Coworking Helsinki: No Such Thing as 'Free Space'
Päivitetty: 16o loka 2018
We’re coworking connoisseurs of sorts; We’ve produced a fair amount of content around the topic and were the first independent coworking office in Helsinki. We’re deep enough in the business to know that, to the general consumer, the space offering in Helsinki region can get a little confounding.
We, REWORK, gave up our office space to test & evaluate the coworking spaces in Helsinki, to make sense of the mess.
We’re doing it the consumer way; We’re testing the employee experience and making decisions as a consumer would, not reviewing coffee quality and tea cup colours for the professional digital nomads.
We’re rating the spaces with points for things such as location, first impressions, common rules, services, comfort and agreeability (all things mentioned in our Features Checklist) and with a scale demonstrating the spaces suitability for solowork/teamwork. We'll also go a little deeper into our experience with a free word essay.
To start our space testing bender, we chose to test the five layers of the nutritional pyramid for a beginner digital nomad: a café (Roasberg), a startup community (Microsoft Flux), a library (Pasila Library), repurposed space at a shopping center (Kaari Konttori) and a co-working space (Startup Sauna).
Okay. First week without an office. Here we go.
Offering a free office space seems like a tricky business deal, so I did expect the spaces to be pretty similar to each other: a chair, desk and electricity in an otherwise underutilized space, where paid products and services can conveniently be promoted to the visitor. When a space is free for the user, they aren't the customer, but actually the product.
This is a simple business model that is familiar to the consumers in general. I was surprised to find both variations of this model, as well as new models I hadn't heard of before.
Knowing a little about these business models, I was always on the lookout for how my work or my presence is being used for financial gain. The upside, of knowing how the business works, is you also then know what the rules of the space are: If using the space is contingent on my ability to produce leads for space provider, I’ll oblige and profusely network to “pay my weight”.
The free spaces available in Helsinki all provide approximately the same amount of comfort and services. Choosing between them really only comes down to deciding which exploitation you’re most comfortable with.
Grade (4-10): 5
The model for Café Roasberg was simple enough to get and made the rules of the space clear: fill up the empty seats during the lull hours, and buy something every now and then. You could argue the seat is not free if you have to pay to be there, and you would be right. But there is no such thing as “free” space and at least at Roasberg you get delicious beverages & lunch for the price.
Though Roasberg welcomes digital nomads, accommodating them is not the focus of the space, e.g. power outlets are few & far between, and the furniture is not designed for +4 hours of continuous use. There’s also no privacy for sensitive calls; the space available is best suited for casual teamwork.
The great thing about cafés is that there’s many to choose from: the services, the clientele, the aesthetics and the location are all something you can curate to your needs. You can even do useful networking there, if you choose the right place for your network and have the courage to start a conversation where it isn’t strictly speaking according to cultural norms.
Grade (4-10): 7
Where Roasberg's model offered clear cut comfort, Microsoft Flux’s model had me perplexed. The office is extremely comfortable and well stocked with crucial and costly services startups need. The beautiful old building has natural light and a spectacular location. There’s even a phone booth for privacy. So why is it free?
For the life of me I couldn’t figure out, how my use of the space and services, could be covered. Not knowing the rules of the playground had me paranoid about needing to network and to prove present authorities I was indeed paying my weight. Should I credit my next business innovation to Flux?
The distress drew my attention to other odd features as well. Like the fact that there were few to no women in the space. Instead there were a good sampling of similarly dressed 25-35 year-old men. I’m sure the space wasn’t designed with this in mind, but the reality is, as a woman, I felt I was somehow disqualified from using the space. And perhaps that, being a woman, is why I wasn’t getting the business model - because I wasn’t part of the target group for which the space is meant for.
Otherwise the space is damned near spectacular bar one exception: the WiFi. Either it’s a free WiFi to which they forget to provide a password for, or it’s not free, but has such an obvious password that I got it right on the second guess.
Grade (4-10): 6
I got back to familiar ground the next day. Pasila Library’s business model and the consequent rules of the space are known to us all: government funded knowledge and space open to all who can bear to peruse the collection quietly. It’s as close to ‘free’ space as you’re going to get.
Since the space in question isn’t trying to use you for sweet ad revenue, it does have its limitations. There are chairs and desks but neither are ergonomic, free WiFi and personal power outlets are a plenty but nothing else there supports digital work.
What they do have is a sense of a community. A great little detail is the giant jigsaw puzzle you can piece together with other visitors on your coffee breaks.
Grade (4-10): 6
The next space was in stark contrast to the library: Kaari Konttori. This space activates otherwise empty space at the Kaari Shopping center, paying itself back by pushing the center’s existing products & services. The model is clear cut enough to make me at ease.
The office is situated on the top floor in a spot you think is uncomfortable at first glance, learn that is actually very comfortable after taking your seat and come to the conclusion of ‘extremely inconvenient’ after your first cup of coffee.
The spot is unusual, an open plan view deck of sorts, hanging over the busy shopping center. As you find your seat you notice the chairs and desks are adjustable, there’s personal power outlets, there’s WiFi and there’s a lot of natural light. The temperature is perfect and the noise level is optimal. The center’s music, ads and customer chatter echoes quietly to the top floor creating a pleasant background noise. For a second you’re in a distance work paradise.
After consuming a cup of coffee you’ll notice something ridiculous: There’s no toilets. I mean, there are, but they’re on the first floor at the other end of the oblong shopping center. In order to take a bathroom break, you have to travel around 5 minutes each way. Since the office space is open and visible to everyone visiting the shopping center, and the center is in a less than desirable neighbourhood, you’ll have to pack up your belongings and risk losing your seat every time you need the bathroom.
Overall the space is well suited for either quiet solowork or calm teamwork, not so much for heated brainstorming sessions. The natural light and the great air quality kept me focused and awake; It's the perfect place to write a coworking review.
During my visit the coffee machine was out of order, a stroke of luck I suppose, since that majorly cut down on my need to visit the bathrooms.
Grade (4-10): 7
The last stop was almost comically a combination of every space preceding it. Startup Sauna in Otaniemi has a slightly cumbersome location, a business model I didn’t get, a beautiful open plan space with phone booths for privacy and uncomfortable chairs & desks.
I had no idea how the place was kept running, and no idea what I was expected to do there to cover the costs. The lack of rules and instructions didn’t bother me much, though, as there were no ‘authorities’ and hardly any visitors there. Indeed it felt like I’d stumbled into a deserted well stocked office and I was free to do as I please. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?
There’s room for casual team meetings, there’s privacy for sensitive calls, there’s plenty of desks to choose from for solowork and there’s a fantastic kitchen to keep you nourished. Startup Sauna was less of a one-time-visit hub for distance work, and more of an HQ for startups.
All in all, the first week as a digital nomad taught me a lot: Always have water with you (not all spaces offer access to water), scout the private corners of the space when you come in, so you know where to run to, when an important call comes in, and always, always, carry a phone charger with you. When it turns out the space doesn't offer free WiFi (such things still happen even in spaces meant for digital nomads) you'll need to use your phone as a WiFi hot spot and it'll drain the battery in a matter of a few hours.