Almost two months ago, the Government dropped its ‘work from home’ guidance. Yet the anticipated flood back to the office has so far fallen flat.
Many businesses are encouraging staff to continue remote working and others have shut their offices entirely.
And amid all the closures and changing guidance, a lucrative market has emerged: pay-as-you-go office spaces.
Office life: With many businesses encouraging staff to continue remote working and others having shut their offices entirely, a lucrative market has emerged: pay-as-you-go office spaces
Tens of thousands of people have signed up to these networks, having grown weary of working from home.
Co-working spaces up and down the country say membership numbers have exploded, many doubling or even tripling since before the pandemic.
Young people appear to be leading the charge, sometimes paying fees of more than £100 a month to escape from their cramped flatshares.
But it puts them in the ludicrous position of effectively paying to go to work, either because their employer has shut their office for good or because restrictions have left them unable to go in when they please.
Nick Donnelly, who runs the national co-working network WorkClub, has seen user numbers almost triple from pre-pandemic levels. Most of the demand spilled in after May when indoor venues were allowed to reopen.
He says: ‘It’s individual workers who are coming to us and asking for a place to work.
‘The average age of our users is between 28 and 36. I think they just want an alternative.’
WorkClub is one of the more affordable co-working spaces, with rates starting at £9 a day alongside the option of cheaper monthly memberships.
It’s worth £90 to escape the flat
Magazine writer Emily Webber missed being around other people at work
Magazine writer Emily Webber pays about £90 a month out of her own pocket for a co-working space after her employer unexpectedly shut her office.
The 24-year-old, from West London, pays for membership of the Allbright Women’s Network in the capital, which gives her access to a workplace and regular events.
She credits the network with helping to remotivate her after she struggled to adjust to working from the bedroom in her flat.
‘An office is one of those things you don’t appreciate until it’s gone,’ says Emily. ‘I missed being around others at work, hearing them on the phone and getting to know new people.
‘It gives me the motivation to get properly dressed and made-up and leave the house for the day.’
Emily started a new job during lockdown and had expected to begin working in the office once restrictions eased. But earlier this year her employer informed staff the office was shutting.
It works with a range of venues which advertise themselves on their app. Users may pay more for perks such as bottomless tea and coffee or more space, while basic spaces offer just a desk and wifi.
Tony Heyden, who manages Fruitworks in Canterbury and London, says his membership has also doubled since before the pandemic and demand is now so strong there is a waiting list for those hoping to sign up.
He says: ‘The age range of our members has crept up and we’ve noticed there are a lot more women using our spaces than before the pandemic.
‘Our members used to be mainly tech companies but now we see people from all backgrounds — including a seamstress who brings in her sewing kit.’
Subscriptions to Fruitworks begin at £60 a month, which allows members to spend one day a week in the office. It costs £80 a month to spend three days a week in the office and £125 a month for access to space five days a week.
Included in the membership is guaranteed office space, free tea and coffee, use of the printing and photocopying machines and discounts to local businesses.
Huckletree, which offers ‘residential desks’ for as much as £300 a month, tells a similar story. It saw a 250 per cent increase in the number of people accessing its deals between April-August 2020 and the same period in 2021.
The sudden surge in demand for flexible workspaces has encouraged global leader WeWork to alter its offerings to keep up.
Last month the company launched ‘WeWork on Demand’, which allows workers to book office space for a minimum of £45 a day — or £15 an hour for a meeting room — across five UK cities.
But there are concerns that employees are having to pay for an office space which they could reasonably expect their employer to provide.
This is especially worrying as those most likely to prefer working outside the home are younger workers on lower salaries.
Workplace expert and social historian Dr Eliza Filby says: ‘It seems unfair employees are paying sometimes more than double their phone bill to access a workplace.
‘Companies have an obligation to provide the conditions and equipment through which people can operate and work.
‘If somebody feels they cannot work at home, employers should either be helping to pay for their office space or paying them more so they can afford a nicer home.
‘It’s a big grey area, though, as HR can say ‘well, it’s your choice’. Danielle Parsons, employment partner at Irwin Mitchell, says there could be a rise in legal disputes over where employees intend to work.
‘Younger workers in particular may be renting accommodation in small flats which were never designed for remote working.
‘Many employees do want to ‘return to normal’ and go back to office working, so this type of dispute could yet become a feature of employment law.’
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