting room. If you have to pay to come to work, you don’t want it to look like a paper company on Slough Trading Estate, hey? Co-working is the new working, and digital nomads aren’t looking back. From Antwerp (where Fosbury & Sons takes its design cues from New York’s High Line) to Singapore’s vast colonial-era premises, The Working Capitol: spots that harness the liberation of freelancing and inject an overdose of millennial amenities have transformed the working lives of the creative class.
Such is co-working’s dramatic ascendency, that these places are quickly becoming destinations in their own right. They are rapidly becoming the coffee shops of the aughts, and naturally the coffee shops are now aping them. If I am to spend a week in Berlin, I am safe in the knowledge that there will be somewhere with exposed brick walls where I can plant myself for a prolonged session of tippity-tap. Whether it’s at any number of design-minded independent venues, or a veritable Goliath like U.S. company WeWork — currently the eighth most valuable private company at $17.2 billion — co-working is not going anywhere, which means hoteliers are already casting a keen eye in its direction.
‘Amazing things can happen when people come together.’ That’s the manifesto of Amsterdam’s Zoku, a concept co-founded by Hans Meyer, the initial creator of citizenM. He’s right: 17 billion amazing things can happen — which is surely a major consideration behind the Dutch entrepreneur’s latest venture. Zoku is a hotel concept founded upon the principles of the co-working boom; it promises to ‘mark the end of the hotel room as we know it’ and delivers modular lofts for short- and long-stay rentals, with 500m² of social space used as a breeding ground for interaction between its residents.
Of course, Meyer’s previous concern is no stranger to the new breed of worker — citizenM’s societyM is a bridge between the traditional hotel meeting room and the co-working environment, and you can take advantage of all they offer at six of their European properties. Are we in danger, though, of the ‘business centre’ simply being rebranded ‘co-working space’?
Billing itself as, brace yourself, a ‘first of its kind work, rest and play initiative,’ Ovolo Hotels’ Mojo Nomad concept is a simple one: you pay them from $239 a day, and you get to ‘live and work’ at selected Ovolo hotels. Which sounds a bit like staying in a hotel. And herein lies the problem posed to the hotel industry — it is that they already exist, somewhat, as co-working spaces. From Ace to Hoxton, Generator to The Standard, the open-lobby concept is one of the principles that co-working as we know it today was founded upon. So how can culturally-minded hoteliers truly assimilate this metamorphosis in our working lives?
Perhaps we should start at the beginning: what is a hotel? At its crux, a hotel is an establishment that deals in the business of paid lodging. Is Roam, then, a hotel? Is it the future of what a hotel can be? What the hell is it?
Roam currently boasts properties in London, Tokyo, Bali, Miami, and soon San Francisco. Its rooms look every bit the boutique hotel: there’s the sort of communal kitchen that the hip ho(s)tel crowd have made familiar in recent years; there are cafés; (in some cases) pools; yoga decks; and lounges. Most importantly, there is ‘true’ co-working space and the sense of community that fosters. A real community, in fact. That chap you met in London the other week who runs that online thing that’s looking for a digital contractor to finish off that booking thing? He’s sat next to you by the pool in Bali. The lady who runs that networking thing who’s looking for a digital nomad to co-present her next podcast you met in Tokyo? She’s just nicked the last of your milk in Miami.
This is not co-working, but co-living. Dish out $1,800 per room, per month, and you can rock up to any Roam property pretty much whenever you like. Stay a few weeks, a few months, pack up your MacBook and move on. It might be an extortionate amount of money to live in Bali, but London … San Francisco … here’s a concept that has legs. Christoph Fahle, the founder of Betahaus (a co-working platform with properties in Berlin, Barcelona, Hamburg, and Sofia), bedded down in Bali last year, musing over the concept of ‘living’ as he went.
“I started to realise how broken and static the way we live in global metropolises is. We are used to owning or renting flats in apartment complexes without any connection or sense of community in our direct surroundings. Well, we sometimes know people, but who lives together in one building is basically a coincidence. In most places I’ve lived so far, I barely knew my neighbours; and very rarely would we have social events in our building. The more I think about this, I cannot believe anybody would actually live like that.”
It’s an interesting contemplation, surely fuelled by the hedonistic mood of the tropics — but it’s worth noting that, whilst we live like that, we also largely travel like it. Who we are put next to in a hotel? Coincidence. Who we sit down next to at breakfast? Coincidence. Heads down, phones in hand, the hotel experience is frequently as impersonal as a ride on the underground. The Betahaus founder’s Bali experience can be paralleled like-for-like with that from which Brian Chesky founded Airbnb.
Chesky on the very first Airbnb experience: “You normally don’t get to know people this quickly in the real world — in contrast, the time it takes to develop longstanding relationships is longer. One of the guests who stayed with us invited me to his wedding, one of the other ones changed his whole career trajectory because of that trip.”
Fahle on his time at Roam: “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this feeling of belonging to such an easygoing, lovely, and spirited tribe. I also feel that during those five weeks, friendships for life were made; and I’m looking forward to seeing everybody again in other places of the world.”
As co-working has fuelled collaboration between freelancers, entrepreneurs, and startups, co-living can enhance that experience by adding camaraderie, friendship, and lasting bonds. If the travel industry is to sincerely adopt the evolution of the workplace, it could begin by transposing the ingredients that have made co-working the revolution it is into their operations. Zoku’s Hans Meyer, it seems, has already woken up to this: “sharing bread, cheese and wine is always more fun than eating or drinking on your own,” he says. “Everything within Zoku has been designed to create effortless connections, and our community managers play a crucial role in this by actively supporting our guests by building their local social and business network.”
It might have been crammed with more jargon than Brian Chesky or Christoph Fahle’s excitable accounts, but it’s a recognition that it’s not just our working habits that have shifted. In Hamburg, LINDENBERG stress that their two houses — LINDENBERG Rückertstrasse and LIBERTINE — are ‘neither hotels nor living communities,’ instead billing them as ‘both’. Expect a leaning towards longer stays, enhanced communal facilities, and a sense of breaking bread with fellow creatives.
Tangible hospitality projects with an unfeigned adoption of the co-living ethos might currently be few and far between, but the march itself is undoubtedly on its way. Co-working behemoth WeWork has grown horizontally into the urban housing market with WeLive; OpenDoor is a more holistic affair, quoting Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh (“The next buddha will not be an individual. The next buddha will be a community.”); and London’s The Collective delivers a considerably less utopian approach — “in the future we will all be homeless,” declares the project’s COO, James Scott. Quite. If co-working has bred the new nomads, co-living will take them to their nth degree.
They dreamt of freedom from the cubicle. They got it. They dreamt of freedom from the coffee shop. They got it. Now they dream of freedom from roots. “We all tend to have many homes these days,” continues Fahle. “The place we were born, the place we went to university, the place we work for a while, or the place we like to stay for three months while it’s winter in our regular home.”
How to harness the co-working movement, how to embrace the next millennial march? Perhaps hoteliers should be looking a little closer to home.
James Davidson is Editor-In-Chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.