Priest hole

Award-winning Sydney coworking is a game changer for freelancers. The catch for everyone still working back at corporate HQ is that the private retreat typology won’t scale – you’ll have to jump ship.

Much as Leigh Sales’ mutters about the size of Annabel Crabb’s ABC office, affectionately dubbed ‘the priest-hole’ in the unmissable Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast, a small, perfectly formed study can be all you need. For many people a door trumps a window.

I was part of the jury for the AIDA Impact award announced last week. Two projects were recognised in 2017: the extraordinary Bunjilaka at the Melbourne Musem, and Paramount by the Office Space in Surry Hills. The award recognises success over time from the user’s perspective. Paramount is achingly beautiful. I wanted to drop the jury deliberations and just move in. Each tiny pod is a perfect study for one – even if it’s nominally a two-person office. The tip that freelance friends moving into WeWork suggest is to go for a double. The two-person office has long been a sort of private hell. Who can think or write when the person next to you is on the phone? A two-person office only functions when you’ve got it to yourself.

People wandering through the National Gallery in London will come across a portrait of St Jerome – patron saint of the private office – sitting in his study (c1475, Antonello da Messina). My former boss, global workplace guru Frank Duffy cited this picture once as his nomination for “Delight”, the Architectural Review’s back-page column. The painting celebrates an ingenious piece of joinery for uninterrupted, well-lit contemplation inside a spacious palace – a place for your books as well as room for all your companion birds and animals. Maybe someone at Woods Bagot was thumbing through the old mags and stumbled across Frank’s column? Bravo to them for the luscious contemporary manifestation that The Office Space team now carefully tends.

But while freelancers in the sharing economy are embracing the private study, the big end of town is not about to swing back to dedicated offices. The ABC might still have some remnant offices, but its public broadcasting cousin, SBS, thrives on shared booths, and private pods and is thinking carefully about how to get more touchpoints internally on everything.

Most offices are all about different groups of people working together on different tasks/projects at different times; they need more informal spaces to come together than they do to focus separately. People who need to focus will stay at home or move somewhere they can avoid interruptions. Dedicated offices in corporate environments are expensive and usually empty. A WeWork typical floor with endless corridors would suck the life out of an organisation. In fact a WeWork room full of 50 desks where no one is allowed to make any noise is already a zombie space hybrid – urgent ethnographic research is needed here – not sure if its on WeWork’s punch list.

Paramount’s coworking model has barely a break-out area to speak of; even the perfectly-formed kitchen exists only as an island in the generous circulation space with standing room only folks (but just look how many people they can host at the opening party video). If you want to collaborate away from a meeting room – there are two – then Surry Hills’ coffee shops and a leafy park are your options. Which for independent operators is completely fine; the residents we met during the jury visit spoke compellingly of the nourishment that this community offers. Thoughtful service and curated events are providing the glue to bring people together. Community is extra-curricular, not core business.

The Soft Build is a strategy consultancy that helps people use buildings as a scaffold for organisational change.

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