How co-working is renovating traditional office and work culture in India

Members at a 91Springboard facility in Delhi’s Nehru Place. Photo: Dalip Kumar
As you approach the knee-length glass turnstiles of a WeWork campus in Gurugram, you notice enthusiastic people punching their access numbers into a stationed iPad. Unburdened by laptop bags, they briskly walk through the gates to engage with more people of their kind. Wednesdays are typically two full workdays ahead of the weekend. But most of them, who are in their 20s and 30s, don’t look so much in need of a break. Rather than a workplace, this feels more like a summer camp where working adults are about to break into a flash mob.

For someone used to working out of a conventional office, this is a bewildering — and refreshing — experience. Sharika Kaul, a community associate at WeWork, offers to give a tour of the place. She’s an enterprising 25-year-old who has recently moved from Los Angeles. Ask her if she misses the city of angels and she will convince you that she was meant to be here.

The co-working concept of leasing small spaces within a building to startups operating on a shoestring budget five years ago has evolved into what feels like a chic mix of personal and professional social networks operating in a physical space. Startups, entrepreneurs and large corporations working under the same roof is like dress shoes, heels and sneakers trying to learn from each other’s gait.

A recent study by real estate consulting firm Jones Lang LaSalle estimates than 13 million people in India will be working out of co-working spaces by 2020 and the industry will attract investments of up to $400 million by the end of this year.

 Back at WeWork, the turnstiles open into a large common area. Dark tan leather sofas are spread around light-coloured wooden tables in sets, along with a variety of seating options like a garnishing of vibrant colours around the space. There is a long table with high stools in the background that looks like a bar counter and you will be forgiven for inadvertently walking towards it. It’s hard to miss the beer taps and one wonders why people are still swarming around the coffee machines, oatmeal cookie stacks and fruit-flavoured water dispensers. Maybe the bar is not open yet. It’s 4.45 pm and the music is beginning to switch genres.

The ground floor of one of the WeWork spaces in Gurugram. Photos: Dalip Kumar

The common area is connected to glass doors that lead to private offices, conference rooms and meeting areas where art pieces adorn the walls. The shapes of rooms vary from personal cabins for C-suite executives to space for large teams. Complete floors are reserved only for large corporations. WeWork has five similarly designed floors in the building with a total seating capacity of over 1,400. Memberships for one person start at Rs 13,000 a month for a “hot desk” — as opposed to a dedicated desk — and Rs 24,700 a month for a private office.

 GoDaddy’s team had booked its space here even before the building was ready. Nikhil Arora, vice-president and managing director of GoDaddy’s India operations, says that WeWork’s heterogeneous crowd is perfect for them. “Most of these people and companies are potential clients for us and the open culture is perfect for picking new management practices,” he says. “That our employees are more productive when they have a lot of fun is a bonus.”

 Why wouldn’t they be? There’s Bira on tap and Blue Tokai coffee, table tennis and fuse ball, and thinking rooms, quiet rooms and phone booths. There’s also an honesty market with knick-knacks in baskets to choose from. You can pick and leave, and pay later, if you will. High-speed internet, office supplies and housekeeping are a standard part of membership across all co-working spaces. As Kaul sits on a bar stool chatting  about the various community building exercises that her team undertakes, mats roll out right next to her and Zoey Modgil, WeWork’s wellness partner, is ready to take her weekly core-strengthening session.

WeWork, a global chain of shared work spaces in 22 countries, entered India in July last year in partnership with Embassy Group. The joint venture is led by Embassy's 26-year-old scion, Karan Virwani, who is the CEO of WeWork in India. Instead of replicating the idea of co-working that had developed in the West, Virwani says he actively chose to invest in WeWork and bring it to India. “My father and I were floored when we first entered the WeWork headquarters in New York a few years ago. There’s a lot of science in its design and technology, and they have an expertise in running large spaces,” he says. The company has eight campuses spread across Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi-NCR and intends to expand its total seating capacity to 30,000 by the end of this year.

Young entrepreneurs at a Workbench Projects Fablab in Bengaluru. Photo: Dalip Kumar

Bengaluru, where WeWork has its largest campus with a gym and a rooftop pool, is a hub for startups and a big market for co-working spaces.

IndiQube had started renting its extra space to startups three years ago. It now has 25 properties across Bengaluru and a premium client list that includes Levi’s, Samsung and online food delivery platform Freshmenu.

“We didn’t want to buy the furniture or deal with a landlord when we started out,” says Rashmi Daga, founder of Freshmenu.

Meghna Agrawal, co-founder of IndiQube, says that just lending out space doesn’t really do justice to the term “co-working”. “Customisation is important for a venture that wants to be a part of a larger ecosystem and still wants to be able to cultivate its own ethos and philosophy,” she says.

Memberships at co-working spaces depend heavily on the location (real estate prices) and customisations. IndiQube sells individual monthly access between Rs 8,000 and Rs 14,000.

Bengaluru is also the hub of innovations. Some co-working spaces are moving away from customising and managing real estate for companies and are tapping into niche markets. Think of a technology startup that is building prototypes and needs expensive power tools, 3D printers and laser cutters. There’s a co-working space even for it.

Workbench Projects, for example, is a Fablab, a space certified by the Fab Foundation that has emerged from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The whole idea is that you walk into a Fablab in India, the US or Germany and you’ll be right at home with all your prototyping equipment,” says its founder and CEO Pavan Kumar. It takes Rs 3,000 a month for a person to make use of Workbench’s hardware-friendly makerspace. Here, you’ll mostly run into budding entrepreneurs in their 20s building circuits.

It’s an open market in India today for co-working spaces to flourish, especially in bigger cities where real estate prices are sky-rocketing and prime locations are running out of space. But this wasn’t the case five years ago when 91Springboard entered the market with the idea of building a community. It began with incubating startups — giving them space to function, mentorship and helping them secure future investments — in exchange for equity. The company soon built a network of entrepreneurs and startups.

It now has over 20 campuses spread across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune and Goa. One of its recently opened facilities in Delhi is in stark contrast to its location — the chaotic Nehru Place market where hawkers have the same sales pitch for software and chickpeas.

The third-floor hub is a modest space with warm lighting, lounge chairs, bar stools, sofas, desk spaces and entertainment zones. The sense of community is visible in how quickly members get comfortable. It is difficult to distinguish a member who is a few months old from a person “hot desking” for a day, especially when they are both playing a friendly match of football on the PS4. Srishti Aggarwal, the 25-year-old manager of the hub, speaks highly of the bond. “The community teams from all hubs meet annually in Goa. Some of our old members even volunteer to fill in for us in the meantime,” she says.

At a starting price of Rs 6,500 a month, 91Springboard members are allowed to use any of its facilities across the country, which gives them more networking opportunities. Aggarwal speaks about the various community building events, such as “startup open houses” where companies showcase their products and “mentor hours” where young entrepreneurs have one-on-one sessions with venture capitalists and industry experts.

Rahul Gupta of Mrida group, a startup that works to improve lives in rural areas by managing CSR projects for companies, says that co-working spaces such as 91Springboard turn out to be much more cost-effective than running your own office. He is part of a 17-member team working out of the facility. “My company saves on salaries for administrative, IT, housekeeping and security staff, and also the hassle of finding, renting and maintaining an office space,” he says. “Even the HR function of employee engagement is taken care of by the community team.”

91Springboard’s Co-founder Pranay Gupta has his priorities clear. “We turn down large corporations asking for exclusive access or entire buildings,” he says. “We don’t want to manage real estate for companies that can’t be a part of our culture.” Gupta says that while there is a market for it, they are positioning 91Springboard as premium and not luxury.

Among the new players in the field is GoWork, which has two locations in Gurugram with a total seating capacity of 11,000. It is preparing to tap into the luxury market by giving exclusive floor access to premium members, while also maintaining economical spaces for individuals and small startups.

It has a bar in the works on the seventh floor and Chief Evangelist Sudeep Singh says they are also contemplating making spas and suites within the campus. “We’ll soon have a ‘frustration room’ where we will have an old car and a sledge hammer (for employees to vent on),” he says. The company is also in talks with a large enterprise to manage an entire building for it in Noida. Singh is already scouting for more space.

It’s difficult for startups to predict their growth and having abundance of space helps them scale up much faster. “(If needed) I can hire 20 people in one go and sign up for more desks. It’s that simple,” says Bharat Kalra, co-founder of Lifelong, an e-commerce firm working out of GoWork.

Working out of upscale offices in prime locations that have club house amenities is helping even small companies attract the best of talent. Not everyone gets to work out of the LEGO office in London, Facebook headquarters in San Francisco or the Google office in Delhi, but maybe a tour of a co-working space in your city will change your perception of the “best places to work”. A day’s access starts at as low as Rs 350.