Co-working spaces – a working option for Penang

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It was bound to come to Penang sooner or later. The possibilities that the internet provides have changed how we seek information, how we socialise and how we work. It is changing where we work as well.

For 20 and 30-somethings, working all day in an office cubicle is increasingly becoming an antiquated concept especially since, for a lot of people, all that is really needed for work is a good internet connection and a laptop. Instead, there is a growing worldwide trend of people working freelance or using company “flexitime” to work from home or coffee shops.

However, coffee shops and cafes aren’t always the best working environments – chatty neighbours and an unsecured work space can be distracting and time-wasting. This is where co-working comes in.

The idea is simple: independent workers such as entrepreneurs, contractors and microbusinesses come together to work in a shared space which is rented on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. The idea isn't new, other similar concepts such as hot-desking and cubicles-for-rent have been around for years, but co-working offers a working space that's as comfortable as a cafe with all the facilities and structures of an office, such as printers and scanners, office supplies and meeting rooms, which can be especially important for start-ups trying to show professionalism when signing up new clients.

 

 

 

Co-working spaces took off in recent years in cities like San Francisco, New York, London and Berlin, and on a smaller scale throughout East Asia – Beijing, Bangkok, Tokyo and Singapore, for example. There is already a number of co-working facilities in KL such as White Space International, Nook, Paper+Toast, FluentSpace and Alt. Space, all of which prove the city’s status as an entrepreneurial hub, attracting small start-ups or freelancers.

And now Penang has also taken the plunge. Launched in March, Work Palette, situated in Pulau Tikus, attracts freelancers, technopreneurs and small start-ups who’d rather swap the isolation common to normal work for the synergy that occurs when talented people share space. In return they pay a sliding monthly subscription, ranging from RM23 for a four-hour pass or RM45 for a day pass to RM650-RM750 for a monthly pass, depending on the access they need.

“We opened Work Palette because there was nothing like it in Penang,” said Zye Ramli, associate partner at Work Palette. “Sure, there are a few virtual offices but no co-working space was available for young professionals and individual entrepreneurs. KL alone has eight co-working spaces and the numbers are mushrooming by the month.”

So what is fuelling the co-working trend? Perhaps it’s because co-working providers have finally figured out what people want in a workplace. Aesthetically, these spaces are designed to foster untapped creativity and energy to lure people in. Sharing facilities at a reduced cost is also an incentive, but the true value of co-working lies in the sense of community that is formed.

“We believe that employment trends in Penang are shifting as we’ve seen higher numbers of young graduates choosing to venture into their own business right after they finished high school, college or university,” said Zye. “Most work from home or coffee shops, before soon realising that working alone is no longer productive. We developed Work Palette to realise the opportunity and idea of cooperative working and business matching.”

It is argued that workers from different backgrounds and industries create a stimulating atmosphere where people can more easily make use of the group’s collective knowledge and experience, leading to increased collaboration and innovation. The process is known as “accelerated serendipity” – the theory that happy accidents happen more often in the right circumstances.

Some observers even believe that if new co-working spaces continue to thrive, larger corporations can profit from sending employees to work in them.

So what does this new co-working trend mean for Penang? Co-working is one of the ingredients in the move towards realising the vision of Penang as an “intelligent state”. Coworking, as evidence of increasing creative and entrepreneurial behaviour, represents the shift away from an industrial city where economic development translates to infrastructure and manufacturing, towards encouraging cities to build thier competitive advantage based on its people.

Since its opening, Work Palette has seen a mix of people coming to use the facilities: organisations and community groups have hired out the conference room for brainstorming activities; a group of gamers meets regularly to use the recreational space; environmental groups have come on board with collaborations on projects; and then there are individuals who rent a space just to work. “We are certainly overwhelmed with the response,” Zye enthused.

What’s interesting is that Work Palette has seen quite a number of expats rushing for desk space, raising the question: does Penang have the potential to become a coworking hub similar to what’ s happening on the islands of Bali and Hawaii? Hubud, a co-working space in Ubud, northern Bali, attracts nomad freelancers – those who prefer to combine travel and work – who are always on the lookout for value-for-money when it comes to cost of living. Most people perceive island living for a holiday break, they return to big city life for work. But these islands are actually attracting co-workers because they are away from the hustle and bustle and the expenses that come with living in capital cities.

Although still in their early days in Penang, co-working spaces such as Work Palette demonstrate an attitude shift towards more flexible and creative working conditions, which may even have the potential to draw those from abroad to not simply get lost in paradise, but thrive in paradise.

Maxine Carr is a research analyst at the Penang Institute.



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