As a young freelance wedding photographer, Sana Ahmed would work out of a coffee shop to meet potential clients and book future gigs. With flexible timings and a lack of a formal workspace, Ahmed needed a dependable infrastructure to establish and grow her photography business.
In 2016, she came across Daftarkhwan, a co-working office near her home, and decided to rent a formal space for her company.
In recent years, Lahore has witnessed a steady emergence of co-working offices that aim to bring together entrepreneurs, freelancers, remote workers and independent professionals under one roof, with access to a fully-equipped space.
And with so many people working from home these days, either self-employed or because they are telecommuting with their employer, the demand for shared working spaces has also seen an unprecedented rise.
But for Sana, the experience was more than just the sharing of infrastructure: it was about belonging to a productive and collaborative community that she could learn from, bounce off ideas, build a network, and more importantly, be part of a professional commune that shared the same values.
"If you have a smaller office, work can be very lonely and depressing. In a co-working space, there are plenty of opportunities to work and socialise at the same time for me and my employees," she shared.
"Personally, what is important is that I can vent out to my friends at the office about the stresses of being a business owner. And not only do they understand, but they're also very helpful."
Interestingly, casualisation of workspaces and careers, professional loneliness and isolation, and a need for greater flexibility in work environments has given rise to more than 30 co-working offices in Lahore alone, more than anywhere else in the country.
And enabled by a vibrant and transforming millennial workforce demanding new ways of working, co-working spaces are increasingly becoming the 'first choice' for young professionals and burgeoning start-ups.
Community, one of the core values of co-working, impacts the way professionals understand the power of collaboration, cooperation, mutual support and social connection.
Usama Tauqir, CEO and founder of AClan, a service-oriented startup based entirely on a student empowering model which ranked among the top startups of Pakistan in the past, works out of COLABS, perhaps the largest co-working space in the country, and believes that in the tech and digital landscape, co-working is the only way forward.
"While the idea is still in its nascent stages in Pakistan, having everyone under one roof doesn't just make collaboration possible but makes it far easier for entrepreneurs like me. If you need an accountant, legal help, or even build a social media presence for your company, members of a co-working space who specialise in these areas either do it pro bono or on a discounted rate," says Tauqir.
He continues, "It's not just a communal experience, it's a market base where ideas and services are being exchanged."
But building a healthy ecosystem in your co-working space — where members can come together to work, socialise and have fun in an organic, constructive way— is imperative. And it's the community managers who provide this support.
The role of a community manager in a co-working space cannot be overstated; their job is to inculcate shared common values, enable connectedness, facilitate trust, maximise interaction, instil identity through branding and create an encourage a shared experience through various community-building activities.
COLABS, for example, encourages 'coffee hour', where members get together to socialise and interact. Not only that, but co-working spaces generally organise talks and conferences where outsiders can also come in and not only interact but be part of the experience. Other activities include sports events, concerts, art exhibitions and various workshops.
According to Saad Idrees, co-founder and CEO of Daftarkhwan, "The concept of community is not just lip service for us but is deeply embedded in our work ethos. Initially, we weren't sure whether this business model would be financially viable or how well people would adapt to this new concept. We ourselves were dabbling in the startup ecosystem where work can be isolating and the pressure is great."
Idrees continues, "What we were a 100% sure about was that we needed to build a space that needs to deliver a support group and build a network of likeminded people for a community of creatives, techies and otherwise. It's not only a marketing play for us."
Idrees makes sure that individual needs and requirements of companies are met, whether that includes a space that is soundproof, or a 'venting out' room for members looking for a time-out.
For Sair Ali, CEO and co-founder of Eat Mubarak, a homegrown startup of digital food ordering services, choosing a co-working space for his team of employees was a no brainer.
For him, attracting young top talent was paramount but he wasn't able to do that from the space he had previously planned to rent. Daftrkhwan did not only cater to his needs by offering a cost-effective office space but additionally provided a place where his employees would stay motivated.
"For a startup, I didn't want to take the risk upfront, maybe in a few years, I could get an investor after we get traction. But for now, we definitely saved on our costs by Rs 2 to Rs 2.5 million."
"Secondly, I started with a team of 8, but now we have a team of 20 plus people. If I had rented space on my own, we would've made at least 3-4 shiftings by now. The flexibility of scaling up and down in a co-working space, without any hassle, is what makes it feasible."
While these shared workspaces may have an air of nonchalance and ease, they have managed to turn that into a forte; they offer a suite of office-like amenities such as hot-desks, private spaces, dedicated offices, private meeting rooms and a common area for multiple days, or per month.
Additionally, services also include Wi-Fi, electricity and air conditioners, an office boy and access to the kitchen and a multi-purpose space that hosts workshops, talks, exhibitions and conferences.
Typically, rates vary from facility to facility but are anywhere from Rs7,000 to Rs15,000 per month for hot desks and Rs80,000 to Rs150,000 for smaller private offices; for larger dedicated spaces, rates are higher. Some co-working spaces also offer a 'day pass', anywhere from under Rs1,500 to Rs2,000, for individuals to use the space for the entire day.
Reception hours are usually from 9 a.m to 9 p.m, but if members require additional hours at the office, co-working spaces are accommodating and keep the office open for them.
Members say co-working space is cheaper than renting their own office as in most cases you 'pay as you go', and more efficient in terms of dealing with basic problems like the internet, utilities and furniture. Moreover, being part of a community encourages them to feel motivated, embraced and fulfilled.
Essentially, a break away from rigid, hierarchical structures of conventional workplaces, co-working spaces as we know them today are not just about a shared economy and managing resources, but rather, a modern and hip way of working for the digitally powered.
This modern work environment and a new way of working have not only attracted the younger lot but older professionals are increasingly warming up to the idea as well.
Older entrepreneurs with younger teams or part of remote tech companies see co-working spaces as the way to integrate productivity, engagement with an activity-based space plan, all within a progressive environment.
Moreover, large global brands or multinationals are now opting to operate out of a co-working space, with cultures that support authentic expression and fast-paced prototyping. They are opting for a “startup culture”, where people are empowered and have the opportunity and tools to share ideas and thoughts regardless of roles, titles, or department.
Omar Shah, co-founder and CEO of COLABS, says what sets co-working spaces apart from serviced office operators is a focus on, "collaboration, communication and interaction, which is only possible in open-plan offices that don't just motivate your employees and is more beneficial for workers, but also pushes networking and helps you foster growth, interaction, networking and community for your business."
"And the only way to do that is to have a facility that can serve the needs of both, an informal flexible co-working space and through the assistance provided by service operators."
Shah's facility caters to freelancers, startups, small businesses, MNCs and large corporates with a roster of companies that work in diverse fields like design, AI, tech and education.
But more importantly, like other co-working offices in the city, his shared space has 'reconfigured the traditional workplace, to reflect the evolution of office culture and implement an environment which is more conducive to modern workflows.'
Modern workspaces must be adaptable and ergonomically sound; co-working spaces have to work harder than standard office environments to design an interior space and create a signature look by introducing natural elements, utilising standardised but comfortable furniture, controlling temperature and lighting, providing privacy and security, offering power and data integration.
As things go, creating an environment where workers feel comfortable and can perform their best work is paramount to any successful coworking space. And this new wave of curated co-working spaces is steadily shaking up the traditional workplace.