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Coworking spaces & the demand for private offices

Should coworking spaces cater to those who need a lock and key? Garage Bilk in Düsseldorf combines a coworking space with private offices.

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Coworking spaces are more than just offices. They represent mixed-use spaces that connect people, and in-built in their operations are things which satisfy these aims: events, workshops, Fablabs. All spaces do these things differently, with models changing depending on the needs of coworkers. This creates a fluid understanding of coworking from many, which they may find difficult to understand. In turn, it is often the case that potential coworkers ask for private offices. A tour of several coworking spaces in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's biggest state, shows coworking spaces have reacted in different ways to this demand.

A couple of years past, North Rhine-Westphalia was a hive for the German coworking movement. But recently, there has been a downturn in the trend in this region. Peter Schreck is one of the most active instigators and coworking catalysts in the largest German state. He spoke to Deskmag about the situation. 

Peter was not only involved in founding Gasmotorenfabrik in Cologne-Deutz, but also launched the umbrella organizations 'Coworking Cologne' and 'Coworking Germany'. A serial networker and coworking enthusiast, he tirelessly tries to link coworking communities and support and promote the movement.

'I tried to surf the wave of coworking in the region – which looked good for a while – and connect not just space operators, but coworkers, too. But suddenly, the wave just stopped. There have been no new (purist) coworking spaces open for a while,' he said.

After the fourth coworking space in Cologne opened in January this year, the local startup movement were surprisingly displeased.

'They said that there are now too many to choose from!' Peter said. 'They think in a completely different way (to freelancers). They think in terms of venture capitalists, who need one place to look for new investments. They're worried that VCs wont have a central place to look for talent. There hasn't yet been the realization that this is the new way to work.'

Another problem Peter cites is the overall demand: 'If 10,000 people raised their hands and asked for coworking, people would listen,' he said. The concept today is still a largely foreign one, particularly in smaller towns. When potential coworkers visit a coworking space, they often ask first for private offices within the coworking spaces. As a result, a number of coworking spaces have acquiesced; but their focus remains on collaborative workspaces. Others have not. 

Deskmag visited seven spaces in four cities to give an overview of the situation in North Rhine-Westphalia:

Gasmotorenfabrikfounded in 2010, is a cooperative coworking space in an ex-car manufacturer's administration wing. Its open floor plan and large windows on either side of the building offer beautiful views of the old industrial area.

The cooperative is now home to around 20 members, most of whom work for Railslove, a software company, who are responsible for the monthly overheads, and hosted the first Rails Girls workshop (a free program teaching women to code) in Cologne. An artists' atelier is located next door, and sharing the floor too is fab-lab Dingfabrik, whose members can meet outside above the stairs to play a game of table football.

The space often collaborates with other coworking facilities in the region, such as betahaus, when they organized the Coworking Cup

Betahaus Köln is very much in keeping with its sister-site in Berlin: the décor is artistic and ecclectic, and young, hip staff man the bar and the reception. With around 75 member and 40 desks, betahaus is a hive of activity; and co-founders Anna and Anu hope to see it get busier still, with negotiations underway to secure the space opposite on the same floor.

When walking around the space, the coworkers are as friendly as those working there. A mix of flexible and fixed desks, arranged side-by-side, ensures a new neighbor each working day for the permanent residents.

Housed in a fairly corporate high-rise, betahaus injected life and energy into the building. Neighbors from the other floors are often seen milling around the café on the ground floor, and which thus makes up an important part of their business model. Una and Anna too take turns at manning the reception desk in the foyer, to make sure a betahaus face greets all visitors.

'For us, it was important to have an open, friendly person at the entrance to greet people to create a good atmosphere,' said Anna.

Solution Space is a small, 14-desk coworking space which opened in January, directly opposite Brüsselerplatz: the heart of Cologne nightlife. More than just office space, the two founders, Stefanie and Sebastian, go out of their way to connect coworkers and offer all degrees of support for their projects.

'Our aim is to support freelancers and startups,' Sebastian explained. 'And if we can't help them, find other people who can help them.'

They work for each of their coworkers, and sit daily at their two permanent desks. There is no official community manager though. Indeed, they don't need one. Each of the 30 members in Solution Space know one another.

'They know each other's names, jobs, projects, even some birthdays,' laughed Stefanie, who understand well the world of freelancing and the need to be well-networked, having worked independently for 10 years.

The model works well for the space, with another location planned to open at the end of the year.

For Kölner Zeitraume, the experience went the other way. Although they existed for several years, the coworking space was never very popular, or at least not enought to financially support the space.

'We had to downsize,' said Sebastian Kaufmann, manager. 'We used to have a coworking space, gym, and kindergarten, but there were too many overheads with not enough income. People didn't like or understand the concept.'

Kölner Zeitraume therefore downsized, and is currently is a private office and conference facility in a suburban area. The location works well for the seven companies who rent an office there, who mainly live in the surrounding areas.

A one hour train journey away takes you to GarageBilk, the first coworking space in Düsseldorf. Set back from the busy street in old mechanic's garage, the coworking space is a quiet refuge in a buzzing quarter.

GarageBilk has three areas: coworking space, startup offices, and a fab-lab, which is non-profit and was launched separately as an association, but has some overlap with the membership.

'We could have had two coworking areas,' said Oliver Vaupel, space manager, 'but people kept asking for private offices, so we had to do it.'

Events are often hosted in the space (despite the necessity to clear the room of furniture) and each month a breakfast is held, and one of the founders innitiated Düsseldorf's Sustainability Day.

The private office wing was not neglected in terms of design, with different colored glass door panels creating a sensational rainbow-lit corridor.

Another collaborative workspace with a completely different concept has also recently opened in the outskirts of Düsseldorf. K-LAN is called coworking, but not in the way it it mostly understood, inviting freelancers to work in the ground floor of a suburban highrise where IT and tech-oriented companies rent out space. The idea is to create a halfway house where the two worlds collide. K-LAN, which will undertake an aggressive marketing campaign shortly, will encourage freelancers to travel the distance to the space in the hope of rubbing shoulders with potential clients. Companies looking for talent will also know where to go.

Dortmund's lone coworking space, Ständige Vertretung, opened as a side business to a long-running networking and events company in May 2011. Their background and experience with exhibitions, festivals and design makes coworking a snug fit into their company's identity.

The coworking space takes up a small area of the 1st floor, less than originally hoped, but necessary because, as with many spaces in NRW, potential clients constantly asked for private working space. For this reason, a side wing is dedicated to private offices, but the companies working in them still have a lot to do with one another and the freelancers down the hall, and often use each other's services.

Coworkers can also take advantage of the connections and invitations to the events that Ständige Vertretung organizes. Fairs, design markets and workshops. Recently they organized a pop-Design festival together with the Cologne city council, during which several of their coworkers participated by organizing concerts or workshops.

The coworking space is located in an up and coming area for the creative industries, which is supported by the Dortmund council as a part of its economic development. The coworking space is dog friendly, and in turn, the dogs are friendly too. 

Utopiastadt, directly translated as Utopia State, is coworking space nestled in an old train station in Wuppertal. But it is not simply a coworking space. Rather, the coworking facility is one intrinsic part of a bigger hole – to build a utopic society where the principles of equality and openness reign. The Utopiastadt project began in 2007 with a magazine, featuring an issue with the theme 'utopia' in 2010. After several editions were published, the board decided to turn reporting into action.

'We were writing about a utopic state,' said Christian Hampe, one of the project's visionaries. 'But we decided it wasn't enough to write about it, but that we should try to create it.'

Thus the Utopiastadt project was born. The core team, consisting of around 12 members, managed to secure the ex-train station from a bank as a cultural site, and have since revamped the near-delapodated building to include coworking space, permanent offices, dance studio, soon-to-open café and an events area. The building is nothing short of magnificent.

The coworking area, managed by design agency Clownfisch, was an important part of building this idyllic reality, explained Christian.

'This is a creative location where we think about utopia and new ways to organize society, politics, and culture. Coworking is an important part of this because it's about open space and open communication. Its an area to come together, to expand our networks, to expand our ideas. Open space, open mind.'

Permanent membership is a low monthly fee, but day tickets are free (they can't be botheres with the niggling administration). In addition to workspace and a community, coffee and office supplies are provided on a fair use basis, where contributions can be placed in a big fair use jar.

It is also the first project to to take place by the Nordbahntrasse, a council-run project to create a new bicycle and walking path connecting three cities, which will inject energy and vitality into the region.

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To find and book coworking spaces in North Rhine-Westphalia, visit Deskwanted.


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