By Celine Chaleat
5 October 2015
No command, no control
Back in 2005, the idea of opening a shared workspace catering for people with an idea and a laptop was a long way from the mainstream. Especially when that workspace is targeted at social entrepreneurs – a sector the corporate world still sees as "freaks and weirdoes", according to Richard Evans.
Luckily, trying the unusual is standard procedure for Impact Hub. They wanted to create a laboratory for new ideas.
Richard remembers the launch of Impact Hub King's Cross as a risky experiment. "We were one of the very first. We did it in a way we wouldn't advocate it now, which was build it and they will come," he says. And at first, they didn't – the hub was unable to pay its staff a salary in those testing early months, and entrepreneurs who shared their vision seemed extremely thin on the ground.
Their success is a testament to the power of big thinking. Even with financial disaster looming, the team backed the big idea and pulled together with a guerrilla marketing effort that reached out to London's growing community of social entrepreneurs. Their graft turned things around for the hub – and was vital in the development of the network's ethos.
"We made plenty of mistakes, but we're still here so we got something right," Richard says. "Nowadays most Impact Hubs start with a prototype space - it's low-cost, they build a community first. When they've got a community going they move into their permanent space."
The hubs are "locally owned and locally run. There's no top-down control of any kind – the structure is in our culture, our values and intent." This gives the hubs space to find innovative answers to the needs and wants of their members. So Berliners who live and work 24/7 built in a sleep pod to catch up on rest, while collaborative Madrileños wanted chalkboard walls they could trade scribbled ideas on.
On the surface, this might seem close to Silicon Valley's culture of kooky interior design. But while slides between floors or AstroTurfed breakout rooms give West Coast offices a veneer of creativity, they often don't prioritise functionality. At Impact Hub, if it doesn't do something useful, it's a waste of precious space.
That's why King's Cross has 'ear chairs' designed to block out the hubbub so people can make calls. They look great, and crucially remove the need for quiet booths that eat floorspace. And it's what drove Madrid's colourful solution to controlling tricky acoustics – hanging squares of material cut from its users' old clothes from the ceiling. Hacking the idea of the office means every hub is bespoke and every clever design feature makes the space work harder.
Richard feels corporate companies could benefit from this approach. But they "struggle with innovation." A change in outlook could be the key to rejuvenating the traditional office: "If they think about how you can create an environment where people are free to be themselves, they can have a little of what we've got…"
And that has one big benefit if you want to engage people, encourage creativity and boost productivity: "It makes work-life enjoyable – it's a fun place to hang out."
Have you seen any great office hacks? Share your favourite in the comments below.