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The Quest for a Desk: a Practical Guide to Co-working

How we are pushing productivity ☑️ between inspiration 💡, distraction 🎈 and desperation 😱 – to move UnscrewMe beyond idea 💭 and make it a real product 📱.

When I started to work on UnscrewMe regularly, I built on a routine I had already established before. At some point, I began working remotely on Fridays, switching from my office environment to a free co-working space for one day. Now, you might wonder why I decided to work remotely on Fridays in the first place. But before going into the benefits and challenges involved in working remotely, we should establish a basic understanding of co-working.

The concept has become rather widespread in recent years. It really just is a label for places where individuals work, like an office without the company around it. A simple definition is provided by Oxford Dictionaries:

“The use of an office or other working environment by people who are self-employed or working for different employers, typically so as to share equipment, ideas, and knowledge.”
(Oxford Dictionaries, Definition: co-working)

The last part of this sentence includes what makes co-working so interesting. The Wikipedia page on the topic expands a little bit on that aspect:

“Coworking [sic!] is a social gathering of a group of people who are still working independently, but who share values and who are interested in the synergy that can happen from working with people who value working in the same place alongside each other. Coworking offers a solution to the problem of isolation that many freelancers experience while working at home, while at the same time letting them escape the distractions of home.”
(Wikipedia: Coworking)

So, because being in the office all day, every day gets boring, and I also did not want to sit at home all the time, I decided to explore the world of free co-working spaces – and coffee shops ☕️.

Finding space

As the definitions already mentioned, the appeal of a co-working space goes beyond the desk. But of course, having a desk to work on is an essential part of the experience.

I started UnscrewMe without a budget, really. This meant that I had no office space, and with Fridays off to work on UnscrewMe, I did not want to add expenses for office space.

The simple solution was to take advantage of free co-working spaces. One “co-working space” I visit regularly is my local specialty coffee shop. It’s not an actual co-working space, but it does the job nicely to get me started. The proper free co-working space I work from every week is the Cafe at Campus London, a “community hub” that is part of the Google for Entrepreneurs initiative. As Google puts it:

“With free wi-fi, an infectious energy, and lots of fellow founders, the Campus Cafe is a great place to get things done, take a break, or collaborate with like-minded people.”
(Google Campus London, About)

Google sums up the broader strategy with another catchy sentence:

“Google for Entrepreneurs partners with startup communities and builds Campuses where entrepreneurs can learn, connect, and create companies that will change the world.”
(Google for Entrepreneurs, About us)

This sounded like an ideal place to get started with UnscrewMe – cheap, just the cost of coffee really, and good Dose Espresso at that, and on top the opportunity to meet others, who are also working to make their own ideas a reality.

Leveraging opportunities

Being productive in general can be challenging, working at a space you have virtually no control over even more so. So here are my reasons why I chose to get things done from a co-working space and what I like most about it.

With no fixed desks, you are forced to find a new place every time. While I tend to sit around the same area, by now I’ve been sitting in every corner. The fun thing about this is that you often end up with different neighbours. Every so often, I got involved in a conversation with someone I would probably never have started chatting otherwise, and I learned something about their project, startup or life.

One day, I was asked by one of the other people there if I liked to take part in a usability study. Doing user testing myself with my own users for the products I am developing in my current day job, it was interesting to be at the other end of a testing session (for the same reason, I also recently participated in a usability study by JetBrains to make my preferred IDE PyCharm even better). The product was a chat bot to assist users who want to invest in startups. It was a fun exercise, but I think that this is a problem where a chat bot might not be the best solution for a whole range of reasons. But then, I’m very much a chat bot sceptic anyway.

Similarly, sharing a space with people I know offers kind of the same advantages a traditional office does as well. For example, I could also quickly show my current prototype to a friend and immediately got some useful feedback from her. This short conversation made me realise something I had struggled with before. It inspired me to rethink a solution to a technical question, and suddenly it seemed like there is a simple solution! Without talking to her and showing her the current release, I would most likely still struggle to get my head around the issue.

Campus London also hosts various events, which can be great opportunities to learn and network. I went to two pitching events which were interesting, but the event I enjoyed most was wholly unrelated to technology or startups: a book club 📚. We met over some nibbles and wine 🍷 at local wine bar Passione Vino in Shoreditch and had an inspiring chat about the Sunday Times Bestseller “How to Stop Time” by Matt Haig. Definitely an interesting book worth a read!

But to meet new people and expand your network, camping out at co-working spaces is not necessary. I used to go regularly to events and special interest meetings, user groups, language groups and so on I found on websites such as (Coincidentally – or rather not – Meetup has been acquired by co-working space company WeWork!)

Facing challenges

That all sounds great and exciting, but guess what, co-working spaces also have their downsides. Over time, I also encountered a few things that annoyed me.

A pet hate of mine, which can easily be detrimental to my productivity, is loud people. A co-working space is no different from many open-plan offices in this regard. Sometimes, when I realise I am sitting next to a loud-talker who continuously chats with their neighbours or someone having a long conversation on the phone, I just look for another place and move. Or put in my in-ear headphones and listen to some nice instrumental music, trying to block out the distractions.

Furniture malfunctions can happen everywhere, but when the only free and convenient table is wobbly, and the person you are sharing it with wobbles the table quite a bit, the constant movement can become an issue and have a severe impact on my typing efficiency and accuracy.

Not a malfunction, yet no less challenging, is the typical situation that when you really need to charge your laptop, no socket is free. After that happened to me a couple of times, I invested in a small multi-plug adapter, so that when I occupy a socket, I actually increase the number of available sockets – more than once I could help out my neighbours with this little tool.

Another problem I encountered much more rarely is smelly food. Again, same as in any larger office space. I do not understand, why people bring in food that just smells disgusting – but then, it might only smell disgusting to me and everyone else is perfectly fine with some of those distinct odours.

With free co-working spaces without a fixed desk, you never know if you will actually find a free spot. So I also have a list of alternatives ready, in case the Cafe at Campus London is too busy.

My second favourite space to work in the area is the coffee shop Attendant Shoreditch on Great Eastern Street. Another option that is great, because it is open a bit longer than most other coffee shops is Sourced Market Barbican.

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Making the most of co-working

Crucially to get started is to find a co-working space that works for you. For me, the cafe at Google Campus does the job perfectly. It can get busy, but most of the time, there is a desk free somewhere.

Building something on a tight budget can be a limitation. Thanks to free co-working spaces and nice coffee shops, I can still work in an inspirational environment, without the substantial monthly cost of a “proper” co-working space. I should probably tally my costs in coffee up, but without a question, it is below a month’s rent for a hot desk. 😉

One of the benefits of going to the same co-working space regularly at the same times is that you bump into the same people almost every week. This helps in getting to know some of the others better and learn more about what they are working on. And without taking anything from that, you can also always get to know new people and make new connections, be it over a coffee or over a technical question.

Google Campus in London is also on Slack, which can be useful if you have specific questions, or to meet up and organise events like a book club.

Not everything is perfect every time I work at the cafe at Campus London, however, in general everyone there is very friendly and helpful, contributing to a nice and buzzing atmosphere.

Maybe most importantly, when working largely in a one-person team, going to different places and not just sitting at home all the time helps structuring the day. A close friend of mine recently laughed at me a little bit for voluntarily commuting to a co-working space, but for me, it increases my productivity, my motivation and makes working on my little idea more fun.

We are still working out what we will write about next, but if everything goes to plan, we will share some details about our last updates before we start user testing and the general launch preparations.

(I had a beautifully dry, crisp fruity but not too fruity 2016 Boeckel Pinot Blanc ‘Reserve’ from Alsace in France, and then a 2016 Ritual Pinot Noir from Casablanca Valley in Chile that that had nice notes of red fruits such as raspberries and was well-balanced with a slightly peppery finish at Cork & Bottle Paddington. Following the recommendation of a good friend, I also had a tasty dinner at Rambla in Soho, that I started with a somewhat average Mirame Cava Brut NV made with Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada grapes. However, the second wine was a real winner – a beautifully mineral and surprisingly enjoyable 2016 Borsao Blanco Selección from winemaker Bodegas Borsao based in the province of Zaragoza in Aragón in the North of Spain, mostly made from Macabeo but also some Chardonnay grapes.)

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First published in May 2018.
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