“Just look at how we’re conducting this interview, which is really a significant part of my workday,” says Cynthia Helena Rif, co-founder and business development director of WitWork, the newest co-working provider in town.
"I've stepped away from my lunch in a swanky restaurant, where other professionals around me are all conducting their business, and I'm standing here on the terrace, enjoying a beautiful view of Dubai, while sending you files on my plugged-in laptop with its excellent Wi-Fi connection, and we're chatting as I WhatsApp you information from my other phone. This is my office."
There’s no question that working habits are changing, and Rif is not alone in recognising this. The idea of doing your job outside of an office – whether it’s from home, from your neighbourhood Starbucks or from one of the many dedicated co-working spaces that have begun to crop up all over the world – is no longer a far-fetched concept, nor dismissed as the fallback of freelancers, start-up founders and designers. That assumption, says Rif, is archaic.
“It’s 2018. The office environment is changing, and it’s up to us to change with it. People require flexibility. They have smartphones, which allow them mobility, and yet they are still 100 per cent productive. We can’t just talk about static work habits and grey cubicles anymore. Everything is changing.”
Testament to this is the significant growth of the co-working sector in the UAE. WitWork launched just over a month ago, and is based on a Dh350 per month membership scheme that offers professionals access to "dormant" spaces across Dubai, in areas such as JLT, Business Bay, Motor City, upcoming locations in Abu Dhabi and Ras al Khaimah, and soon, the wider region. In exchange for a beautifully designed space, excellent Wi-Fi connection and an endless supply of free coffee, tea and water, the dormant spaces – restaurants, pubs and cafes that are popular in the evenings and on the weekends, but are mostly empty during off-peak hours – will gain guaranteed footfall during working hours.
Similarly, Letswork, a new community of affordable co-working spaces across Dubai launched by Hamza Khan and Omar Al Mheiri in February, partners with Rove hotels to convert unused parts of each venue into co-working spaces during off-peak hours. And these examples are but a handful of the many co-working solutions and providers cropping up all over the UAE.
So what is it that makes co-working spaces – defined as membership-based workspaces, whether dedicated to or based on utilising existing venues where diverse groups of freelancers, remote workers and other independent professionals work together in a shared, communal setting – effective and conducive to productivity?
One crucial element, says Fran Hickman, a renowned London-based interior designer, is the layout of the space. Hickman has been working on Nasab, a members co-working space and social club that is part of Koa Dubai, and due to launch later this year. “The space has quite clearly been defined as a place for co-working – it’s a shared space, shared tables, shared desks, with a library as the centre space and then closed-off spaces shooting off from there for companies to rent,” explains Hickman.
“We wanted to give the space character and have it be quite playful, so we took the experience of being in the desert and played with elements like light and, colour and form, and even a lack of form.” Hickman focused on creating a unique space that was also practical – with plenty of workspaces, and communal, as well as private areas. “In any kind of workspace, you want it to be a relatively blank canvas,” she says, “so people can make it their own, but also give it something to make it feel different from working from home, or the office, or even anywhere else in Dubai.”
It is the promise of a work environment that’s a far cry from the monotony of a cubicle that’s the main draw of the co-working space, says Namita Cariappa, a member of Letswork and a devotee of the co-working trend. Cariappa works in sales and marketing for an automotive company based in Jebel Ali, but lives near DIFC. Her employer has begun introducing a work-from-home scheme for team members who don’t always need to physically be in the office.
“More and more companies are embracing this type of flexibility, and I think it’s a great and super-useful idea,” says Cariappa, 25, from India. “Signing up with a company like Letswork allows me to get out of the house, where I’d probably be working in my pyjamas and getting distracted by my mum, by the TV and by the temptation of the fridge.”
When she heads to one of the co-working spaces on Letswork's roster near her home, Cariappa is able to avoid traffic, and buckle down and be productive in an environment where everyone around her is doing the exact same thing.
“I love the places Letswork has chosen. They are all light, airy, well-designed; just a nice place to be in. No one wants to be stuck in an ugly room getting their stuff done. This is the future of how we will all be working. This isn’t just for start-ups and freelancers. I do a standard 9-to-5 workday and this works so well for me.”
Khan and Al Mheiri launched Letswork, an Emaar brand, in February. "You can easily spend Dh40 to Dh50 a day just on a mediocre coffee and croissant working in a cafe, and that's just not sustainable," says Khan. "There's one plug in the cafe that everyone is fighting over, Wi-Fi is not reliable, and dedicated co-working spaces in Dubai can be expensive. Plus, you'd be stuck in just that one location in a huge city."
The friends set out their criteria: spacious and airy venues with fun interiors, excellent coffee and strong Wi-Fi. Today, a Letswork member can work from any of the Rove hotels across the city, or from Mr Miyagi's or Pier 7. "It makes sense to become a member. You can access any of our spaces – we have 12 right now and will be adding two more soon. If you're in a rush, you don't even have to wait for the bill; your beverages are part of the deal. And why invest in expensive commercial real estate, when there's this option for start-ups?"
Since February, Letswork has signed on 200 members – a diverse group that includes freelancers and entrepreneurs, but also regular employees who have offices in the “middle of nowhere and need better locations”, explains Khan.
When it comes to locations, choice is key, says WitWork's Rif. "And we always look for design-driven locations; not anywhere will do. If you're leaving your home or office behind, the draw has to be somewhere interesting, comfortable, maybe edgy. You want to upgrade people's work experience in an environment where there are like-minded people there for the same reason, and the opportunity to network and connect with them. It's the way of the future."
Co-working in Dubai
In addition to the various locations overseen by WitWork, Letswork and the soon-to-be-launched Nasab, here are some other co-working providers in Dubai.
1762 Stripped in Jumeirah Lakes Towers
A4 Space in Al Serkal Avenue, Al Quoz
AstroLabs Dubai in JLT
D-TEC, or the Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Centre, in Dubai Silicone Oasis
Impact Hub Dubai in Downtown Dubai
Impact Hub in Souk Al Bahar
Le Sept Coworking Space in Business Bay
Make Art Cafe in Bur Dubai
Our Space Dubai in the Lamborghini building on Sheikh Zayed Road
The Cribb in Al Quoz
Making a solid case for dedicated co-working spaces
Co-founded by Bernard Lee, GlassQube on Reem Island is a leading player on the capital’s co-working scene. Unlike asset-light models like WitWork and Letswork, which partner with existing locations in a membership scheme that allows professionals to pick where they want to work, and in return receive free Wi-Fi and coffee, GlassQube is a purpose-built space with a floor-plan designed for the sole purpose of creating a successful co-working environment. It has proven so popular that a second location is opening on the Corniche in August, and a third one is planned on the island, due to open by the end of next year.
“What your objective is should drive the design of the space. You can’t reverse- engineer,” says Lee. “Taking a pre-existing space and knocking down some walls to create a co-working space doesn’t work, because it’s an afterthought. You’re missing that tangible experience of what it means to be in a co-working space where a community exists for your members to build their professional networks and personal relationships, and grow their businesses,” he says.
At least 15 per cent of GlassQube is non-revenue-generating communal space, with a huge coffee bar for members to gather around and meet each other, and a lounge space for them to chat and, potentially, collaborate. “People used to walk in and think, is this a restaurant? Is this a cafe? But the UAE is a very progressive market, and it doesn’t take long for people to understand what’s going on in the rest of the world and to appreciate this shift into co-working this way. And now, they love our design. Especially women. Some of the men still want the huge, private corner office with a sectional couch.”
A space must cultivate and facilitate a professional working environment that works, Lee adds. “You can’t just throw people into a box and expect them to respond. You have to make it so they want to work among other strangers. That’s the challenge when it comes to designing your space.”