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WORKING TOGETHER, SEPARATELY

Goodbye, home office

|


Bombay Connect has 20 people on their waiting list.

Community work hubs are opening up across India to cater to an increasing number of freelancers and entrepreneurs who are tired of their solitary abodes and seeking professional companionship.

When environmental scientist Laura Burger, 27, took an assignment in India, it was with the understanding she would be the only member of an international team based here. Excused from setting up an office, she was free to work from the comfort of her home and fix her own timings.

But two months into her assignment, the wonders of working from home had waned. Laura was ready to move base to Moonlighting, an informal community-operated hub or coworking space located in South Delhi's Greater Kailash area. "At times, the comfort of being at home gets in the way of you completing the tasks at hand, and also, there are too many distractions, " says Burger, whose professional stint prior to India involved working from an office. "Working from home can become lonely. "

Burger is among a growing number of individuals and entrepreneurs who have abandoned the home office dream and are choosing instead to operate out of a community workplace. In India, there are over 10 co-working organisations available today in metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, of which six were set up over the last six months. Owners of these properties claim an increasing number of entrepreneurs and freelancers, who continue to work for themselves, appreciate the structure an office can provide their day. "There's a big movement in the co-working space right now, " says Ricardo Gonsalves of Bombay Connect, a Mumbai-based members-only hub which opened in March 2009 and is targeted specifically at social innovators. Currently, they have 20 people waitlisted and Gonsalves claims enquiries are increasing by the day. "Looking at the demand, we plan to open another space by the end of the year, " he says.

According to Ravi S Gajendran, assistant professor of business administration at the College of Business at Illinois, who authored a 2007 Pennsylvania State University meta-analysis of 46 studies on telecommuting, people have a fundamental need to belong. "One of the reasons why we show up in office everyday is because we want to meet other people. Entrepreneurship can become lonely and isolated especially if one's work is done through computers and phone calls. A human moment fulfils the need for interpersonal connection and social networking. "

The biggest attraction of a co-working centre is that they provide a sense of community, an opportunity to interact with people with different expertise and fuel collaborations.

Nanda Kishore, executive director of Bangalore's twoyear-old community hub, CoWorkIndia, says, "You get to mingle with likeminded people and pool in resources, which is essential for startups. " Mundane activities like a shared lunch or trips to the water cooler can become impromptu brainstorming sessions that are more productive than the alone time at home offers. Popping into another team's cabin for quick advice beats setting up appointments with experts days in advance. The presence of others also helps entrepreneurs track their own growth. "I wouldn't call it competition but we do compare the progress we have made with another team that started out around the same time as us. If we find ourselves behind, it makes us think about what we need to work on, " says Apurva Kothari, 37, founder of No Nasties, a 100 per cent organic and fair trade clothing brand. Kothari, who formerly worked in technology product development in the US, has been working out of Bombay Connect for the last 18 months. At the outset, to limit expenses, he worked from home, a decision he regrets today. "I wish we had started working from a co-working space much earlier because you benefit a lot from interactions with other entrepreneurs rather than living in your own bubble at home, " he says. "Most people are very collaborative and the sense of community is fantastic. The only time we compete is when it gets too hot and there aren't enough spaces near the window, " he adds, with a laugh.

Co-working hubs like Bombay Connect double up as incubation centres, supporting early stage entrepreneurs with five or less team members in the first five years of their start-up. While all hubs do not cater to restricted clientele, most provide mentorship and guidance in addition to lunches, workshops, meetings with experts from financial management, marketing, innovation skills, etc and one-on-one mentorship sessions as well. Desks, wireless internet access, conference and meeting rooms are available for use, and most hubs also have a library and kitchenette. In an attempt to replicate the flexibility a home office offers, CoWorkIndia is open 24 hours and Moonlighting has en-suite bedrooms for out-of-town members or those working on long-term projects in Delhi. The cost of renting a desk is modest - Bombay Connect, which provides desks on full time or flexi-time basis, charges Rs 1, 500 for 25 hours a month or Rs 9, 500 for an unlimited number of hours.

Freelancers think it's a small price to pay to move away from the distractions of home. Abheyraj Singh, a mobile application developer with Delhi-based CodeCube spent a year working out of home and found it tough to get anything done. "If it's not TV, then there are Youtube videos or worse, Playstation. I tried working out of a coffee shop too but wearing headphones to drown out the noise becomes uncomfortable after a while, " says Singh, a graduate whose only office experience includes internships during college.
Singh thought he could fix his own schedule but quickly realised working from home requires a lot of discipline and self-motivation. Those with families at home also have to deal with children's tantrums, last-minute chores and answering the doorbell innumerable times in a day. Gajendran believes a community space, to an extent, allows young entrepreneurs to achieve a work-life balance and helps them move from being integrators to segmenters. "Integrators are those who don't mind attending to office work around their family, whereas segmenters are those who prefer to have boundaries between home and work, " he says. Laura says her decision to work out of a hub has brought professionalism back to her life. "Earlier, if someone called me and I said I was really busy with work, they never took me seriously because I worked from home but now, when I say, 'I'm in office and I'll call you back,' the response is drastically different," she says.

Of course, there are downsides to working out of a community office too. For starters, it brings back the commute to work. But with hubs offering flexi-time deals, users, who usually opt for offices closest to home, are free to choose when they want to come in. Laura misses the infrastructure a regular office offers. "A printer that I don't have to set up from scratch every time I need a printout is something that one takes for granted, " she says, while Apurva, who believes interacting with others is largely productive, says sometimes you end up having conversations when you are busy and don't want to. "Plus, if my team wants to have a brainstorming session and the meeting rooms are all occupied, then things get postponed, " he says.

But he remains a strong supporter of the back to work movement, lauding Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's decision earlier this year to bring home workers back to the office. "Innovation can only happen when you're talking to other people," he concludes. "You need creative interaction to thrive as a company and that happens best when the entire team is in a room thrashing things out rather than working remotely over computers and phones."

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