“Coworking is a step in evolution”– Ansgar Oberholz talking about new forms of work

As the project manager of Netzpiloten.de I went on a two-month journey all over Europe in summer 2015. This was no vacation for me, because of the fact that I managed the editorial department whilst traveling. I went to different coworking spaces every day in order to do my daily business there. This way, my girlfriend Katharina-Franziska Kremkau, who works as a freelancer, and me visited more than 29 coworking spaces in 18 different cities in 10 different countries.

We were immediately fascinated by the topic coworking and I am sure that this topic will play a big role in future. Already in March 2015 Katharina and I were part of the founding members of the German Coworking Federation and together with Christian Cordes and Silke Roggermann I am now part of the executive board. Since January 2016 I have worked as coworking manager of St. Oberholz in Berlin and I am co-founder of the Institut für Neue Arbeit. Having conducted an interview with Ansgar Oberholz, I would like to get to the reasons of the transformation that coworking has caused.

More than seven years ago the subject of coworking finally hit Germany, though its origins are considerably older and can be found in Central Berlin. During the 1990s, the first c-base at Hackescher Markt already offered a concept reminiscent of coworking, consisting of collaboration, free WiFi as well as free electricity. In 2005 the café St. Oberholz was opened at Rosenthaler Platz and made the idea of coworking come true – even before the official inauguration of the first coworking spaces in San Francisco.

Founders of the Institut für Neue Arbeit: Tobias Schwarz and Ansgar Oberholz (Photo: Carolin Saage)
Founders of the Institut für Neue Arbeit: Tobias Schwarz and Ansgar Oberholz (Photo: Carolin Saage)

Tobias Schwarz (TS): When was the first time you heard of the term coworking? 

Ansgar Oberholz (AO): When we worked on a concept for the former Burger King at Rosenthaler Platz the term did not exist. I am not sure when and where exactly I heard of the term for the first time, but as far as I remember, it must have been in a conversation with Christoph Fahle, the founder of Betahaus, when we discussed the concept he introduced to me in 2007. Until recently I needed to explain the term almost every time I used it. However, this has been changing constantly during the last two years and has now resulted in coworking being listed as a buzzword and therefore, finally being part of the marketing machine.

TS: Why has the subject of working been a core part of the café’s concept?

AO: My wife Koulla Louca and I wanted to establish a completely new and urban café concept at this historic place. Something that has never existed there before and that lives up to the standard of the Aschinger brothers, who once built a house at Rosenthaler Platz in 1898 and ran their ninth beer bar. That is why not only the possibility of working (and therefore electricity supply and WiFi) was very important for us, but various seating accommodation (for inspiring views of the square) as well. From the very beginning on it has definitely been an experiment for us and we observed with great tension, if the concept was accepted by our guests and to what extent they make use of it.

TS: What was the guests first reaction when they saw other guests working there?

AO: Within a short period of time there hardly were any guests who didn’t come with the intention of working there and who did not have any laptop on their table. Even though there were – and still are – guests who work analogously. During the first years watching working people polarized immensely. There even were proper hostility and angry reactions which, as I believe, were based on envy. Obviously, our guests seemed happier at work and were offered better coffee than office workers. When I noticed that our concept and guests tended to polarize I was happy, because I knew that our idea turned out to be successful!

In spring 2009 the Betahaus – Germany’s first coworking space – opened in Berlin. Only one month later the former head of Netzpiloten.de, Peter Bihr, conducted interviews with international pioneers of the coworking scene: Chris Messina, Axel Hillman and Tony Bacigalupo. As early as at the end of 2009 the journalist Anja Krieger anticipated in one of her articles on Netzpiloten.de: “If the present development continues, the good old bureau may sooner or later become a thing of the past”. Coworking has already changed the world of work.

TS: When and why did St. Oberholz turn into a coworking space?

AO: As a preliminary step in 2009 we set up apartments in the same building, which should serve as a basis not only for overnight stays, but also for events and workshops too. In 2011, Soundcloud used these apartments as an office space for their community team due to the delay of the opening of the Factory Berlin and also because the team was bursting at the seams. In the same year the top floor of the building became available, therefore it was a logical step to adapt to the community’s needs and to establish a coworking space with flexible desks and conference rooms.

TS: Is there a causal link between coffee and coworking?

AO: Definitely! In fact it is a much more important link than between office culture and coworking. One of the biggest misconceptions in relation to the reception and understanding of coworking is that it did NOT evolve from office culture but from coffee house culture. Dissident people in creative jobs have always been drawn to coffee houses in order to do some work and meet like-minded people there. This is not a new phenomenon. Coworking represents an evolutionary step in this tradition, merging typical elements of cafés, offices and private sphere into the perfect, semi-public symbiosis.

TS: Which changes could you observe concerning working in a café?

AO: The biggest and most vivid change is reflected in the usage of phones by our guests. A couple of years ago people used to go outside the café to make their phone calls, because they didn’t want to create a false impression of sitting in a café instead of working there. However, this is no longer any problem anymore. Quite the contrary, it seems that guests even make sure to be right next to the coffee machine when they make phone calls. This way, the machine’s grinding and hissing noises let other people know where they are and characterize them as unconventional and innovative.

MacBooks and flat whites are popular neighbors at St. Oberholz (Photo: Melanie Samat)
MacBooks and flat whites are popular neighbors at St. Oberholz (Photo: Melanie Samat)

But what exactly does coworking mean? After talking to Shhared founder Alex Ahom, who opened the tenth coworking space in Hamburg, Lukas Menzel, former Netzpiloten student apprentice, described in amazement that coworking is “a fascination in itself”. In an interview conducted by Chris Messina, Peter Bihr described coworking as “working together, working jointly, collaborating“ and as “a new philosophy of working“. Coworking is not only a hype, but an expression of a development called New Work.

TS: What makes coworking so attractive?

AO: Coworking is the petri dish of New Work. Coworking spaces are so much more than just a passing fad. Here, the boundaries of the future world of work are tested. Collaboration, serendipity and self-determination are filling heads and spaces. That is what makes it so appealing to me – creating places where I like to work myself. Places, where you don’t know where the development may lead to. That’s what fascinates me and makes me love my job.

TS: To what extent is coworking the expression of New Work and not just a trend?

AO: The digital world and the coworking spaces gave wings to the idea of New Work within the past years. Never has it been so easy and associated with such little investment to work independently and self-determinedly or to set up a new business. Berlin’s coworking scene in particular is the best proof that it is not just a trend anymore. The number, size and diversity of coworking spaces speak for themselves.

TS: Which are the decisive factors for coworking in your opinion?

AO: Easy access, authenticity and community. Starting at reasonably priced memberships and ending with valuable networking effects. Only recently, the aspect of community has become even more important and is something that our members ask for. That is because collaboration and mutual trust that is associated with it become so important and crucial in our rapidly changing world.

During my journey throughout the European coworking scene I noticed an interesting difference: in countries that struggle with an economic crisis, coworking is a financially lucrative business, which is understood as a sort of economic promotion by politics. However, in economically powerful countries coworking is hardly any issue. There are only a few coworking spaces and it is generally hard to run this business model. Politics rather noticed start-ups in general instead of coworking spaces.

TS: How have coworking spaces and start-ups influenced a city like Berlin?

AO: I think of Berlin as a start-up itself. There is hardly any other place where “release early, release often“ and “trial and error“ were practiced as excessively as here. The wave of start-ups and the related blossoming of the coworking scene nowadays are the results of a long overdue solution for the city that did not have a well-functioning business model since the end of World War II. However, in the course of development and in this period of euphoria, Berlin should be careful not to betray its roots, which originally were the reason why founders and entrepreneurs from all over the world came to this city in the first place.

TS: Which role does coworking play outside Berlin in the rest of Germany?

AO: In Europe there exist two important centers of coworking: Barcelona and Berlin. In Germany, however, no city is comparable with the coworking scene in Berlin, emphasizing the capital’s very favorable conditions.

TS: How would you assess the value of coworking as a stand-alone business model?

AO: Coworking as independent form could be a difficult business model. The three components gastronomy, event and community must be covered professionally and need to serve as a source of income as well. Otherwise there would not be any economic success. And this exactly represents the challenge for operators of a coworking space.

The coworking space in the new St. Oberholz at Zehdenicker Strasse 1 (Photo: St. Oberholz)
The coworking space in the new St. Oberholz at Zehdenicker Strasse 1 (Photo: St. Oberholz)

In March 2016, the blogger Ben Capper stated in an article on Netzpiloten.de that coworking probably is the most contemporary form of working and that he is surprised that there are still providers of “maintained office spaces“, which consist of a mixture of “grey carpets and black leather armchairs“. He assumed that in future not only café chains, banks and lessors of office space would start developing their own coworking models, but that bigger companies could be interested in this kind of work as well.

TS: In your opinion, how important would you say is design in a coworking space?

AO: Design matters! Everyone who has already tried to be creative in a dark and unpleasant place knows that. Unfortunately, a lot of conventional workplaces exactly look like this. It does not matter how a space is designed. What matters is that it is designed. It can either be designed in a simple way or related to high expenditure, but it needs to be well-wrought and designed wholeheartedly. This is how you fill people with enthusiasm.

TS: How should a coworking space be structured nowadays?

AO: In my opinion, a coworking space is perfect when it effortlessly and playfully combines gastronomic and office elements. When the user has the chance to glide through the different types of use, but can still enjoy privacy and time to retreat.

TS: How does coworking differ from renting office spaces?

AO: Generally it differs in the way that you acquire a membership, right of access or the right of use of the whole space including the infrastructure instead of renting a single room. It can be best compared with using Spotify vs. buying a CD. Moreover, a membership can be cancelled at any time, which is something that not even the shortest rental contracts can keep up with.

By now, it is not only freelancers who use the coworking spaces. More and more companies make a change for more flexible office solutions inspired by coworking, in order to create room for more innovations and to meet the needs of their employees for a modern office space. Companies like KPMG, Microsoft, Pepsi as well as Heineken are the most popular corporations that send their teams to coworking spaces all over the world.

The new Microsoft office in Munich was inspired by coworking spaces
The new Microsoft office in Munich was inspired by coworking spaces

TS: Why are more and more companies drawn to coworking spaces?

AO: Fear of disruption. And the question where innovation takes place, if not within the already known structures? Where are all the young talents whom we cannot attract with money? This is another open question.

TS: What are the experiences you gained with corporations in St. Oberholz so far?

AO: All big corporates build their own innovation hubs, most of them in Berlin. Another possible option is to send a team to work in a coworking space. That is what most companies do these days. Like e.g. BVG – to take a single example – whose innovation team works in our coworking space at Rosenthaler Platz and who just recently launched a new app for cyclists. If they stayed in their own office they probably would have launched a completely different product.

TS: What can corporates learn in coworking spaces?

AO: It only takes a simple tour through St. Oberholz for most corporates to decide that no stone will be left unturned in their own companies. Often, they appear feverishly enthusiastic and want to change a lot within their own companies. Questions as well as question marks come up. Taking the next step and actually diving into this new world – leaving behind one’s own comfort zone – turns into an elementary experience, which hopefully spills over to the corporations and changes the working conditions. This leads to a consistently growing effect, even if they don’t always draw the right conclusions. Furthermore, in coworking spaces corporations can easily get in touch with start-ups and collaborate with them.

Coworking represents the future of working. However, this is expressed in various forms. In countries that struggle with an economic crisis like e.g. France or Spain, coworking spaces are the fertile ground for new innovations. In powerful economies, like e.g. currently Germany, elements as well as ideas from coworking inspire corporations which, in turn, slowly adapt to new developments. The collaborative conception of coworking is going to be a central part of work.

TS: Which recent developments will influence the future of work?

AO: There is a new turbo charger for the New Work. This means Blockchain technologies as well as the involved Smart Contracts. Blockchain has the ability to ‘repair’ the Internet and to revive the exciting spirit that we remember from the very first hype around the Internet in the 1990s – which afterwards suffocated in the shares market. With this autonomous and decentralized technology teams and working groups can form their networks in a whole new way. I believe that, sooner or later, we will abandon rigid structures. Agile teams consisting of different members for each purpose will be the engine. If we do not forget about the rapid decrease of marginal costs and the associated keyword of 3D printing, then exciting and painful years will be ahead of us, which will pose a political challenge as well. Moreover I predict that the permanent positions, which exist in nowadays working life, will disappear in the foreseeable future.

TS: What is the prospect for the development of coworking in the next few years?

AO: If the previously described development takes place as predicted the coworking spaces or coworking structures will continue to flourish and become of immense importance. Concepts like co-living, co-kindergarten and co-hospital could evolve. Right of use will replace ownership and communities will replace the idea of closed office spaces.

TS: How is St. Oberholz going to change according to these developments?

AO: As in all the years before we will try to adjust our concepts in accordance with the needs of the community and the New Work in order to always be one step ahead without overtaxing people. Probably we are still at the very beginning of profound changes in the world of work and I wish for St. Oberholz to always operate at the right time.

Image: “St. Oberholz at Rosenthaler Platz” by Tobias Schwarz


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