Last week I had the opportunity to visit two very different virtual workspaces, close to each other in the west end of London. I’m contrasting them here, not to suggest that one is any better than the other, but to illustrate how two spaces with a rather similar set of requirements and starting points can nevertheless look and feel dramatically different.
180 Piccadilly is the home of the virtual office, and is part of a building that was originally the London office of French Railways, and still carries the word France in prominent capital letters along its frontage. What makes it into a virtual office, and not just a set of serviced offices, and what also explains the apparent paradox of the name ‘virtual office’ referring to a solid concrete building, is a mail room and a small call centre within the building. That means that businesses can create the illusion of being based in central London – right down to their mailing address and phone number – and offer meeting space in London, without their having any permanent physical presence there.
The call centre depends on a database which allows staff there to answer the phone in the most appropriate way for whichever of the virtual office’s clients they are representing. So the instructions, for a particular business, may be to route a call that’s intended for a manager to a mobile number, or to a voice mailbox if the manager is in a meeting. The building also includes short-term office space and meeting rooms.
If the virtual office in Piccadilly is a hotel for business – a description that its owners sometimes use themselves – the other virtual workspace that I visited, the Westminster Hub, is closer to a fashionable campsite, perhaps the place for the business equivalent of the curious early-21st century pastime of glamping.
By a strange coincidence, the hub is also in a building that was intially put up to represent a particular country – in this case New Zealand House in Haymarket. It’s laid out as a single open space, with no conventional small offices or meeting rooms, although there is an indoor greenhouse and, interestingly, a wikihouse, within it. Most areas of the space are almost self-consciously unconventional – even the coffee bar which sells the normal range of designer coffees, and also in a nod towards the open-source community, Ubuntu cola.
Most of the occupants of the hub at the time of my visit seemed to be small, mostly high-technology, businesses using this as office space, and out to benefit from a kind of cluster effect by sharing ideas with others who used the same space. No call centre here, as far as I could tell, but the telecoms infrastructure was all about having a fast wireless network.
As I said, two very different approaches and evidence that the nature of office space is still evolving