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July 4, 2023 - Comments Off on The pros of an office without the cons

The pros of an office without the cons

Wajiha Hyder

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But when Alina Zahid Khan decided to launch her startup, she quickly realised that a village was exactly what she’d need to begin too. Luckily, she found hers, but it wasn’t what you might have imagined.

“In 2019, I left my full-time job,” says Alina, whose former company had an office in Daftarkhwaan, a co-working space in Lahore. It was then that she began working on launching her own startup. “I had started loving the co-working culture, so I decided to stay back. I was a newbie but soon realised I wasn’t alone.” Her co-workers helped her with the logistics of setting up her business. They offered her the advice she needed, walked her through the whole process and were genuinely by her side whenever she needed them. “They would make me attend conferences, relevant networking events, etc. Being around these people and consuming that energy was precisely what I needed when I began.”

A similar change of heart happened with Zoya Javaid, a product management expert, who knew she was never returning to closed spaces after leaving her corporate job. She began freelancing, and like many others, her preferred working mode was from cafes and parks. But one visit to a co-working space was enough to turn her into a believer. “I saw all those talented people working under the same roof, many in foreign economies, enjoying their work, interacting with each other.” She hadn’t ever experienced anything like that in a traditional working space. “Life wholly flipped when I joined Kickstart. I got all the pros of an office without the cons.”

Both Zoya and Alina now have thriving businesses, along with countless other women gig economy workers who opted to work out of these co-working spaces instead of working from home, renting an office or coffee shops.

In Pakistan, co-working spaces have returned with a bang after the pandemic, and women freelancers and startup founders are ecstatic about it – not without good reason. “During the pandemic, women who had to work from home suffered. They were expected to balance their work with responsibilities at home,” says sociologist Naima Murtaza. “I think the idea of a co-working space is very beneficial for women because once they leave the house, they are gone. Now they can be more productive, which is impossible at home.”

A healthy, supportive environment is perhaps all that a working mother needs to be productive and thrive – freelancers more so as they lack the structure of a traditional workspace. Co-working spaces seem to be helping them in this regard. A graphic designer, Alina Habib, once brought her kids to Daftarkhwaan, a co-working area she works from, as she had to meet a tight deadline and had no one to look after them. “People here managed the children, and I just worked without any worries.” She now prefers to work on her deadlines from there.

Rimmel Mahmood, a logo designer, was attracted to Kickstart because she found out there was a daycare there. “I don’t yet have a child myself, but if you are planning and think that this is a possibility in future, then having this facility is a huge plus, as you know that you don’t have to take an extended break after childbirth and can come back whenever you want to.”

Providing help and a sense of community to women freelancers are the other aspects these co-working spaces are succeeding at. “It’s a paradigm shift, coming from traditional office space to this,” says Nayab Ashfaq, a chartered accountant who quit her corporate job and began working remotely from COLABS. “Corporate is fixed and autocratic. In these co-working spaces, there is a lot of diversity. We meet women who are breaking barriers left, right, and centre. Everyone has a story to tell, and it’s inspiring.” She says finding this kind of inclusion in a traditional working space, whether banking or multinational, is complicated. “Over here, women support each other, unlike in the corporate sector where there is traditionally a lot of leg pulling.” These spaces are getting a lot of acclaim for the opportunities they provide for networking too. “Imagine just trying to enter an HBL branch to chat professionally with an employee. They won’t even let you in because they have no such concept. Now imagine being a woman in Pakistan and having access to so many people without any barriers – so much knowledge at your fingertips,” says Nayab.

It is easy for women to try working from home, where they feel safe in their comfort zone, managing their deadlines and homes simultaneously. It gives them a sense of security while maintaining some sense of productivity too. But one cannot grow while working from behind a screen with no one to talk to. “When you work from co-working spaces, you get more work, you get more opportunities through increased networking,” says Alina Zahid Khan. “People working around you offer contracts, partnerships. So you’re working for different people and can grow like this instead of doing a corporate job or just doing things for free for friends.”

Sometimes, women can handle tricky work situations better because they are working from a co-working space instead of working independently. When Sana Asghar, an account manager working remotely from COLABS, had to fire a client on behalf of her employers, it was nothing less than an existential crisis. “It was tough for me since the guy had just joined a week ago and was visibly going through a lot of stuff.” But luckily, she had some friends working at the same co-working space who helped her handle the situation. “I’m not sure if I would have approached them if we were not working under the same roof,” she says.

The support Sana speaks of is hardly present in traditional workspaces because of the inherent environment of competition. This lack of support can be detrimental for women, who already have fewer opportunities in the workspaces than their male counterparts – something that the co-working environment strives to take care of, slowly but gradually.

Sana Ahmad, a wedding photographer, says that her Daftarkhwaan employers stood by her in the initial days of her business and were very understanding even when she couldn’t pay the rent. “Now I can afford an office of my own, I have the money, but I won’t because the sense of community and the support I get here, I can’t get anywhere else.” There is also an old red tape issue regarding women workers, making a solid case for co-working spaces. “Even now, if you want to open an office as a woman, they’d ask you to come along with a man and bring their CNIC because they think women do shady work,” Sana says. “Why wouldn’t you want to join a co-working space instead!”

Namra Malik, who has her startup, finds it easier to invite clients for meetings now as she works from COLABS. “I don’t have to worry about my clients thinking that the office looks shady, which would have been an issue had I set up my own place.” She says that the infrastructure and logistical side of the co-working space puts her on edge compared to other startup founders. “I’ve seen so many of my friends taking meetings or interviews from coffee shops, which doesn’t work.” Zoya is also happier about her meetings now that she works from Kickstart. “I am more confident now. At home, your mind is at home; it is not at work. But this is such a perfect environment. I don’t have to shush anyone before taking a meeting.” She is also happy that she doesn’t have to work from a cafe where “one can get a free coffee with a phone number with it, and one can’t say anything about it. There is accountability at co-working spaces.”

The primary concern of women gig economy workers in Pakistan is an environment which is safe and conducive to productivity. Co-working spaces are working towards successfully catering to these requirements, leading to better participation by women in the gig economy in the long run. “Co-working spaces can be conducive for women to come up with their own work ideas,” says Usama Naveed, who currently works for the Special Technology Zones Authority – Government of Pakistan. “It is tough for women in our society to conduct business activities, especially if self-employed. So yeah, safety and ease of business are some crucial things co-working spaces provide.

“If there are females that want to join Daftarkhwaan, we have a more lenient approach to help them join and be a part of it because there are very few women in our ecosystem, of freelancers, of female entrepreneurs and female leaders,” says Faryal Asghar, Marketing Manager, Daftarkhwaan. Faryal further states that this is because they are generally strict about who they let in their culture, which is usually women’s biggest concern. “There are different perceptions about co-working spaces because these are still up and coming, and people don’t know much about them. Even when I was joining Daftarkhwaan, my biggest concern was how the culture here would be.” She says that one of the things they are doing at Daftarkhwaan is introducing a safe parking space. “There is a lot of transparency in the way we designed the space in that a lot of glass has been used. You know that even if you work till 8 or 9 at night, you feel like you’re in an open area because of all the glass.” It is essential to take harassment seriously, as all of these factors are conducive to growth as far as women are concerned. “In places like these, you can feel free, I suppose, but also feel liberated that your sanctity is secured and you have that flexibility to work,” says Faryal.

According to Omar Shah, co-founder of COLABS, the idea is to have a professional space where all kinds of people can come together, interact, and network. “We are focused on supporting entrepreneurship, freelancers, startups, and one can upscale oneself by attending a gig, or going to a workshop, a stand-up comedy or something else.” He says it is about what happens inside the space and how one can make it more productive and exciting, which also benefits women gig economy workers. “We have previously worked with the World Bank and IFC where they wanted to promote these women-led spaces. We spent a few months on that, but it has to be pushed from their side,” says Omar. He also says they are considering subsidising pick-and-drop services and more safe spaces for women. “We have stringent policies on harassment inside these spaces, too”, he further mentions.

“One important thing that we have done is partnering up with Jelly Beans, a licensed daycare provider, who will run our daycare,” says Momina Talat, Member Experience head at Kickstart. She says their priority for space in the daycare is single mothers, then other female members, and then they will cater to their male members. “Jelly Beans will also introduce mothers to us who want to join a co-working space with daycare services, and we’ll provide discounted rates for them.” Momina says they are also looking into arranging more women-specific events. “We are partnering with Goad, an app for pregnant women. We’re also focusing on celebrating women’s specific days like Mother’s Day. We believe that whatever we promote as our culture, other companies working with us will automatically adopt it as their own.”

The contribution of co-working spaces is massive and much needed. Still, there are specific initiatives such spaces can perhaps incorporate to motivate more women to join the emerging gig economy.

According to Maham Irfan, a writer, who has been working from Kickstart for some time, women can benefit significantly from career counselling and training in Pakistan. “This is a perfect platform for different companies to come together and educate different individuals, and it can be profound for women freelancers.” Nadia Prizada, working remotely with London Metropolitan University from COLABS, thinks budget-friendly packages can be introduced to facilitate more women startup founders and freelancers. “I’m sure there are a lot of women who want to join these co-working spaces but can’t because of the rates. If you help these women, they can improve their lives by utilising these spaces.”

For Zoya Javaid, giving ride facilities to women freelancers can be a game-changer as most women have mobility issues in Pakistan. “They want to work and can afford some packages too, but they don’t have anyone who’d drop them here or pick them up. So maybe try to offer that to women since we’re hearing cases about ride-hailing services too now, so these services can greatly help.”

Namra Malik is of the view that a woman community can attract a lot of women with similar interests. “They would know of it as an inclusive and safe space for women to enter, where they get to unite and talk about the problems they face professionally and the barriers they are trying to break.” Namra says it’d create a woman-inclusive network that can go on to generate immense confidence in women.

Unfortunately, according to the sociologist Naima Malik, many women are not allowed the freedom to avail such spaces since there are restrictions placed on them by their brothers or fathers or in-laws. “Many of these women have capabilities but cannot even profess those capabilities in a home environment.” Usama Naveed agrees and says the lower middle class must be involved in these areas. “Co-working spaces can take initiatives to get more women involved in the industry, but I think they’re already providing a lot for women who are there. Our upper middle class is already engaged in freelancing, but the significant chunk is of the lower middle class.” He says co-working spaces can lead in these areas and engage on a more humanitarian ground with the right development sector partners.

Freelancing or entrepreneurship is a lonely pursuit– lonelier still for women, who face their own set of challenges. But that said, they have found a profound sense of community and support in co-working spaces, which is imperative to their professional growth. A co-working space provides them with a professional, work-friendly environment where they can discover camaraderie and security. It is not a traditional workplace, but it might be the alternative we have been looking for.

“Co-working spaces are the future, and we need to get serious about this instead of running ten years behind the world like we are with everything else,” says Zoya Javaid. “And while you are at it, make it a place that women want to belong to, a place that feels like home, away from home.”


Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Digital 50.50, Feminist e-magazine

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