My Monday morning commute in early November wouldn’t be worthy of tracking on a FitBit; it’s just two flights of stairs from my bedroom to the sun-drenched minimalistic office, where several of my co-workers have already kickstarted the day, heads down to their Macs or discussing their freelance projects, cups of espresso beside them.
So far, perhaps a typical office in 2016. Except, these aren’t just my co-workers, they’re also my housemates. Welcome to the world of co-living, spaces designed to cater to freelancers and remote workers roaming the globe seeking super-charged Wi-Fi connection in soul-stirring backdrops.
Unable to commit to another full-blown holiday this year (no paid holiday for freelancers means holidays are always a battle) but still yearning for some downtime in a picturesque environment, I decide to take my laptop and swap the dull grey skies of London for Lisbon’s Mediterranean climate with temperatures close to 20C in November and where alfresco dining is still very much in vogue. This way, I can still work but also experience living in another city during my free time.
That’s how I find myself at company retreat and occasional co-living space Surf Office in the now trendy Cais do Sodre neighbourhood of Lisbon. Decked out in Ikea furniture, it has four floors consisting of bedrooms (light-filled affairs with high ceilings and wooden floors), kitchens, bathrooms and workspaces. On previous adventures in Berlin and New York, I’ve rented an Airbnb and worked from there but this space feels very different. Here my productivity shoots up. Maybe it’s just actually having a dedicated office space to work from or just working alongside hardworking people thrashing out business plans or developing their startups, but whatever the reason I find I’m much more focused. It’s the reason others are staying here too as opposed to an Airbnb.
“I’m staying here because I’ve got a project I want to make good progress on,” says David Stefanides, a 25-year-old freelance designer from Slovakia, who is spending five days at Surf Office. It’s his second time at the Lisbon branch after he stayed there last year for two weeks. “It’s a better environment than an Airbnb. It’s geared towards workers. If I stay in an Airbnb then I’d be too comfortable there. Here there’s more creativity and I’m focused. I stay later here and work more. And it’s nice to be with other like-minded people with a similar mindset.”
Another of my co-workers is Marek Hrabe, a software engineer from Prague who works remotely. He’s also a fan of the working environment. “Within such an office space, you tend to work harder.”
Apart from the productivity factor, there’s also the community aspect. When I’ve worked abroad before, I often arrive armed with a few contacts through work and friends, but this time I immediately have a social group. One evening we’re having dinner at Time Out Market, the next night we find ourselves enjoying drinks on a rooftop bar at LX Factory, an old industrial site now home to art spaces and restaurants, another and we’re drinking ginjinhas (a Portuguese liquor) at a local trattoria. One evening Surf Office co-founder Peter Fabor organises dinner at a Chinese restaurant brings his friend who works in the tech sector so I can pick his brains about some features I’m writing. We swap details. And so this social aspect carries on, some of us swapping details and becoming friends on social media.
Co-living has won over Stefano Ceccon, a data journalist and founder of startup SkipQ, who stayed at Surf Office for a total of three weeks. “I’ve enjoyed the sense of community here,” he says as he’s making his pasta lunch in the communal kitchen. “I’ve met people who are doing something interesting. People are working hard but then there’s also the opportunity to go out.” There’s also the connections he’s made. “I’ve met other freelancers and I might need web developers in the future for my startup so it’s also been good for networking.”
I see first hand the collaboration between the people staying. One morning James Marshall, who is using the space as a co-working place, helps Stefanides with a design for his surf skincare startup, Sett Surf. “It’s nice to be able to take the time to help each other and give each other feedback,” says Stefanides.
By it’s very nature, co-living will not appeal to everyone. Surf Lisbon proved to be a fairly quiet office environment but some co-living spaces may be fully subscribed so it might be worth checking in advance so you’re prepared to fight over plugs and desk space. And for some, living in close proximity with others might provoke the usual minor gripes. When I depart, seven days later it’s minus a few food items after they’ve gone missing from the fridge – immediately bringing memories of my backpacking days.
But co-living is on the rise with rooms with communal workspaces cropping up around the world. Take Roam allowing people to live in co-living spaces in Miami, Madrid and Bali for around $1,800 (£1,425) per month. There’s also Bedndesk in Mallorca, with rates starting from €29 (£24) a day, and Coliving.at in Austria.
When I leave it’s for an Airbnb in Graça, another part of Lisbon. It’s a fairly noisy four-bedroom apartment with a revolving set of Airbnb guests who are mainly here on holiday. It is of course a very different environment to Surf Office, which has now spurred me to consider co-living on future trips when a whole holiday is too much of a luxury. Maybe next year’s co-living break will be an exotic destination where lunch breaks involve a dip in the sea followed by a quick nap on a sun lounger. That’s a good work-life balance, eh?
Suzanne Bearne was a guest of Surf Office
Sign up to become a member of the Guardian Small Business Network here for more advice, insight and best practice direct to your inbox.