It’s 8am on a frigid Wellington morning, but the co-workers’ kitchen is warm with the promise of a simmering cauldron of linseed and oat porridge.
A bedraggled trickle of workers climbs the stairs to the older of BizDojo’s two Wellington co-working workspaces. Freelance writer Peter Kerr peels off a sodden outer layer. Podcast producer David Binstead stops to chat.
Past the kitchen, in the high-gabled old dance studio, the board room has a “no skating” sign. Occupied hot desks host a hipster holy trinity –Macbook, iPhone and coffee.
The table tennis table doubles as a standing desk during the day – ping pong is sanctioned only after 5pm, so as not to disrupt other workers.
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Rufus and Pepper don’t respect designated work times, though. The two resident dojo dogs tumble-play across the floor.
By the time the oats are served with berry coulis, banana, greek yoghurt and shaved almonds, 25 co-workers are gathered. Flight coffee provides a barista for these monthly shared breakfasts, and training to teach new co-workers to use the kitchen’s professional coffee machine.
A staff member hands out this month’s “GC Award” – a one-armed karate dude with “kick-ass GC” scrawled on it. The winner is Michael, who’s only been there six months but has fitted in well and rigged up the drainage tarp channelling the office leak into a bucket.
This is the garage-sale, make-do space that reflects BizDojo’s start-up history, says BizDojo regional manager Paul Swift. Probably the first co-working company in New Zealand, BizDojo set up in 2009. It now has six offices, in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
The enthusiasm for shared offices is spreading, with flash new digs popping up in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. Even small towns like Carterton, Cambridge and Westport now have co-working spaces.
A 2017 Bayleys report found Auckland co-working space almost doubled in 12 months. And that pre-dated the North Shore’s purpose-built B:Hive, which boasts an orange spiral staircase and space for up to 1100 people.
Co-working, supporters say, is the future of work. Funky start-ups sharing offices and ideas; hermits stepping out of their PJs and away from work-at-home isolation; businesses ditching the office management headache in favour of flexibility and an all-in workplace deal.
But it’s not all plain-sailing. In January, BizDojo’s GridAkl operation went into liquidation, owing $341,000 in unpaid rent to Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development. Co-founder Jonah Merchant did not respond to interview requests, but previously put the failure down to growing too quickly. The rest of the company has now been snapped up by international co-working juggernaut IWG.
So is the trend just another fashionable fad?
The co-working concept started simply – providing flexible, cheap-but-funky office space for freelancers and small start-up companies, with bookable meeting rooms and event spaces. It offered a reprieve from the isolation of working from home, with the bonus of a community of like-minded people to bounce ideas off or nut through problems with. Plus soup club, massage and yoga with Gem.
You can pay to park your laptop at a shared desk by the hour or day or for a couple of days a week, or have a permanent desk. You pay only for the staff you have now, not the number of desks you might need in six months’ time. And if the co-work space owner has other branches, travellers can usually use them when out of town.
Options and prices vary wildly, from $5 an hour to hot desk in Westport, to $1500 a month per desk in a private office with shared common areas in Auckland.
Marion van Dijk
When Galen King tried establishing a shared office in Golden Bay in 2006, he didn’t even know co-working was a thing. He’d set up digital design company Lucid and hated working alone. He figured working with other inspiring people would help build a great company culture.
“Working in isolation is extremely hard. It’s just great to be able to interact with other human beings and talk through the challenges … It just makes the whole day more fun. It definitely I think leads to less burnout, and more productivity and more joy at work.”
But people just thought he was weird, and he never found any friends to fill Lucid’s big office.
By the time he moved to Nelson in 2009, co-working was an emerging global trend, and BizDojo had just set up. So King tried again, setting up the Bridge Street Collective, which he shared with landscape architect friends.
Alden Williams/Fairfax NZ
Seven years on, Bridge Street has members varying from freelance health workers to a Māori architecture firm. It’s sustainable, but King warns that co-working spaces are not a pathway to a quick buck. He’s sceptical that the rash of new co-working hubs in small places will survive.
“I think a lot of people think you take a big building, you paint it white, you get some really cool furniture, you put some art on the wall, you put some music on and put in some nice couches and you have a co-working space. The reality is it takes years and years of nurturing and community-building.”
Matt Knight reckons he’d go crazy trying to work from home. He was also one of New Zealand’s first co-workers, as one of BizDojo’s first 12 Auckland tenants. He then set up his own downtown Auckland co-working space, called Loft503. In Auckland, he could afford to be picky, restricting membership to creative digital businesses.
“It’s like choosing a flatmate. Your office was in some cases more important, because I was spending more time in my office than I was in the flat.”
People often ask – but what about competition and trade secrets? While he lost one tenant to competitive tension, Knight reckons problem-sharing and referral work outweigh the risk of idea-stealing.
King agrees: “It’s very unlikely that it’s such a good idea that nobody has thought of it. The reality is it’s going to take a special person and a special mix of the right things to happen for it to actually become successful.”
In 2010, Knight set up the website sharedspace.co.nz, to catalogue available spaces around New Zealand. He’s just posted his 7000th listing, but some are office sub-lets and car parks, rather than co-working communities.
A major change has been the explosion of shared spaces in small towns and rural areas, as more people have the ability – and technology – to work remotely, Knight says.
“The trend is certainly growing. If you’d asked me two years ago – if you were looking in more remote parts of New Zealand, there would be nothing there at all. People are understanding the value of this model and how it works. They want to work remotely, but don’t want to be sitting at home by themselves.”
One of those unlikely new spaces is Westport’s Epic. An offshoot of a Christchurch co-work company, the West Coast shared space is part of a larger innovation hub. Tash Barnes-Dellaca and husband Ben Dellaca took out a commercial loan with the regional development agency to convert an old industrial building, adding lockable offices and meeting and event spaces. She admits it’s a risk, but they brought with them some staff from the Cerebral Fix game developing business Dellaca runs.
“The co-working hub is the energy in the middle of what we’re trying to do, which is a much broader economic development,” Barnes-Dellaca says.
Having launched in 2016, they now have about eight regulars and another eight popping in and out. One of those is 32-year-old Sunkita Howard, who used the space as a refuge from trying to complete her marine biology PhD at home.
“I moved to Westport, didn’t know a lot of people, and was working from home in my lounge for two months. It was depressing.”
For $50 a week, she gets a desk and a community. Having studied shark biology, she’s helping a local fishing company research ways to reduce by-catch. She’s considering employing staff and starting a company – something she might never have considered were she not working among small-business-owning entrepreneurs.
And she’s made unexpected connections. If she can ever raise the $50,000 she’d need to make her shark-deflecting device a reality, the CNC machine builders she met while co-working could build it.
“If I’m focused and don’t want to be interrupted, I just put on headphones and people know not to bother you. I find you can have your head stuck in the computer all the time, and you can’t see the wood for the trees a little bit. It’s that unstructured relationship-building and random conversations where you make interesting connections.”
You’ve seen the Google office slides, the foosball tables – sharing a hipster office might seem like a riot, but not everyone is a fan. In a New York Times column, tech entrepreneur Rebekah Campbell wrote of ditching her shared space after finding her co-workers were noisy wannabes hassling her for contacts or advice.
Co-working also carries legal risks. Barnaby Locke, of Dundas Street Employment Lawyers, says co-working spaces could be problematic if an employee from one company faces allegations of bullying or harassing an employee from another company.
“The employer of the complainant has a responsibility to protect their employees but they are limited in what they can do … They can’t tell the employer of the perpetrator ‘Look, that person has to leave’, because the other employer could say ‘Well, that’s my best programmer or my best designer – I’m not going to get rid of them.'”
The harassed employee could potentially take a personal grievance against their bosses, for not doing enough to protect them, Locke says.
Big co-work companies usually have a code of conduct. BizDojo’s stretches to eight pages and says anyone harassing, abusing or discriminating against others can be turfed out immediately.
Like many Christchurch workers, BNZ’s 1500 Wellington employees discovered the downsides of both working from home, and working from shared offices, after the 2013 and 2016 earthquakes closed their waterfront building.
Those who worked from home organised coffee meet-ups to combat isolation, says head of property finance Phil Bennett. But those in shared offices – the generous law firm’s board room or a shared floor – missed the freedom of talking shop without worrying about who was listening.
“There were confidentiality issues – the types of conversations we could have; making sure that doors were closed; not printing stuff out unless you’re there by the printer to get it. A lot of BNZ guys would go and have lunch at a particular time, because they wanted to all connect together again.”
But even BNZ now provides a free co-working space for its clients in Wellington and Christchurch, in recognition of the growing trend.
Galen King now works out of a shared space in New York’s WeWork. With 210,000 members globally and 53 sites in New York alone, WeWork is a global co-working colossus, which is predicted to arrive in New Zealand in 2019. But size can erode the sense of community that co-working is supposed to foster.
In King’s building, WeWork occupies floors 6-11. Every floor has a different craft beer on tap – for free. It’s made up of glass offices, with communal spaces and phone booths for calls. Despite the lack of privacy, it’s populated by hedge fund managers, stock brokers and day traders – businesses that two years ago would never have considered co-working. “Now it’s kind of trendy.”
“But because it’s so big and so busy and people come and go so much, nobody talks to each other … People come in for their shared breakfast, which we have every Monday morning at WeWork. A lot of people go up, get their bagel or cream cheese waffles and, depending on what’s on, they take it back to their office and they won’t interact.”
King has moved his team to an open-plan tech accelerator inside the main WeWork, to get back to an environment of shared ideas.
Across town from the linseed porridge BizDojo, the company’s new waterfront office is a taste of where co-working in NZ might go. Housed in the glassy, corporate building formerly occupied by tech darling Xero, it’s all white walls, blond wood and fancy teas.
Cath Archer parks her laptop at one of the large shared tables in the open hot desking space. The 52-year-old entrepreneur runs Archer McRae Beverages, a business producing and marketing wine, including pioneering wine in a can. She’s just returned from Sydney, where she worked from home for two years. She’d spend hours in cafes; a lot of money on coffees; and a lot of time feeling guilty she’d outstayed her coffee welcome.
Co-working provides flexibility, a base and the chance to meet people they’re likely to need – PR companies, design companies, developers. All for about the same price as a private office.
“It’s so good to just get out of the house and get a wider perspective of what is happening. You have got the cafe here, you’ve got the warmth, you’ve got the vibe.”
At another table, 21-year-old Angus Allan talks through a problem with his designer Laura Garmonsway. She’s a bit of an introvert so likes the flexibility of also working from home and paying only when she actually uses the office space.
Allan founded web development agency Hello Digital four years ago and previously hired a separate office for his team. This is slightly cheaper, but also has other benefits.
“It’s good being in a vibrant space. Having your own office when not everyone is in can be a little sad.”
You can’t put a value on the on-the-fly connections, like the coffee machine conversation that morning with someone looking for website help. But not all co-working spaces are created equal. Allan checked out a Lambton Quay space that was going to cost more for two people to co-work than an office accommodating seven people.
While Allan and Archer are traditional co-work tenants, the corporate-outfitted building also houses 50 people from Oracle and 80 Aecom staff. The idea is to test out the co-working idea for bigger businesses.
That’s the market being chased by New Zealand’s (possibly the world’s) first purpose-built co-working building, at Auckland’s Smales Farm.
With a capacity of 150 businesses and 1100 people, and an $8m internal fitout, the B:Hive is a serious investment.
It’s been open six months and is already three-quarters full, with recruiters, lawyers, accountants, travel agents, digital start-ups. Marketing manager Mark Kelly says there’s no sign the co-working wave is petering out.
Small and medium-sized businesses need room to expand, but don’t want to pay for dead space five years in advance. And young workers demand fun, flash offices small companies could never afford.
“It’s great for business, it’s great for the perception of their business, it’s great for their employees. It just ticks so many boxes you can see it’s the way of the future.”
Oh, and the beer is free on Fridays.