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This article appears in Volume 25: The Pioneer Issue.
The founder of creative community Women Who asks if the new breed of global co-working/living concepts deliver on that elusive sense of belonging.
As an author and speaker, I frequently have to travel internationally for work – words I can hardly believe I’m lucky enough to be typing. Work from anywhere – that’s the millennial dream, right? These days it seems I can barely move for think pieces and business manuals extolling the virtues of “digital nomadism” – of jumping on a plane at a moment’s notice, laptop in hand, and fling copy from the beach before moving on to another exotic locale, all while uploading a steady stream of photos to your Instagram feed that make the “normals” at home weep with jealousy. Yet few of these narratives properly address how lonely – and exhausting – that lifestyle can be when it’s a regular feature of your working life.
Order Vol. 25 Getting to travel is one of the aspects of my work that I value most, but it can also at times frustrate me to the point of tears. There’s nothing like fighting for the last remaining charging point, propping up a melancholy restaurant table for one or struggling to tap into the local creative network to really take the sheen off arriving in a new city. However, where existing responses to life on the road may have failed, commerce perseveres, and a new breed of community spaces have sprung up with a view to catering to the work/travel woes of the entrepreneurial creative class.
Take Zoku, an Amsterdam-based “work-meets-play” concept that is part hotel, part apartment and part co-working space and which launched into the public consciousness by proudly declaring “The End of The Hotel Room”. Co-founders Marc Jongerius and Hans Meyer – the latter a founding partner of hotel chain citizenM – attribute Zoku’s secret sauce to “building a genuine human connection between guests and “Sidekicks” (the Zoku term for community managers) upon arrival, and solving their biggest challenges when they arrive in a city they might not know, in a country in which they might not speak the language.”
Admittedly, its minimalist branding and stripped pine interiors can feel a tiny bit of-putting, given that when I travel for work I’m usually looking for accommodation that feels like a home away from home – there’s a lot to be said for a cosy-looking sofa and dim lighting. However, the Sidekicks that roam Zoku’s communal spaces facilitating member introductions via workshops and dinners counteract the futuristic aesthetic, integrating travellers into the community and helping them get their bearings as quickly as possible.
Then there’s Roam, a co-living and co-working space with a slightly wider footprint than Zoku and locations in Miami, Bali, Tokyo and San Francisco. While undoubtedly worthwhile as holiday destinations, few of their bases are in the key cities where creatives – and therefore work – tend to congregate, making me question just how practical a Roam membership would be. However, perhaps I’m overlooking the appeal of a truly nomadic working life. I’m put in touch with one of their members, or “Roamers” as the company calls them (which as a method of creating a sense of shared identity is surely the oldest trick in the book). Kristina Barger, a 37-year-old cognitive scientist, uses Roam so she can travel freely and consult around the world, with her longest Roam stint to date lasting three months. Currently between London and Amsterdam, she first discovered Roam when she was setting up a base in London.
She cites the networking opportunities on offer and the ability to cultivate genuine friendships as part of Roam’s appeal. “I’ve met some really interesting people who are now great friends, and whom I expect to be so for life. That might sound suspect, but the intimacy level at Roam is higher because you encounter people more often and in more varied scenarios than just at work or in your daily life – so you can connect on a more emotional level. There’ve been Roam romances.” I’m initially amused by that last comment, but given the ambitions many of these businesses harbour of catering to every aspect of our waking lives, it doesn’t seem that implausible that they might one day incorporate dating services into their models – even if that does carry a touch of Black Mirror.
Barger touches on something significant though, specifically the importance of face-to-face contact and connecting with real people in real time. In a world dominated by digital tools and interfaces, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking we’re connecting with others – or even part of a community – while actually being physically alone. Both Roam and Zoku exist squarely at the creative tech start-up intersection that so many young urban professionals (please don’t call us yuppies) have come to recognise as part of the 21st-century formulation of work. They’re cut from the same cloth as early iterations of WeWork, with plenty of talk about “disruption” and “co-creation” – Zoku’s co-founders actually describe their model to me as “always beta”, which… okay.
At the other end of the spectrum is Norn, a members’ club with bases in London and Berlin. More intimate and homespun than either Roam or Zoku, its spaces are really just (large) residential houses with several bedrooms, and founder Travis Hollingsworth is clearly striving for a more cerebral atmosphere than Norn’s more corporate competitors. Their signature event is the Conversation Dinner, where guests are served a series of topical prompts in-between courses, a format no doubt designed to evoke the literary sophistication of 18th-century European salons – previous themes have included youth and karma.
Visiting their (since closed) Barcelona base in the sticky heat of the Mediterranean summer for one such event, I attended a dinner comprised of 15 or so strangers, ending up deep in conversation with a born-again Christian skater who quizzed me about my relationship with my parents. The evening was certainly thought-provoking, though I can’t help but wonder whether it’s the sort of event I’d want to attend on a regular basis as opposed to experiencing as a one-of.
Still, if there’s one thing I noticed during my week-long stay at Norn Barcelona, it was that I got things done. Months of plodding along with a long-overdue book proposal were brought to a gratifying conclusion and I finalised the remaining third in a matter of days, sitting in the cool shade of a fig tree that overlooked the terrace, pausing only to nibble on perfectly ripe nectarines purchased from the local frutería.
So what does one need to consider when building a co-living, co-working space? What are the ideal conditions for an authentic community to take root and prosper? Well, there’s the practical stuff, which so many seem to get wrong. You need a designated workspace with actual desks, because there’s only so long you can spend cross-legged and hunched over your laptop on a sofa or sunlounger. You also need clear divisions between a space’s work, social and living zones. While Zoku’s model of “hybrid living”, where one lives and works in the same space, sounds great – or at least effective – on paper I suspect the reality of staying there might be that one never really switches of. As a self-employed person whose life is an increasingly interwoven hybrid of social, work and leisure time, these days I crave distinctions between those three arenas wherever possible. Finally, it’s important to keep things simple. Though it might sound appealing to include every amenity under the sun, install a ping-pong table or splash out on a hot tub, in reality I’ve found the places I’ve worked best from when travelling – from hotel rooms to co-working spaces to rented villas – have been comfortable but free of distractions, no matter how well-intended.
What’s hardest to manufacture – and the greatest challenge for this new breed of live-work spaces – are the softer measures, the intangibles that make one feel a genuine sense of community. A robust way of responding to and incorporating user feedback, for example, so members feel they have a voice, or making members feel invested enough to become active participants in community life, because nothing kills a community faster than passive members. Indeed, what about allowing members to make connections with each other independently of a central organising figure (which to many businesses veers scarily close to risking obsolescence)? Nail that and you’ve got a billion-dollar concept on your hands.
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