Group dynamics

Sat, Sep 10, 2011, 01:00

WORKING LIFE: Home offices might seem like a great idea, but many small start-ups and individuals are opting for shared workspaces for a more collaborative, social and productive place to work, writes FIONA REDDAN

IT’S NOT SO long ago that survey after survey breathlessly told us that within decades we’d all be working from home, connected only by technology. But is this really something to aim for? While home working can be an ideal solution for some, for others the reality has turned out to be a lot tougher. Getting motivated to work when you haven’t even bothered to get dressed can be problematic, while the compulsion to watch dreadful daytime television can be overwhelming. Add to this the loneliness and isolation of the home office, where the only person you might speak to is the person selling scratchcards at the door, and the home office can lose a lot of its appeal.

But where home offices are failing, co-working hubs are succeeding. Popularised in big cities such as London and New York, these hubs have begun to spring up in Ireland, offering a haven for the lone worker. Typically they allow individuals or small groups to rent desk space in a larger office on a month-to-month basis.

Last year, Alan Richardson set up Amworks in Dublin’s Smithfield, from where he runs a marketing company. It has desk space for 30 people, as well as the use of a meeting room for eight people, and printing and broadband facilities. The facility is currently full and Richardson has a waiting list for when desks open up.

While Amworks is open to professionals across sectors, some co-working hubs like to focus on niches. On Dublin’s North Circular Road, for example, design firm Duff Tisdall runs its space as The Malthouse Design House, and houses a mix of designers, from graphics and furniture to textiles and interiors. It offers studio workshop and retail space. Viewers of RTÉ’s Room to Improvemight recognise one of the residents, architect Dermot Bannon.

In Dublin’s Liberties, the Fumbally Exchange initially offered a home to architects but has since widened its scope to include journalists and designers. Junction Studios, in Dublin’s city centre, is a communications collective, housing branding, market-research, public relations and online-marketing specialists, while in Dublin 8, South Studios welcomes freelance creatives.

Renting your own space doesn’t have to break the bank. The Fumbally Exchange charges about €55 a week, while there are several options available at Amworks, ranging from one day a week for €70 a month, to three days a week for €160 a month, or €260 a month for full-time residency. These rates give you full broadband cover as well as access to the meeting room. And, most importantly says Richardson, “good strong coffee”,

For Richardson, co-working is a passion, and he would like to see more such ventures. “I’d love to see some set up around small towns, where it can be isolating,” he says.

In Galway, 091 Labs started out as a “hacker space”, a place for peer-to-peer learning of new skills such as iPhone development, game development and online marketing, but it now also hosts a number of start-ups. Funded by membership fees and fundraising efforts, members pay €30 a month (€20 for the unemployed) for 24/7 access to the space, which is located on Eyre Square.

However, co-working ventures aren’t always a quick success. In Sligo, Kevin Peyton of web-design company Electric Mill has been trying to get a co-working initiative off the ground for some time now. While about 20 people working in creative professions have expressed an interest in the project, and a company was willing to run the space as a commercial enterprise, it has been difficult to mesh the interests of the two. “The main difficulty has been in getting a premises in a town-centre location that is pragmatic in terms of rent,” he says.

But when co-working initiatives do take off, the rewards can be greater than just having someone with whom to share your distaste for the guests on last night’s Tonight with Vincent Browne.

The Malthouse for example, will participate in the upcoming Culture Night in Dublin and frequently hosts design events at which residents can exhibit their wares, while La Catedral, which offers studios for artists, has its own event space, The Back Loft, which enhances the collaborative nature of the space. And 091 Labs is getting ready to host several events and workshops in the future.

Anthony Collins La Catedral Studios

“It used to be that artists went off by themselves and lived an isolated life as an artist, with their own studio,” says interactive artist Anthony Collins, “but this never appealed to me, I always wanted a communal and convivial atmosphere.”

Like many artists, Collins took a somewhat circuitous route to where he is now. He spent about 10 years as an art dealer in London, then studied painting and art history at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). Graduating in 1999, he and some fellow classmates decided to find studio space together. While the initial group of 20 soon reduced to seven, the group nonetheless set up in the docklands in an old soap factory. However, as property prices began to soar in the area, they moved to its current premises on Thomas Street in 2005 and La Catedral, which also incorporates The Back Loft event space, was born. Now Collins is the only one of the original group left in the studios but it is going from strength to strength.

Modelled after a similar premises in Argentina, La Catedral has space for about 30 artists in 24 studios, with tenants paying about €60 a week. For Collins, the set-up is appealing, as there is no administration involved in renting the space, and the shared kitchen facilities mean that there is always someone to have a chat with if you wish.

Moreover, the event space, The Back Loft, is a ready source of other creative professionals such as musicians and actors. “I make it my business to chat to them, to get ideas from them,” says Collins.

The event space is also used by the resident artists to exhibit, although Collins notes that the level of collaboration among the artists in residence tends to depend on the group dynamics at the time. The studios tend to be full all the time, but people come and go depending on their circumstances.

Famous artists who have used the studios include Spanish artist Vanessa Donoso López, who recently exhibited at Kevin Kavanagh gallery.

John Sheehan 091 Labs

Earlier this summer, John Sheehan availed of an opportunity to move from London to Galway, thanks to an offer of a free house for a few months. With nine years experience in the tech sector, he had plans to launch his own business and had been working on building a content-management system. However, working from home and a local library, he was struggling to remain productive. So, when he attended a two-day entrepreneurial event in Connemara and met a young couple who had helped get 091 Labs up and running in Galway, he was intrigued.

Like similar spaces in Limerick, Cork and Dublin, 091 Labs is a so-called “hacker-space”, a creative community space with a focus on technology-based projects, but also open to incorporating the wider arts sector.

At the time, the group was renting a section of a large unfinished office development. Sheehan was struck by their “refreshing enthusiasm for the road ahead in an otherwise dreary backdrop” – but also by the fact that they had an internet connection, 24-7 access and an assortment of tech-minded members to bounce ideas off. “Plus, it was closer to my house than the library was. It fit the bill.” So he signed up, moving last month to 091 Labs’ new home in Eyre Square. This new space is now home to a number of start-up companies, and plans are afoot to extend the co-working space by renting additional space and giving people the use of a semi-permanent desk.

“It’s not uncommon to hear people trying to drum up the next big idea over a coffee,” he says, adding that the collaborative working environment has already paid dividends for the two businesses he’s working on, online training portal and web-development company Baboon, in which capacity he’s developing a website for Galway’s new Food Fleadh. “The networking alone is worthwhile and many a project of ours would not have been born otherwise. Also of benefit is the fact that I do web design and development, so when I need a mobile app to accompany it, I don’t have to look far for advice.”

The lab also draws a steady flow of visitors, and Sheehan has managed to win work from these, as well as embarking on joint projects with some of the lab’s other members.

091 Labs is also an important social outlet for Sheehan. While he has family in the area, being a part of a techie community is a bonus. “It’s a perfect fit for this time in my life,” he says.

Niamh McNeela, Daria Lisowska The Malthouse

A life-drawing class laid the foundations for not just a friendship between Niamh McNeela and Daria Lisowska, but also a business. When they first met, both women were employed – McNeela as an interior designer, and Lisowska as an architect. However, after giving up her job to go travelling in 2008, McNeela came home to a changed world, where jobs in her area were scarce. After picking up some freelance work, McNeela decided to join forces with Lisowska, who had since been made redundant from her position. And in May of this year, interior, graphics and furniture design company Seek Design was born.

Initially, the duo worked separately from home, connecting via Skype, but they were looking for a dedicated work space. They soon found this at The Malthouse Design Centre on Dublin’s North Circular Road. “We liked the feel of the space when we visited it initially. It’s an old converted building with a bright and modern exhibition space and there are many other designers in-house, so we took the plunge,” says McNeela.

But it’s not just about aesthetics. “For us the social aspect and ‘family’ feel of the place is great. We have lunch together, make tea for each other, talk about our work and bounce ideas off each other. If Daria is out on a job, or vice versa, there’s company and support,” she says. But with so many designers under the one roof, could the atmosphere get a little competitive? Not so, says McNeela. “There is a lot of goodwill, which is conducive to a creative atmosphere.”

And there is also collaboration, says McNeela, adding that they have availed of the services of fellow residents The Design Loft and Sticks Furniture. Moreover, the space hosts collaborative exhibitions between the residents, and Seek Design hopes to take part in the upcoming Innovation Week exhibition in November.