On a typical morning, right after her 8 a.m. yoga session, entrepreneur Amrita Mehra (replace with your name if it fits) grabs a cold-pressed juice before heading to the office and opening her mail. The rest of the day is filled with a steady flow of client meetings and team briefings, followed by a book launch and an impromptu meeting with the perfect graphic designer to brand her soon-to-be-launched fitness app. In the dusty whirlwind of Mumbai traffic, one might assume that she spent the better part of her day commuting to and fro, but the truth is, Mehra barely moved a few feet. Her sun-dappled desk with a sweeping view of South Mumbai is just one of the perks of renting a co-working space.
With the latest announcement of Microsoft moving 30 per cent of its New York employees to WeWork, a multi-million-dollar international company offering shared offices, the concept is steadily establishing itself as a viable alternative to the traditional option. With state-of-the-art facilities, these co-working spaces are a far cry from the first official one that opened in 2005 in San Francisco, where the ‘desks’ were actually folding card tables. For two days every week for over a month, founder Brad Neuberg sat by himself, waiting for someone to sign up. About a decade later, the card tables have long given way to some of the coolest and most coveted places to work at around the world.
Initially the realm of developers and software programmers, soon freelancers, designers and other creative types, in search of alternatives to coffee shops and libraries, jumped on the bandwagon. From California to New York, such spaces began to proliferate, and a new way of working began to emerge. And in the last few years, springing from the start-up boom in India, a similar mushrooming has been taking place all over the country. From megacities like New Delhi and Mumbai, to quieter places such as Chandigarh, Kolkata, Kochi and Ahmedabad, they offer an alternative to the nine-to-five routine, and a community of like-minded people.
Location, location, location
Office rents in South Mumbai (and many other major Indian cities for that matter) are famously astronomical, so being able to flash a tony Fort address on your business card adds an air of professionalism to what might be little more than a germ of a dream at the moment. For anywhere from 1,000 rupees per day to more economical monthly packages, it can be yours. Astronomer Henry Throop is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. He’s been living in Mumbai for the last year, and working at Ministry of New (MoN) for about three months. “There are others in the city — I’ve visited several — but MoN strikes the balance between being uplifting and professional…it’s also really inspiring to be surrounded by interesting people and in the centre of a dynamic city.”
Innov8, co-founded by Dr Ritesh Malik, Shailesh Gupta and Sumit Ranka, opened its doors in Delhi’s Connaught Place in December 2015. “Earlier such spaces were on the outskirts of the city, like Okhla, which were very difficult to access; we know that location is the most important factor that drives occupancy, so we want to be centrally located in any city,” explains Malik. A year later, the 10,000-square-foot area is running at full capacity with 150 members, with a wait list of about 200 vying for a spot. With a campus in Chandigarh, another in Bengaluru (in, you guessed it, Koramangala) is slated to open this month.
No more cubicles
A desk or studio at home can be unproductive at times, and traditional offices on the other hand can feel limiting with their cookie-cutter cubicles and impersonal interiors. Many need a defined, physical demarcation of areas from where to work and live.
When one pictures a co-working space it has to be open-plan, with no walls or barriers. MoN, helmed by Dutch designer and art director Marlies Bloemendaal and co-founder Natascha Chadha, is a breath of fresh air three floors above bustling D. N. Road near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Designed by Bloemendaal herself, it features high ceilings and vintage window shutters that are the trademark of heritage buildings in the area, an expansive skylit courtyard and bright white interiors. “I come from a media background, so I’m trained to figure out how others perceive things — I want people to come in and see a lot of plants and daylight, and go ‘Oh, wow!’ when they find this oasis.
I like clean, minimalistic design, and contrast of textures and colours. It has to be very tactile and warm, and have a living-room feel,” she describes.
So what happens when you need to make a superconfidential Skype call? Private, noise-free zones are de rigueur, as are meeting rooms and free spaces that allow members to unwind and mingle. “Up until recently, I’ve usually worked in a private, single office with a door. Now I’m in a room with 30 other people. Strangely, having other people around keeps me focused — I work a lot better with others around, than when isolated by myself. Sometimes there is quiet conversation nearby, but I keep my headphones on (like many people do),” says Throop.
While design can certainly be the deal-breaker when choosing the right place, Malik finds that “the most important aspect is the entire experience of the person, the amenities, and the vibe — there has to be something in the air”. Whether it’s single-estate green tea or branded bottled water, these spaces pull out all the stops to pamper their members, and things like electricity and Wi-Fi can be taken for granted. Shared offices provide all the basics — internet, printer, furniture. And when any of these break down, it’s someone else’s headache. So, no frantic calls to your broadband technical support in the middle of the night while you’re trying to send out that presentation!
Sharing is caring
It’s only recently that corporate culture has begun to change from a closed environment to one of friendly camaraderie. “People find it easier now to share experiences and even failures, which is very refreshing. It used to be more private and competitive, and this change reflects also in the design of MoN,” says Bloemendaal. Around 2013, she set up the first avatar of MoN in a warehouse in Lalbaug. “It very much came out of my own need for such a space, and I thought that maybe other people would have the same need.” At the time, it was among a handful of such places in India, and on regular visits to agencies and publishers, she was often surprised to find that they maintained the same irksome cubicles even in design studios.
Unlike a typical office environment, you’re encouraged to use the facilities on your terms. There’s no competition, company politics or bureaucracy to deal with either, making it easier to focus on building what matters most to you. And if you need a helping hand, there are enough people around who are probably in the same boat and can relate to what you’re going through. The variety of skills and projects available at any given moment means there’s almost always someone nearby to help solve a problem.
While start-ups may form the bread and butter of co-working spaces, a typical member profile includes freelancers, writers, developers, designers and, increasingly, SMEs and even corporate teams. “We also have CEOs here who have their own offices but don’t want to be there all the time. So they take a part-time membership (10 days a month) which allows them to focus on business development or new ideas. They may not be able to do this in their own offices or homes where they get disturbed all the time.”
MoN holds regular events and informal networking sessions as a way for its members to introduce themselves to one another and find ways to collaborate. Regular members include a senior NASA scientist, a Japanese lawyer, the Good Earth design team and a solar energy entrepreneur. Diversity is key to success. And it’s not uncommon to discover the food stylist you were hunting for, for weeks, is just a few desks away from yours.
Social Offline, a property of Impresario Handmade Restaurants, prides itself on striking a balance between work and fun. Regular gigs and DJ sets, poetry nights, film screenings and lectures define a typical week. Director of marketing and strategy at Impresario Group Shobita Kadan says, “Social has all the amenities of a fully functional office except, of course, the air of gloom. We are constantly aiming to give the creative community the opportunity to better their own game, assisting them in growing their businesses. Every week we encourage the members to get to know each other better during an informal #CollaborativeHour. We also share a database of all members so they can find it easier to collaborate.”
Come sundown, Social can become a little loud for those who prefer a quiet corner to work from. Nevertheless, it offers a number of community-based start-ups a professional base and an in-built testing ground and audience for their services, through its patrons. You are part of a community but not obligated to interact and socialise. Indus Vox Media, a podcast company that initially started out of Social, now have their own office near Khar Social with an eight-member team.
On a smaller scale, one can look at the whimsical Project Café in Ahmedabad that serves as an unofficial meeting and interview place, or G5A in Mumbai with its focus on independent films and cosy cafe. Pepper House in Fort Kochi, replete with stunning port vistas and a delightful cafe, a design book library and a store, buzzes with activity even when the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is not in session. These creative hubs create room for conversation and collaborations, and spell the onset of a new work culture.
The seed has been sown, but most founders insist that more is yet to come for co-working spaces. “Our members understand what we’re trying to do here, that we’re not a place that just rents out desks; there’s better service, higher standards and we provide an international network — all those things are invaluable, you cannot put a price on them,” remarks Bloemendaal. Malik has bigger plans for what he calls a ‘revolution’ in the works. “In a few decades we are going to be the largest population in the world, with the largest number of unemployed educated people. The only way to move the nation forward is to create as many entrepreneurs as possible, our own Silicon Valley.” A grand vision indeed!
This article originally appeared in Verve magazine, December 2016.