The number of coworking spaces in Vienna is growing. Is sharing an office with strangers the new normal?

In 2017 more than a million people will choose a shared working space over home-office isolation. Is sharing your desk, WiFi, kitchen – and also your ideas  – with kindred spirits becoming the new normal?

talent garden
Ideas need space and the new 5,000 m2 Talent Garden hopes to offer just that to a 500-person startup workforce. // © Talent Garden

“Anybody in for Sexy Salad?” A curly-haired gentleman in a Kidrobot T-shirt grins at a table lined with 20-somethings fiercely typing at their keyboards. The concentration breaks for a moment.

“Thanks, I’m fine,” returns one young man as he leans back from his Slack browser. The pink-haired woman coding next to him is so fixated on her screen that Kidrobot has no chance against her noise-cancelling headphones. The Sexy Salad pusher smiles and moves to the next group. It’s just another day in the world of coworking.

The air at the Impact Hub in the 7th district is brimming with creative energy. The high ceilings, light-flooded rooms and modern furniture interrupted by the occasional retro easy chair are a paradigm for coworking spaces around the world. Glassed-in meeting rooms are equipped with whiteboards, markers and presentation materials, just waiting for the next brainstorming session. It’s almost too collaborative to be true.

Sexy Salad, it turns out, is a lunchtime activity involving salad creation for members and guests alike. As I join them, about a dozen people are gathering in the colorful kitchen to team up for a cooperative lunch production meeting. They’re discussing the importance of semi-healthy food – like French fries made from sweet potatoes – during high-productivity phases. Then they touch on the fact that there are never enough sharp knives in the kitchen and then turn – intentionally but also inevitably –  to projects and ideas the members of the lunch taskforce are currently working on. Social lubrication mixed with updates on projects: ideas plus food – a match made in coworking heaven.

Healthy and productive

A recent study by the flexible workspace provider, Regus, highlights the many advantages of modern coworking facilities. Some 180 Austrian decision makers claimed co-workers to be more relaxed, displaying a better work-life balance compared with employees working in more traditional office settings. One-third of the respondents attribute reduced stress to flexible time management, the freedom to choose your work location and the benefits of a social environment with people from all walks of life. Many freelancers use open work spaces to escape the loneliness of their home offices. Studies show that our social nature – spending time around other people, even if we don’t interact – makes us happier and more energetic. Furthermore, people working in shared spaces are more productive than their counterparts in regular offices, according to a 2016 study in the Harvard Business Review

sexy salad
For the Sexy Salad munchers at Impact Hub (above), the community is the secret sauce. // © IHV/Kai Wichmann

But not everyone’s cut out for coworking. Occupational physician Dr. Heinz Fuchsig claims the ever-present noise and the higher risks of infection in open-plan offices is hazardous to people’s health and, therefore, responsible for the documented increase in the number of sick days in open office spaces. In his own words: “One reason is the sensory overload. Because of it, we have a diminished perception of our body and its needs.”

Coworking spaces are not for everybody. “One young man transferred back to his home office after only three weeks of office–sharing,” our pink-haired coder tells me. “He felt distracted by the constant movement and claimed he was wasting time continuously repeating his business idea and strategies to colleagues. He even referred to them as ‘nosy neighbors’.” For herself, coworking comrades mean fresh energy; they offer a sounding board for ideas and a shoulder for those days when things just aren’t working. “And yes,” she admits, “it can become loud sometimes, but that is what these are for.” She gestures to her headphones and winks.

The coworking bandwagon

Austria has its fair share of coworking facilities. At the end of 2015 it was home to roughly 50 coworking spaces. Today there are that many in Vienna alone. Across Austria, some 130 spaces offer single desks, large tables, whole areas or separated offices to fit every budget, waiting for anyone who wants in on the coworking hype.

As coworking become increasingly popular in Austria, Vienna is attracting a number of international networks. In addition to the Impact Hub, which concentrates on social entrepreneurship, a new space, Talent Garden, is opening in the 9th district. Europe’s biggest coworking network will open in March 2017 with the help of A1 Telekom Austria, Raiffeisen Zentralbank and the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, concentrating on shared work environments for digital innovation.

Talent Garden’s three co-founders, Martin Giesswein, Max Lammer and Berthold Baurek-Karlic, feel that the time has come to inject the startup hub with new energy and opportunities. “Singular Austrian success stories have gone global and into all areas of the ecosystem and the learning curve has been steep in a very positive way,” said Baurek-Karlic, adding that better networking within the community is still needed, as well as early incentives and opportunities to look beyond Austria’s borders. He also stressed providing support for companies that want to begin working with startups.  The founders hope the vast new coworking system – 18 campuses in six European countries – will support this effort. The -Viennese branch will boast 5,000 m2 of workspace for 500 people.

Vienna won us over for three reasons: First, its continuously expanding startup and digital community. Second, the incredibly positive feedback from corporate partners and the public sector, and third, the committed group of local co-founders,“ said CEO Davide Dattoli.

One of the newest additions to Vienna’s coworking scene is the Io2 HUB in the 2nd district. Just opened in late 2016, the space sees itself as an “incubator or accelerator dedicated to IoT, smart products and Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) hardware innovation startups.”

Io2 founder Isabelle Richard does not beat around the bush: “Go fast, go cheap, go global,” she said, a philosophy she also takes into her mentoring. “Many founders make the mistake of thinking too small and too cautiously. If a product works, I have to reduce costs through mass production and expanding internationally,” she told the online innovation magazine -Futurezone in a recent interview.   

Startup founders very often benefit from the experience of the predecessors, says Floor Drees, Managing Director of Sektor5,  a coworking space in the 5th district of Vienna. She says one of the space’s greatest assets is the alumni network. The recently launched incubator, 5starts, has proven to be a great draw for new startups and alumni alike. 

“They still know what it’s like to found and grow your company in Austria,” explained Drees. “By working side by side with them we know their special skills.” The familial aspect is what she says helps people learn faster and not hesitate to ask for help or advice. 

In the end, Drees and 5starts don’t want a hierarchical relationship. “We’re not looking for consultants with shiny PowerPoint presentations. We have a network of trainers that will actually work with the startups, getting shit done.”

All good things come to an end

This shared enthusiasm certainly has sparked companies like MySugr, an app for diabetics and blossom.io, a project management service for software teams. They are both alumni of sector5, but have now moved on. The essence of the startup office is growth. “We started at our home offices, then moved in with Vice, then to the 5starts incubator at Sektor5, then to our own office in Packhaus (a coworking space in the 3rd district),” explained Wendelin Amtmann of ChillBill, a software solution for small business bookkeeping. “And now we’re moving to a bigger office.”

The entrepreneurial spirit and the shared experience are what make a communal space so valuable for  the early stages of a company. Some founders can’t quite get it together and leave in favor of more traditional job opportunities. But even for successful startups, there comes a time, when they must leave the coworking nest.

There are three main reasons for this, says Thomas R. Werner, managing partner of Acccoi Partners, a business and technology accelerator in Vienna:  “First, when the team literally outgrows the space, second, when additional or international business processes are required to enable further growth and, third, when the company is finally ready to develop a corporate culture of its own.”

At a coworking space, the otherwise empty clichés, like “hands-on mentality,” “sharing is caring,” “seeing the bigger picture” and “thinking outside the box” become filled with impatient enthusiasm. Even for a cynic, the can-do spirit is contagious. It’s hard not to start believing that these entrepreneurs could be nurturing tomorrow’s unicorn.

The next Mark Zuckerberg could turn to you any day now and ask, “Anybody in for Sexy Salad?”

Work with me Here

Austria has gone along with the global trend, more than doubling the number of coworking spaces from 2015 to today.
graph amount of coworking spaces