Article by Charles Watson – Workplace relations and compliance specialist
The international rise of coworking spaces over the last decade has been awesome, particularly if you are a start-up, freelancer or a small operator that needs a less formal office arrangement. Are the days of tech-titans coming out of a parents garage all but gone? Can we have mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships by working in the same space? Maybe, but just like going to the swimming pool, things only work well if we understand the entry requirements and follow some rules.
For a much smaller fee than the usual commercial office, coworking spaces can be a great cost-effective option. You can get the basics, like a desk and internet, if that is all you need. Conversely, catering, IT support and concierge services can be available. Some spaces are minimalist, some are pretty swanky. Most everything is optional on a user pays basis.
Currently, I work out of such premises 3 or 4 days per week, and while it’s not for everyone, it has been interesting and at times rewarding. As a business we stay agile by only using the space we need for the team, and reduce or increase as and when required.
I have to be honest and say it took me some time to adjust to not having a dedicated office and to get over the ‘open plan’ feel while still finding my ‘Zen place’. But nothing a good set of headphones hasn’t mostly sorted. If I have to think deeply over a client’s matter, make a sensitive phone call, or undertake my habit of verbalising while I prepare my advocacy, I use one of the meeting rooms. Alternatively, I will work from home where my dogs aren’t disturbed with my thinking out loud, and everything I say is interesting to them.
It’s tenancy, but not as you know it!
Businesses contemplating these types of premises must look at the legal arrangements carefully. They are not the usual commercial tenancy arrangement that creates exclusive possession and use. Rather than a lease you will essentially enter into a licencing agreement. So, read and understand the terms and conditions you are accepting. Those terms are generally quite comprehensive, but often push responsibility onto the licensee wherever possible. There are some legal concepts and practicalities that apply differently in these environments. Remember, should you breach those house terms, you will likely get kicked to the curb fairly quickly.
Groups of humans
In such environments there are human issues that need to be considered, assessed and planned for. If you bring humans together the odd negative issue is likely to arise. What happens if an issue arises between your worker and a worker from another business? Who is responsible for dealing with the issue, and how should it be handled?
Well the answer is…it depends. In some respects, those responsibilities and liabilities will fall on the building owner or the principal of the coworking space. Other issues will fall squarely on the individual company or business licencing the use of the space, and some liability could be seen to be shared. Yet others fall into a grey and undecided zone, and we wait for judicial reasoning somewhere down the road.
That being said, what should you as a licensee or licensor be ensuring you implement, particularly from a ‘people’ perspective to ensure a happy village?
before diving in…Some considerations
It’s a catchphrase for what may have once upon a time be called standards and civility, but ensure the appropriate culture is created and maintained across all participants. Don’t walk past inappropriate behaviour of your workers, and talk to other employers if their workers are negatively impacting your team. Although not strictly a workplace culture issue, don’t overlook the small things. By this I mean don’t let Barry leave his stinky shoes lying around, or share the reheated odour of last night’s failed culinary attempts with the entire building. I’m fine with someone playing Slipknot next to me, but bad smells or mindless chatter about a reality show?…Nope.
Start things off on the right foot with all workers by having a site induction that states behavioural expectations along with other responsibilities. The premises may already have a range of policies/requirements that both your business and workers are required to follow. Such requirements are also likely to include you being responsible for your visitors while they are on site.
Most businesses operating out of coworking spaces are likely to be running a small team. Nonetheless, and even though we are all meant to be adults, implementing your own workplace policies dealing with conduct are a must. Perhaps a well drafted code of conduct would suffice. Like in any workplace, don’t just tick and flick at the commencement of employment. Revisit those policies periodically and involve your team in the process.
Just don’t make your policies a strict term of the employment contract. Otherwise you will have to renegotiate the contract if you want to update your policies. Just reference them in the contract and you can revisit and revise them as required.
WHS and workers compensation
Also consider an appropriately drafted workplace health and safety policy specific for your coworking space. Workplace safety is non-negotiable no matter what industry you’re in or what arrangement the premises are considered, it’s still a workplace. If you have employees then the usual workers compensation insurance requirements and employer liability will continue to apply. Talk with your insurer over such tenancy arrangements to ensure you have appropriate and adequate coverage of your workers and property/assets.
Given coworking spaces have numerous and varied businesses sharing the space, issues of confidentiality will arise. Trust is great but it only goes so far. Both your workers and your clients will want to know there is adequate privacy and confidentiality, and that no sensitive material is left lying around or easily accessible by others. We don’t really have hardcopy records these days and generally file material electronically with the various tribunals and courts.
Each business needs to risk assess their particular workplace and determine what measures and protocols need to be implemented for IT security and other forms of confidentiality and privacy. Do you have your own IT boffins looking after you, or are they part of a shared services arrangement?
Essentially, if everyone in co-working spaces can be a little respectful and thoughtful of those around them then happy days. If an issue arises, address it quickly to avoid things getting out of hand. My experience in a coworking space has both broadened and confirmed my views on a range of workplace related people issues. On a personal level it has been rewarding and I have mostly enjoyed the experience. Although my legal brain seeks to find risks in such situations, and they do exist, generally it is a fairly mature and convenient arrangement so long as you go into it with ‘eyes wide open’.