New “flexible” work spaces could be under threat from soaring property prices

People hard at work in TechHub, in London's Shoreditch district. Image: Getty.

The traditional notion of the “office” is changing dramatically. And although there are shifts around their actual design, the most dramatic change is cost.

The cost of renting office space in many central business districts around the world is now so high that it has for a long time been out of reach for many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Knight Frank’s recently released Global Cities 2016 report shows that rents can range from approximately $33.50 (£22.00) per square foot per year in Seoul, to an eye watering $255 (£165) square foot per year in Hong Kong – by far the most expensive city to rent an office in the world.

These figures have all sorts of negative implications for those early to mid-stage businesses that benefit from being physically located in the centre of cities, resulting in them either moving or starting up elsewhere. This is concerning given how important SMEs are to the overall economic health of contemporary cities. 

The onset of the digital revolution began to disrupt the office market in the early 2000s, encouraging the growth of new types of working patterns, new career trajectories, and practices. A year-on-year increase in the number of freelancers, consultants, or those working from project to project, has amplified the demand for work space that is more flexible than the traditional office environment and infrastructure provides.

This has coincided with the rise of more “creative” career trajectories that also rely on this type of flexibility: artists and designer-makers, but also software developers, graphic designers, and more.

Into the hub

The new type of flexible work spaces they require have been on the rise for some years, and goes by a number of different names: co-working spaces, incubators, flexible work space, open workspace or hubs.

These new work spaces act as hubs for these workers from non-related sectors and firms who come together to share the same environment. To work they must be affordable (especially for early to mid-stage workers, consultants and startups), and close to centres of sector-specific activity (usually city centres or creative quarters). They also need to have flexible rental arrangements, and to provide amenities that keep flexible workers returning: this can be provided through the immediate urban environment (think Shoreditch in London or Wicker Park in Chicago), or through the building itself (as in a café or bar or other type of amenity).

They work by charging a monthly rate for desk rental or for open work space (including the provision of wifi and sometimes a land line). This creates an economies of scale, thereby offsetting the price of the larger space by subletting. They also work on a flexible membership basis, with flexible contracts allowing people to leave with short notice.

Many of these spaces, in cities across the globe, offer a variety of services and features to their members. Some curate their members in order to ensure a working environment where collaboration is central. Others gear their space towards startups and early stage businesses, by holding guest talks, seminars, business surgeries, and the provision of machinery for rent. Others still charge exorbitant rates for desk space to create opulent environments ensuring exclusivity.

Whatever the model, these spaces represent a new working landscape in the contemporary urban environment. Many view them as the new engines of economic growth and innovation.

But they are under threat. London is suffering not only from a well-documented,  but a not so well-documented workspace crisis, too. This is because the buildings used to house these work spaces are usually rented: the leases usually negotiated are short term (2-5 years) and market driven, or in some cases just below the market average.

The rise in property prices means that, once the time comes to renegotiate a new lease, landlords can raise the prices to new market highs and make a killing. This is especially true of the buildings that are close to the city centre (Shoreditch is a prime example here).

The result is that all the old difficulties of unaffordable office rents are returning to stifle emerging economic activity for SMEs once again. In London, this is threatening the growth of these new types of work space, even as they are enabling a growth in the number of SMEs and startups.

Dr. Tarek Virani is a post Doctoral Research Assistant at Queen Mary, University of London & Creativeworks London.

You can join him and guests on Friday 29 April at the Creativeworks London Festival. All sessions are completely free. For more info and to book tickets, click here


Never mind Brexit: TfL just released new tube map showing an interchange at Camden Town!!!

Mmmmm tube-y goodness. Image: TfL.

Crossrail has just been given a £1bn bail out. This, according to the Financial TImes’s Jim Pickard, is on top of the £600m bailout in July and £300m loan in October.

That, even with the pound crashing as it is right now, is quite a lot of money. It’s bad, especially at a time when there is still seemingly not a penny available to make sure trains can actually run in the north.

But the world is quite depressing enough today, so let’s focus on something happier. On Saturday night – obviously peak time for cartographic news – Transport for London emailed me to let me know it would be updating the tube map, to show more street-level interchanges:

Connections between several pairs of stations that are near to each other, but have traditionally not been shown as interchanges, now appear on the map for the first time. These include:

  • Camden Road and Camden Town
  • Euston and Euston Square
  • Finchley Road and Finchley Road & Frognal
  • Kenton and Northwick Park
  • New Cross and New Cross Gate
  • Seven Sisters and South Tottenham
  • Swiss Cottage and South Hampstead

The stations shown meet a set of criteria that has been used to help determine which should be included. This criteria includes stations less than a 700m or a 10 minute walk apart, where there is an easy, well-lit, signposted walking route and where making the change opens up additional travel options.

The results are, well, this:

In addition, interchanges between stations have traditionally appeared on the Tube map as two solid lines, irrespective of whether they are internal or external (which means customers need to leave the station and then re-enter for the station or stop they need). This approach has now been updated and shows a clear distinction between the two types, with external interchanges now being depicted by a dashed line, linking the two stations or stops.

And lo, it came to pass:

I have slightly mixed feelings about this, in all honesty. On the positive side: I think generally showing useful street-level interchanges as A Good Thing. I’ve thought for years that Camden Road/Camden Town in particular was one worth highlighting, as it opens up a huge number of north-east travel options (Finchley to Hackney, say), and apps like CityMapper tell you to use it already.

And yet, now they’ve actually done it, I’m suddenly not sure. That interchange is pretty useful if you’re an able bodied person who doesn’t mind navigating crowds or crossing roads – but the map gives you no indication that it’s a harder interchange than, say, Wanstead Park to Forest Gate.

The new map also doesn’t tell you how far you’re going to be walking at street level. I can see the argument that a 400m walk shouldn’t disqualify something as an interchange – you can end up walking that far inside certain stations (Green Park, Bank/Monument), and the map shows them as interchanges. But the new version makes no effort to distinguish between 100m walks (West Hampstead) and 700m ones (Northwick Park-Kenton), which it probably should.

I’m also slightly baffled by some of the specific choices. Is Finchley Road-Finchley Road & Frognal really a useful interchange, when there’s an easier and more direct version, one stop up the line? No hang on West Hampstead isn’t on the Metropolitan line isn’t it? So that’s what it’s about.

Okay, a better one: if you’re switching from District to Central lines in the City, you’re generally better off alighting at Cannon Street, rather than Monument, for Bank – honestly, it’s a 90 second walk to the new entrance on Walbrook. Yet that one isn’t there. What gives?

The complete new tube map. The full version is on TfL’s website, here.

On balance, showing more possible interchanges on the map is a positive change. But it doesn’t negate the need for a fundamental rethink of how the tube map looks and what it is for. And it’s not, I fear, enough to distract from the Crossrail problem.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.