Why you should care

Because this could be the future of the sharing economy.

It is a Thursday afternoon and I am frantically vacuuming, trying to strike the right balance between sterile and homely. Do I have time to buy biscuits? Too late, there’s a knock at the door. My guest, whom I met via an app, is here.

This is not a romantic date, though I do have the jitters. Rather, I am hosting a stranger to work alongside me in my kitchen, to test out a new concept called home coworking. It appeals to lonely freelance workers hoping to find a sense of community without incurring the expense of formal coworking spaces — think of it as Airbnb meets WeWork.

The app that introduced us is called Kitchin Table. It matches female hosts with female guests, in the latest iteration of the home coworking trend.

After we have figured out the ground rules, my co-worker, who does not want to be named in the Financial Times, tells me over a cup of tea that she is here because she craved a change of scene from the startup where she works. As a newcomer to London, she is keen to meet people. She is also easy to talk to — too easy, it turns out, as we spend most of our time chatting.

This … is the true meaning of the sharing economy, using “underutilized” homes in working hours.

Networking in a relaxed setting was one of the reasons why Laila Dupuy, a former lawyer turned freelancer, founded Kitchin Table. Many female freelancers told her they were lonely: “It can be hard to meet other women,” she says. “I hate networking events. You’re on your feet for two hours and stuck in Canary Wharf.”

The app, which was soft-launched in May, charges hosts 10 percent of the fee, which, as it tries to build a customer base, is kept low at about 5 to 15 pounds per day (though this varies according to services provided). One host based in Texas charged $100 a day, which included use of her pool and tennis facilities. By comparison, WeWork, the global coworking company, charges between 200 and 500 pounds a month for a hot desk in London.

Kitchin Table is not the first venture to encourage coworking in kitchens and living rooms. Jelly was founded in 2006 by New York freelancers who held regular work meetups in homes. Others sprang up around the world in coffee shops, pubs, hotel lobbies and coworking spaces.

One early adopter was Christofer Gradin Franzén, a Swedish psychologist. Four years ago, he had an epiphany when he realized his private and professional life did not reflect what he was espousing — the importance of collective intelligence at work.

“I was generally sitting by myself at coffee shops, coworking spaces and home,” he says.

Coworking offices, such as those run by WeWork, promise a community, but this is illusory, says Franzén: “Community is something that emerges from a group of peers who feel motivated to belong and contribute.”

He believes that a workers’ community that facilitates collaboration on projects and encourages an exchange of ideas and skills is not forged through a financial transaction. Paying for membership means that workers are likely to abdicate that responsibility to the service provider.

With a friend, Franzén invited freelancers to work at his home in Stockholm, which has evolved into a network called Hoffice. That the sessions were not-for-profit appealed to him.

This, he says, is the true meaning of the sharing economy, using “underutilized” homes in working hours.

As I found with my guest, one of the pitfalls is the temptation to chat. In order to get around “work drift,” Hoffice participants complete 45-minute bursts of concentrated work followed by 15 minutes of socializing before starting again.

Amanda Brown, an entrepreneur who has worked from home for more than 20 years and the author of Homepreneur, a book about home-working, runs regular sessions from her home outside London. “There’s a bit of peer pressure. It adds variety, focus and discipline,” she says. “I ring a digital bell. It’s a bit like being at school and people seem to warm to it.”

Keryn Potts, a freelance social media consultant based in London, mixes coworking at a friend’s home with an informal nursery. Guests contribute to the cost of a babysitter so that they can concentrate on work elsewhere in the house. “It helps you to be more productive. You’re paying for it,” says Potts. “It’s more flexible than [a] nursery and getting into coworking contracts.”

In Franzén’s experience, there are two types of people who want to attend: those who have difficulty focusing, and those who get lost in their work and need “to socialize to get more energy.”

Franzén now coworks only when he needs to combat procrastination on administrative chores, such as invoicing clients. Others use sessions to complete tedious tasks, rewarding themselves with a chat after bouts of concentration.

The sessions work best, Franzén says, with groups of three to six people. Larger groups call for more facilitating, which makes it harder for the host to focus on his or her own work. Trust is important: “In groups that are growing too fast, people become a bit afraid of inviting people. They should grow slowly,” Franzén says.

There can also be friction. “If someone is not adhering to the norms of the group, the facilitator has to bring this up. This is one of the tricky concepts,” Franzén says.

That is a polite way of putting it. Security is a concern. Kitchin Table does not have a rigorous vetting procedure — I was encouraged to host my guest because she had already met the founder. Brown only welcomes co-workers who have been recommended by people she knows. Franzén believes that to run large networks of guests and hosts, there needs to be a peer-to-peer verification and vouching system.

Yet with an affable guest — and if the chemistry is right — it is a great way to make connections for people, like me, who hate networking. In fact, the only downside was we wanted to chat.

Emma Jacobs and her house guest compare notes

Emma says:

I met my working house guest twice. Once to break the ice to see if we wanted to work alongside each other. And the second (having decided we did) for an afternoon of work. I was nervous, but I might have felt more so if I had invited a strange man to my home. I banned my partner, who sometimes works from home from our flat, as I didn’t want my guest to feel outnumbered.

In order to focus, I disappeared to another room, occasionally shouting, “Are you OK?” and she got on with writing a report in my kitchen.

I didn’t charge my guest for the time. The social accountability, however, was important. It was harder to procrastinate in my usual ways by washing up or snacking. I enjoyed the experiment and we have subsequently emailed each other. But as an employee who only works occasionally at home, I am hardly representative of freelance life, so I am unlikely to do this regularly.

Emma’s house guest says:

I may have found it a bit hard to have gotten much done if we had stayed [in the same room] together because I would be more interested in chatting. I reflect upon my experience [as] an interesting way to meet someone nearby and escape my daily routine, which has often felt dull.

I generally felt quite relaxed, which was a nice change of pace and did feel a bit different from being in a workspace where the people around you are your colleagues, and there are often barriers related to professionalism. I felt quite comfortable and at ease.

I also wonder if we became good friends in the future, I’m not sure how it would feel to pay to be in Emma’s space.

After this positive experience, I may try it out to see what other hosts are like.

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By Emma Jacobs

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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