Office sharing becoming new trend for Christchurch businesses

With six staff, Alan Cox's business Fluent Scientific is too big to fit the usual bill for co-working spaces, but still too small to make keeping its own office work. Photo / Christchurch Star
With six staff, Alan Cox's business Fluent Scientific is too big to fit the usual bill for co-working spaces, but still too small to make keeping its own office work. Photo / Christchurch Star

Shared spaces, co-working, hot-desking, desk-surfing. Whatever you call it, there is no denying it's a growing trend.

Gabrielle Stuart spoke to some of the many Christchurch business people moving out of their offices and choosing instead to rent a desk.

With the central city cordoned off after the February, 2011, earthquake, hundreds of Cantabrians began working from home.

Rebecca Tavete was one of them.

She was expecting a sense of freedom - working in comfort at home, at her own pace, without the stress of trying to make it to the office.

"I definitely wasn't prepared to feel isolated and distracted.

"It was a sense of freedom to start with, but it gets on top of you when you're not able to talk with those around you, and bounce ideas off them. Your thought process slows down and you feel out of the loop."

She also discovered housework and pets weren't the only distractions when working at home.

"Friends and family think you're at home, so you're not working. So they'll pop in, which is great, but it'll take up an hour, often your most productive hour."

Last week, she held the first open house at Argo, the co-working space she is creating in New Brighton, which she plans to open officially next month.

Her vision was to create the space she wanted for her business. Somewhere you could have the flexibility of working from home, where "you can pop out of the office and go for a surf", while keeping a network of creative business people to work alongside and having access to meeting rooms and spaces where clients can be hosted.

Argo will be the newest co-working space in Christchurch, but far from the first.

It follows C-Lab on St Asaph St, which opened in 2013, the Ministry of Awesome's expanded Awesome HQ and HQ+, and The Collect on Manchester St, which opened last year.

By September, national co-working network BizDojo plans to open a huge shared space in the top two-storeys of the Kathmandu building, where up to 150 people can co-work.

But in spite of the number of spaces opening, the demand is growing faster.

The Collect founder Lara Marshall hosts more than a dozen different businesses in her space, ranging from a construction project manager to health coaches to a baker.

She said she still fields five or six new inquiries a week.

She works as a freelance event producer, and keeping a conventional office didn't make sense as she often had to travel overseas to Australia or Hong Kong for her work.

But working from home, as "a freelancer at the kitchen bench trying to be professional on Skype calls", wasn't working either.

"I wanted a space where I could feel instantly at home, a hub of creativity where I could spark new ideas for the city," she said.

The Collect founder Lara Marshall hosts more than a dozen different businesses in her space, ranging from a construction project manager to health coaches to a baker. Photo / Christchurch Star
The Collect founder Lara Marshall hosts more than a dozen different businesses in her space, ranging from a construction project manager to health coaches to a baker. Photo / Christchurch Star

There were risks involved in co-working.

Just one person who did not fit in or work well with others could change the environment completely, so she said she had to be careful about who she accepted.

She ran background checks on people coming in, and had a trial period when they signed up so if it didn't work for either side they could back out.

One of the attractions of The Collect was the way residents shared their knowledge with one another, taking turns to host workshops on anything from digital marketing to how to optimise your website.

For someone going out on their own, that kind of knowledge could be invaluable, she said.

But it wasn't just owner-operators or freelancers using co-working spaces.

With six staff, Alan Cox's business Fluent Scientific is too big to fit the usual bill for co-working spaces, but still too small to make keeping its own office work.

Problems around office space could completely "hamstring" the growth of small businesses in Christchurch, he said.

He said the cost of signing a lease and fitting out a building was huge for a small company, and even worse in the post-earthquake environment where there was more demand for central offices.

"You really don't know how big you're going to be 12 months, or even 18 months, out. So you're left in a catch 22 situation, where you may be too big for where you are now, but it would be the wrong thing to do to sign up to a longer lease on more space than you might need."

Even if a small business did find its own office, he said isolation was another problem.

With just a small number of staff, it was harder to build the social connections and networks needed to make a business thrive, he said.

He has worked for big companies around the world and on his own small start ups, and said co-working combined "the best of both worlds".

He is based alongside three other larger businesses at the Ministry of Awesome HQ+ on Madras St.

It runs alongside the Awesome HQ on St Asaph St, where about 30 businesses are based and others "hot desk" temporarily.

Chief awesome officer Lauren Merritt said the space was allowing people to start businesses without as much risk.

"The permanent spaces are relatively cheap, so it is not another barrier to start. People think if I fail it's just a month-to-month contract, so it makes it really easy for people to test out their ides or start a business."

Rather than competing, many new business owners wanted to collaborate and help one another, she said.

Sharing space allowed them to do that much more effectively.

"I think it's huge, because it's showing a new way of business is possible. You don't have to go work for a large firm and work your way up."

- Christchurch Star

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