First Hand — To rent a desk space or work from home? Rose Pilkington on her quest for freelance space
We’ve all seen those photos of dream offices, the ones laden with tropical plants, imaginatively themed meeting rooms, indoor tree houses and company ball pits. Our expectations of the modern workplace have certainly evolved over the years. And with the rise of co-working spaces boasting benefits like the sharing of costs, or the promise of some kind of community, spaces are becoming increasingly desirable. But what are the realities of actually finding desk space to rent in London? To find out, we spoke to motion designer and visual designer, Rose Pilkington.
Having worked as a freelancer from a desk in her living room for the past two years, Rose recently decided to commit to searching for a new space to work. So what was the experience like? “God, it’s all such a blur” Rose tells us. Disillusioned not only by the process of finding the right space, but by her findings – small spaces advertised for increasingly high prices – she took to Twitter to share some of the examples. Here, we asked her to recount the experience and the challenges she encountered while trying to find a space in such a competitive market.
Freelancing from home
Before going freelance in October 2016, I was working at a design studio full of people. After I left, I worked from home for about a year and a half – but I’d never considered getting a studio or desk space. At the time, I thought it was the dream: I’d set up a desk in the corner of my living room, and for a while, it was amazing. I really enjoyed being in my own space and working solo. But I hit a point where I realised that my mental health was being seriously affected by the lack of interaction with people. That’s when I started considering getting a space.
Feeling like a recluse
At first, it was the expense that I was hugely worried about; it felt like a luxury to consider paying for another space when I had a set-up at home already. But I realised that it’s actually really important to be around other people, even if it’s just having someone around to have a chat with or to take a break from work. It’s such a simple, but important thing, and I had found myself feeling like a bit of a recluse. It was something I’d never really thought about, I literally didn’t know where to start.
“At first, it felt like a luxury to consider paying for another space when I had a set-up at home already.”
Shocking prices on Gumtree
I started the search on Gumtree and quickly realised just how much the whole thing is like searching for a flat. The prices were so high and the spaces were so small; it felt like you were just looking to pay for a bedroom on top of your rent. The only difference is that these spaces aren’t being snapped up quite as quickly as a flat would be in London. The prices were shocking, which is why I took to Twitter, and started tweeting some of the worst culprits I had seen online.
There were people offering a tiny section of a desk, shared with five other people, for £200–300 a month. While that could work for laptop-based creatives, it just seemed like quite a stressful situation to work in. You’d see five desks crammed into one studio space, and the advertiser charging £200 for one desk, split between two people. These are the spaces that you just wouldn’t even bother going to see, they were pretty dire situations.
Having an ‘in’ and word-of-mouth
While things were coming up on Gumtree, I felt really at a loss as to what parts of the internet I needed to search to even begin to find these places. It’s a silly thing, but I did find myself struggling with what terms to even use in search engines; whether it should be ‘artists space’ or ‘artist desk space’.
I put the word out on Instagram, and had a few people respond, but it’s really difficult when you don’t have an ‘in’ – i.e. directly knowing someone who has a space and has a desk going. It’s the searching for already established studio spaces where other creatives are offering a desk in their small community that's tricky to find. So much of it seems to be word-of-mouth or knowing someone who has a desk going, that makes searching from scratch very difficult.
Location, location, location
Initially I was looking specifically around North and East London, and of course, if you’re looking around Dalston and Hackney, the price is going to be much higher than Peckham or Brixton. But it was weird, because even when I expanded my search out to London in general, there weren’t many more options. It’s pretty slim pickings out there.
I never considered moving out of London. I knew that there would be a plethora of options at amazing prices outside of London, but in my mind, the only consideration I took into account was going South. And even then – while I don’t mind a commute to work – I don’t know if I could commute that far. The solution would have just been to stay at home and continue a life of reclusiveness and feeling sad.
Searching for a creative community
I had a period of having no work, so I spent a hardcore month viewing spaces practically everyday. If I had to work around that, it probably would have taken me two or three months to find a space. It was definitely a long-winded process.
I viewed so many studio spaces, but often what put me off was the environment not feeling right. I was looking for something that had the right atmosphere and a variety of creatives working in different disciplines – a creative community. But what I found with some of that spaces that some felt particularly corporate, and the price certainly reflected that.
WeWork had extremely high prices and felt quite exclusive; I don’t know what you’d have to do to be able to afford a £400 space. They offer spaces in buildings where there’s lots of people split off in different departments, but it didn’t seem to cater for everyone. So the lack of space available and the cost they were charging were surprising to me.
But there are studios like Cell Studios which have quite a good community. When they have a desk space available, they have to put it up for £250 a month because it’s the landlord in charge, not them. Hackney Downs Studio also really appealed to me, which is a bustling community of artists, illustrators and designers. If a space came up there, I was ready to jump on it. Space Studios offer private, and slightly larger artist studios, and The Wing is also really interesting – it’s a womens’ only co-working space in New York that’s apparently coming to London soon. Using deskcamping.com was also really helpful when exploring options.
“I viewed so many studio spaces, but often what put me off was the environment.”
Security was also sometimes an issue. I found a studio space in Dalston with six other creatives; it was the perfect situation, nice people, light and bright, and enough space for desk and storage. But as with the nature of artist warehouse-type studios, there was barely any security on the building, it was literally locked with a padlock and they had had several break-ins before. Something like this would perhaps suit laptop-based creatives, but not for those looking for a permanent desktop set-up.
All of these large spaces, more often that not are very expensive, and need to be shared amongst others. Some require you to become a leaseholder, and in some situations, a guarantor of a large space shared with others seems like a quite a hefty responsibility.
Settling on a space
I ended my search on a last minute ad that popped up on Gumtree, with two graphic designers and one web developer in a small studio in Lighthouse Studios. It was dog friendly and full of plants. I was sold!
Reflections and recommendations
Start small! Affordable desk spaces do exist in London, it just takes a bit of perseverance and sifting through hundreds of hilarious Gumtree ads to find them. I realised I have my whole career to work up towards getting that dream white cube and filling it with plants, neons and pink furniture! So no need to jump into any expensive contracts and leases yet. Sharing with strangers and new people can also be really rewarding, as I found with my new set-up at Lighthouse Studios.