The Stone & Chalk co-working space in Melbourne’s transformed Docklands precinct has everything you would expect to attract working millennials — a pet-friendly policy, stylish lounge areas, even a red London phone booth to take private calls.
And while there are also plenty of desks, the workers who occupy them change by the month.
Co-working spaces have seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the past decade and figures suggest Melbourne has embraced the trend more than any other Australian city.
According to research by LaunchVic, the State Government’s start-up agency, co-working spaces in Melbourne have grown by 960 per cent over the past three years, and the city is host to almost half of Australia’s co-work spaces.
You’ll find freelancers working alongside small businesses and tech start-ups, but increasingly, larger companies are moving their workforces in as well.
The spaces are generally open-plan, with private areas for meetings, phone calls, events and socialising.
Desks are rented by the month, the week or hour — some international co-working companies even allow digital nomads to use any of their offices worldwide.
Is co-working a trend or here to stay?
Stephen Colman, the co-founder and director of Neighbourhood, which has two co-working spaces in converted warehouses in Fitzroy, said he fell into the business by accident.
After deciding he didn’t like the small amount of space allocated to workers by a multinational co-working operation, he leased a converted warehouse and offered to rent the spare desks to other creatives.
“If you let those bad eggs start to come through and people aren’t feeling comfortable in the space, the flexibility in the [rental] arrangement that you’ve created means people can move on very, very quickly.”
He predicts quality operators will continue to grow, while those using it as a quick way to boost rental yield won’t last.
“I think there’ll be some consolidation of other people who get in there to make a quick buck and realise there’s actually a bit more work involved than just putting coffee on and a slab of beer every month to keep everyone happy.”
Yearning for flexibility, networks, capital
According to LaunchVic chief executive Dr Kate Cornick, at least 170 co-working spaces in Melbourne directly catered to start-ups — small businesses aiming for rapid expansion by using technology to disrupt traditional industries.
She said there were likely many more co-working spaces not identified in its 2018 report, as night-time venues such as restaurants and bars open their doors to workers during the day and smaller co-working spaces pop up to service niche markets.
Dr Cornick said one reason co-working spaces were so popular with start-ups was they were an easy way for a company to cope with rapid growth.
“If you’re a company and you’ve got a grand vision to grow to a company of 100 employees, you don’t want to be paying for 100 desks when there are only five of you,” she said.
“They can come in and purchase two desks one month, three desks the next, five desks the month after, so it gives a really low-cost way for start-ups to scale in a professional business environment.”
Dr Cornick agreed that successful co-working spaces were “more than just a rental service”.
Unlike serviced offices, co-working spaces like Stone & Chalk (where LaunchVic is based) offer networking opportunities and regular events to ensure workers are part of a community.
“We had a professor from Harvard University here earlier this week, we’ve had some corporate people come through this week, we’ve got investors in the building today, so start-ups can pick and choose what they want to go to,” Dr Cornick said.
Helping women to succeed
Sheree Rubinstein opened the One Roof co-working space in Melbourne’s Southbank to address the gender gap in entrepreneurship.
“There are still significant barriers for women in starting and building a successful business and start-up,” she said.
“We’re really trying to solve all of those problems and barriers in one go by providing this one-stop shop.”
The business helps members pitch for funding, build networks and connect to clients.
“I didn’t set up One Roof because I was passionate about offices and co-working,” Ms Rubinstein said.
“I’m passionate about supporting women-led businesses to succeed, being the driving force that makes Australia the best place in the world to be a woman starting a business, and I know that you need more than a cool office space in order to achieve that.”
It has been a great success — One Roof was just named in the top five women-centric co-working spaces in the world.
Ms Rubinstein has also raised $1 million in capital to expand the model to a second Melbourne premises and interstate.
Melbourne councillor Philip Le Liu said the city had a history of promoting and supporting co-working spaces.
“Co-working spaces are a reflection of the changing nature of work and the number of co-working spaces in the city will likely grow in the years to come,” he said.