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Coworking Spaces in Berlin: They have come to stay

Coworking Spaces in Berlin: They have come to stay
Foto: © Jan Siefke

San Francisco in 2005. The "Spiral Muse" opens its doors as the first official coworking space in the US. Fifteen years later, the model of the collectively shared workspace has become established worldwide, and Berlin has become a magnet for coworking - at least until the Corona virus put a stop to it. What happens to coworking spaces now - will they get through the crisis? How do spaces of proximity and cooperation finance and organize themselves in times of distance? A home visit to two Berlin coworking spaces of a special kind.
 

Text Fabian Haas

 

It's a bright sunny morning when the tram rushes through the middle of the founding quarter of Weißensee. My destination is only a stone's throw away from the tram station. On the other side of the street I see a wide open iron gate, sprayed with graffiti, leading to an inner courtyard where a dilapidated grey Toyota Yaris is keeping lonely watch. The glass panes are shattered, plants are sprawling out of the interior of the car, as if Corona had been raging here for decades and extinguished all life. I pass the broken car and stand now in the middle of the courtyard of C*SPACE, a very special kind of Berlin coworking space. C*SPACE, which stands for "Curiosity, Creativity, Community", could also be understood as a synonym for the international Chinese community, because C*SPACE is a meeting place and exchange location for artists and creative people from China, but also for Berlin's international creative scene. It is run by Katja Hellkötter and Jan Siefke, who are already expecting me and kindly invite me in. They have both lived in Shanghai for 16 years.

I am here because I want to find out if and how coworking spaces are getting through the Corona crisis: How do they organize and finance themselves in times of distance and strict hygiene regulations? For weeks, Corona has brought the entire Berlin culture to a standstill. Museums, galleries and coworking spaces have been hit very hard financially. Now they're open again, but can they recover from the crisis? Katja and Jan lead me into the interior of C*SPACE, which extends over two floors of a former furniture factory. The actual coworking space is on the upper floor. Clear rules dictate how to deal with each other. Katja tells me that signs with instructions such as "disinfect hands", "keep your distance" or "put on mask" have been collected on the Internet and placed there for all to see. This is what the district prescribes. "We designed the concept during the Pankower Artspring Festival", Jan adds. But the space was never completely closed. During the lockdown, two artists from Beijing, who were in Germany at the invitation of the agency "Agency &", were offered the room as a "creative retreat". Now they had reopened, a first test run with 20 people had gone well. Trust in the community is enormously important at the moment, fear is a bad advisor. "Choosing Trust over FEAR" is a colourful lettering on a bare white wall. "We are concerned here with the question of what new things can be created," emphasizes Katja. It's equally clear that everyone must also adhere to hygiene rules: "The contact details must be entered neatly in a list in order to trace possible chains of infection". No shaking hands, mask is mandatory.

For us, coworking space is not just a room. It's a place of international encounter. And the question is what new things can be created here

Visiting: C*SPACE Berlin. Picture:  Jan Siefke


At least today it's still quiet at C*SPACE. Every now and then someone digs paper out of the printer, someone sits somewhere concentrated at the computer. "We don't have regular operations here as we used to, but at least there are sporadic appointments again now," says Katja. One who is here today is Isabell Weber, president of SP China Alumni e.V. She is looking for a connection to China at C*SPACE. "The thing that fascinates me so much about China, I rediscovered here immediately", she says. Another one who has been here recently is the calligrapher Qian Geng. He designed a room here during the state of emergency that will be used for coworking in the future. Actually, he came from China in March with sound artist Wang Ziheng to attend an event. Due to the lockdown, however, the three days stay turned into six weeks. The room was used as emergency accommodation and Qian Geng spent weeks painting Chinese characters on the walls. The work: "Common Space - Everything Flows 一 且支流 "- poems and quotations documenting the Corona period. The room now seems like a fairy-tale picture book of crisis.

The number of coworking spaces in Germany has quadrupled in just two years. However, the many small coworking operators in Berlin are having to assert themselves more and more against the prospering coworking chains such as WeWork or Unicorn

But how it will continue is still written in the Corona stars. Katja draws a first conclusion: "The share of sales for events with external customers has come to a complete standstill." The events accounted for about half of all revenues. However, one can consider oneself lucky that one of the flagship programs, CITYMAKERS China-Europe, a program for international understanding on issues of a livable city, is equipped with a substantial amount of support from the Robert Bosch Stiftung. This program continues, currently with new online formats. After all, the first guests are now coming again. "But we don't see ourselves as just a physical space," Jan adds. C*SPACE is like a family place, he says, and it's all about international relations and personal development. And the aim is "to do something with this neighbourhood". The coworking concept is based on proximity in a small space, which is currently proving difficult.

Two of the coworkers who are here that day are sitting at the other end of the table. One is Song Yuzhe, a slim man in a burgundy Farah shirt and with slightly greying hair, whose daughter is romping wildly on his lap. Song Yuzhe is a musician who loves to play on a fretless banjo. Eight years ago he came to Berlin "rather spontaneously" - and now settled in Prenzlauer Berg. He is currently planning a two-day festival with Jan and Katja for September to bring together musicians from Beijing, Edinburgh and Berlin. The other coworker at C*SPACE is Wang Keyao, a photographer and architect with glasses and a bun, who came to Berlin on a German Chancellor Scholarship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. In addition to renovating historical buildings in urban space, he is preparing a small exhibition on photography with Katja and Jan. Keyao is convinced that the Corona virus will have a strong influence on how we use free spaces in cities in the future. "Nothing will be the same as before", he is sure. Since many things can now be solved digitally for artists, there will also be a larger number of empty buildings. 

That remains to be seen, I think. Because at least Tobias Kollewe, member of the board of the Federal Association of Coworking Germany, is giving the green light for the coworking spaces in Berlin to some extent. In contrast to the clubs, which are still closed, admission to them is now permitted again. Kollewe makes it clear that not all the spaces will survive the crisis. "There will be an unwanted market shakeout". But he is not aware of any coworking space in Berlin that has fallen into financial difficulties because of Corona. Operators in Berlin and other large metropolises are comparatively well positioned, as the spaces have often existed for years and have built up a large audience. One has to know: There are currently between 100 and 200 coworking spaces in Berlin. An exact number does not exist because there is no clear definition of what a coworking space is. What is clear, however, is that the number of coworking spaces in Germany has quadrupled in just two years, and there are currently over 1,260 spaces nationwide - according to a market survey by the Bundesverband Coworking Spaces Deutschland (BVCS). The global real estate service provider JLL even estimates that by 2030, flexible concepts such as coworking could already account for 30 percent of all office space. And yet, regardless of Corona, the crisis seems to have been on the coworking market for some time. According to Thomas Beyerle, chief researcher of the international real estate consulting firm Catella, who has analysed the development of spaces in a study, the boom in the coworking segment that has lasted for years is already over. In any case, the many small coworking operators in Berlin now have to hold their own alongside the prospering coworking chains such as WeWork or Unicorn, which are opening up all over the place - and are usually more profitable. On the other hand, for years the trend has been towards sustainability and serving the niches - the latter could play into the cards of the small providers. 

CoWomen goes ahead - picture above the three founders, below the working spaces - Picture: Ana Torres

CoWomen, my second visit on this day, also serves such a niche. CoWomen is located in Berlin-Mitte. The Coworking Space was founded by Sara-Marie Wiechmann, Hannah Dahl and Kat Brendel in 2018 to empower women in the working world. At the same time, CoWomen is a place where people can also exchange ideas in private. "This space has a clear theme, it has a vision. We want to make the world of work more inclusive and diverse for women," emphasizes Sara-Marie right at the beginning. From the outside, the house is buttermilk yellow. Inside, there is a comfortably furnished room that represents a kind of fusion of kitchen and living room. On a small storage table next to the entrance there is a switched-on notebook and a bottle of disinfectant. Sara-Marie Wiechmann, long blond hair, takes a seat. She tells us that cleaning and disinfection is now more frequent here than usual. But she says that the minimum distance is not a problem. It was also no problem before Corona, because the work tables have always had a distance of more than 1.5 metres. On average, five to seven people would work here at the same time per day. Checking in and out is done with the coworking software Nexudus.

The trend in coworking spaces has been towards sustainability and serving niches for years

And what about CoWomen's finances? "We're doing everything we can to get through the crisis," says Sara-Marie. The foundation of CoWomen was initially financed with a classic corporate loan. During the Corona lockdown, the company then applied for Corona emergency aid because of the high rental costs and other expenses. "But we never thought about giving up. However, we had to react quickly and make many changes to our plans," Sara-Marie explains. No other state aid was claimed. The concept is designed so that 90 percent of the total income is covered by the long-term members. Now one hopes that the engine will be brought back to running. CoWomen boss Sara-Marie is confident: "We have only lost a few members so far." And most of them stayed because of the community. "For us, the investment is less one in the physical space, it's one in the community. Coworking spaces are places of encounter, of joining together," she continues. "And we have come to stay."

The day is coming to an end, I would also like to stay, but I have to go. The encouraging words of Sara-Marie still remain in my ear, and I think: Just as coworking spaces first became large in 2008 during the global financial crisis of that time, something new could now emerge from the worldwide Corona crisis. In both C*SPACE and CoWomen, the first ones are already working again - and they won't be the last.

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