The advantages of working in a shared space can be plenty. Penang Monthly speaks to three coworkers about the many social and individual benefits they have gained since starting out on their own.
At the time of writing, brand consultant Charlie Osborne was about a month into his stint as a digital nomad at @CAT Penang. “There are a few reasons why Penang jumped out for me. I found out on a blog article that Penang is an up-and-coming place for digital nomads. The idea sounded cool so I did a bit of research and found out about the visa and the fact that it’s hassle-free to visit Malaysia for such a long amount of time. It’s a great plus, but what really got my attention was you get value for money with the coworking spaces here.”
He recalls his first visit to @CAT: “The architecture and open space concept is amazing. I met some of the people working here and they all seem super friendly. I got such a warm welcome; it was clear as day that I was totally coming back. It’s a good space for getting work done as well – there’s a real drive and focus. Everybody is quite dedicated to their projects; you can’t help but be inspired by your surroundings.”
Most coworking spaces provide opportunities for social interactions, and while the social community at @CAT is vibrant and thriving, Osborne thinks more can be done. “There are certain places that I’ve been to that would have drinks every Friday or multiple events every week to socialise and network. Since I’ve been here, there have been a few such events. The second day I visited @CAT, I perfectly timed it – it was the free coworking day where everyone was invited in and there was free pizza!
“So, yes, there’s definitely some good things, but I guess I’ve been spoilt by other places which are extremely good. One in particular is Dojo Bali which for me is an unbeatable social experience. They have speed networking events where you meet loads of people from different backgrounds and industries in very short sessions.
“Being a digital nomad and moving around a lot, one of the hardest things to do is to meet people when you get to a new place. It’s a big reason why I go to coworking spaces to meet interesting people who are doing interesting things. That’s a big driver for me – community, people and making connections.”
And oftentimes, these connections also translate into collaborations with other digital nomads. “It’s happening more and more as time goes on – it was one of the things I hoped to achieve when I first set out as a digital nomad. One thing that recently came about was I desperately needed a developer to complete a website design that I’d done, and a developer I met back in Bali came to the rescue. Now, he’s my go-to developer. So in terms of collaboration, there’s that and there’s also work opportunities with potential new clients. So far in Penang, I haven’t had any opportunities yet – maybe it’s too soon.
“I think these things tend to grow and evolve gradually over time and it’s very difficult to predict where an opportunity will come from with such an organic process. The connections that I made literally this time last year are only now turning into opportunities. I suppose it takes that long to nurture relationships with trust involved,” he says.
While travelling through South-east Asia, Mark Rösler of Authentic German Learning discovered @CAT on his first trip to Penang. “@CAT’s the most convenient of the spaces I’ve been to in terms of getting from one place to the next. That, and I also spend a good deal of time here, so I’d say 24-hour access is definitely at the top of my list when scouting out potential coworking spaces.”
The cost of living here is a definite boon as well. “In all the countries that I’ve been to in South-east Asia,” says Rösler, “it is truly the case that eating out is as expensive or not much more than if you were to buy and prepare a meal for yourself, which is so different from Germany or Europe in general where when you eat out, it will cost you about 10 times more.”
And speaking of food, @CAT’s pantry is the ideal place to meet new people and break the ice, says Rösler. “Even if it’s just like ordering food in, it’s always a good opportunity to get to know one another better. Plus, there’s unlimited flow of coffee and cookies – it’s so tempting. I have to watch out!” he laughs.
An introvert by nature, Rösler admits, however, that organised activities can at times be overwhelming, regardless of how interesting they are. “I find the ones put together by @CAT to be very good. But I also think it varies greatly how much and how often coworking spaces conduct events as well.
“The best coworking space I can compare it to is The Hive in Ho Chi Minh City, where I previously worked at, and they actually hosted less events. The highlight would be once a month; there would be a movie night. Socialising was never a top priority. In fact, almost all the people I met at The Hive were only at their desks to work. So I suppose @CAT sits in the middle between The Hive and Dojo Bali,” explains Rösler, referring to Osborne’s favourite coworking space.
“But like everything else, it has both a good and a bad side in that you get to meet a lot of interesting people whom you then have to say goodbye to when the time comes. I was an exchange student for a year when I was 17, and the benefit that I got out of the experience was the freedom to completely reinvent myself, away from expectations on how I was to behave around people in my daily life.
“Your parents, your friends – they have expectations of how you’re supposed to act if you’re shy or extroverted by nature. We don’t even deviate from that just because people generally expect us to act a certain way. In a sense, being a digital nomad, I have that liberation every time I go to a new place and meet new people. It’s a completely blank slate – nobody knows me and I can be whoever I want.”
An online search for a place to work – albeit on a restricted budget – led freelance web developer Adrian Fernandez to Penang’s coworking ecosystem; and after extensive research, he finally settled on @CAT. “The most important thing is the cost, and the amount of space I get to use for that price,” he explains. “A hot desk can range anywhere from RM300 to RM500, but @CAT offers a great deal. I have my own space without having to constantly move around.
“I like my environment to be dynamic, and at @CAT, there’s no limit to what can happen. You get to see all kinds of people doing all sorts of things here. Sometimes, you can even see people shooting commercials and videos. It’s a very lively environment, and creativity-wise, it has given my work more purpose,” says Fernandez, who established Cymric Studio to help small businesses achieve greater impact.
(From top) Charlie Osborne, Mark Rösler and Adrian Fernandez.
A coworking space certainly affords one a high degree of autonomy, but to keep structure in his professional life, Fernandez maintains strict self-discipline. “It’s the one quality I carried with me from my previous firm. I’ve set an end goal – to be part of projects that are world-changing like Uber – and there are multiple stages that I have to work on to achieve said target. It is very easy to get side-tracked when you’re doing this alone, so strict discipline must be practised at times. But the best part is that once you’ve hit a milestone, you’re all fired up to do even better and that makes you feel like the second target is even closer – more achievable.”
Fernandez also notes several benefits working at a coworking space, chief among which is the absence of direct competition and internal politicking. “In my previous job, nobody talks about it but you can feel it around you – it’s intense. I don’t think it’s the same for every firm but in my case, it was detectable. It’s those subtle points of tension in office politics that I had to remember when I was rushing to complete a project. For example, Person A can’t see eye-to-eye with Person B and so, I can’t be seen talking to one in front of the either – it was draining, really demotivating.
“But I don’t see that at @CAT. The tension is not so palpable. In a traditional office setting, there’s a more complicated hierarchy and each group basically works within the confines of its own space. In a coworking space, the hierarchy is less complex because there are just a few layers most of the time, and what’s more, your boss is working alongside you doing the same exact work you’re doing. The bond is stronger – there is more collaboration than competition.”