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How to build a living room for your neighbourhood.

The VillageOffice pioneering project brings the office to the people. Photo: Simon Tanner
The VillageOffice pioneering project brings the office to the people. Photo: Simon Tanner

Management meetings, concerts and game nights – there is room for all kinds of things at the new Coworking Lounge on Tessinerplatz. Together with neighbourhood residents and local companies, the pioneering project VillageOffice has created a place that brings together a wide variety of people. How the community helped turn a temporary “living room” into a permanent meeting place.

After being used as anonymous office space for a long time, a new meeting point has been created directly opposite the Enge railway station in Zurich: a café where one group pores over new concepts as a woman feeds her baby and others have a lively chat. The Coworking Lounge Tessinerplatz has been open, or rather re-opened, since the beginning of last December. From autumn 2017 to spring 2018, it was known as the Living Room – a pioneering coworking project initiated by the owner Swiss Life, together with the VillageOffice cooperative. “What is here now was developed in the Living Room,” says Jenny Schäpper-Uster.

Happy about their newest addition: VillageOffice co-founders Jenny Schäpper-Uster and David Brühlmeier. Photo: Simon Tanner

Jenny Schäpper-Uster is a founding member of VillageOffice and has been running her own coworking space in Wil SG since 2013. Now she leads the visitor through the premises. In front there’s a café, whose employees run a buffet with vegan food over lunch and in the evening push the chairs together and set up a stage. “The room is designed in such a way that a small event or concert hall can be put together very quickly.”

Everything is well thought out, the technology discreetly hidden and ultramodern. This is particularly evident when walking through the six conference rooms. The large conference room offers everything the board of an internationally active company could wish for.

As does the coworking space at the back: minimalist design with lots of wood in discreet blue-green – the office space with 30 workstations is so chic that you’re tempted to move in and live here.

Jenny Schäpper-Uster says, “We had to find middle ground between start-up groove and people who come to work here in suits at Tessinerplatz, which opened in December after a six-month renovation phase.” They had to move away a bit from the Living Room – but not too far.

“Start-ups and clubs have a place here, as do individual companies and residents.”

Marion Rösch

The Living Room was a pioneering coworking project that had never existed before in Switzerland. The coworking space was to become part of the city neighbourhood and meet the needs of its inhabitants. But the project group also wanted to involve local companies. Big employers such as Deloitte, FIFA and Swiss Life, which has its headquarters nearby, are also part of the neighbourhood, as are many SMEs. Marion Rösch, who today is part of the Coworking Lounge Tessinerplatz’s operating team, is also host and responsible for the development of the community. She was already a member of the four-person Living Room project group in autumn 2017.

Marion Rösch says the Coworking Lounge Tessinerplatz is the result of the bottom-up Living Room project.

How does an empty, huge office become a lively coworking space?
There's no formula for that. Our only aim was that filling the Living Room with life should not be determined by us, but by those who wanted to come here. What kind of coworking space do the people in the neighbourhood want? The idea was that those interested should take charge of our provisional space themselves, making it their home with second-hand furniture. That’s why we called it the “Living Room”.

And how did you find these people?
We invited them through social media and an NZZ article to an initial meeting in November 2017, where anyone in the Enge neighbourhood interested in a new coworking space could get together. We also contacted companies in the area and the neighbourhood association.  

Who came?
Very different people, people from the surrounding area, who wanted to revive their neighbourhood. Enge is a place with few cafés or concert venues. Young company founders who wanted to network were also there from the very beginning. The result was a loose group of 20 to 40 people who began to animate this space in various combinations.^

What kind of initiatives have arisen?
A group has formed that has organised concerts. These were well attended. Others offered lunch and tested whether there was a need for it in the neighbourhood. Soon there was a well-attended café. And we had a ball pit that was popular far and wide.

A meeting place, not only for neighbourhood residents, but also for local companies. Photo: Simon Tanner

That sounds like a lot of fun. But did any work get done?
Of course. The Living Room was a place for work and leisure to come together, a home away from home. That’s why we gave a lot of space to the aspect of how to bring leisure into a coworking space. After six months of it being the Living Room, we really did manage to make it become a kind of home for many.

What kind of needs did the neighbourhood companies and businesses you interviewed register?
Swiss Life, which approached VillageOffice for this project, was interested in high-quality workstations right from the start. A survey of other companies showed that there were no meeting rooms in the neighbourhood.

At first glance, there is little of the improvised Living Room left at the Coworking Lounge Tessinerplatz.
At first glance, maybe. But we took many things with us that were created in the Living Room, without neglecting the needs of the companies and the owner, Swiss Life. Managers come to Tessinerplatz for meetings, but start-ups and clubs also have a place here, as do individual companies and residents, for whom our bistro is still meant to be a “living room”. Concerts will also continue to take place after the renovations, as will the game nights.

Which other needs of the community were transferred from the Living Room to the Coworking Lounge Tessinerplatz?
In our café there is a daily vegan lunch buffet during the week, as requested by the community from the former Living Room. It is delivered by the catering company “Zum guten Heinrich”, which uses food that remains unsold in shops because its size and shape are considered unsatisfactory. We also attach great importance to sustainability. And in the end the fact that we have a café and concert stage at all is a consequence of the Living Room. Because there was clearly a need for it in the neighbourhood.

Numerous options offer quiet areas to work in. Photo: Simon Tanner

Was it easy, after half a year of renovations, to reactivate the community created in the Living Room for the Coworking Lounge Tessinerplatz?
Not everyone who committed themselves to the Living Room stayed with us. But we are working on creating new events with new people. For example, coworkers have set up the “beer o'clock” start-up networking event. The neighbourhood association was also a recent visitor. We are confident and aware that a spirit of community and a professional working environment are not contradictions in terms. Instead they complement each other, contributing to work and leisure not having to be completely separate spaces, so they can mesh together.

“Trust and new forms of communication are needed when people don’t work in the office.”

Jenny Schäpper-Uster

The aim of VillageOffice is to bring life – including jobs – back to the regions and to reduce commuting flow. “The communities we work with are particularly interested in this,” says Jenny Schäpper-Uster. Companies, on the other hand, are still hesitant. “This has to do with the working culture in this country. If people don’t work at the office, there needs to be trust and new forms of communication.” In the Coworking Lounge at Tessinerplatz, too, it is mainly employees of start-ups or self-employed people who regularly set up their workplace at the rear part of Tessinerplatz. “Companies primarily use the conference rooms,” says Schäpper-Uster. But that could soon change. “Firstly, because the companies that come to us for meetings see what has been created here. And secondly, because the working world will continue to change in the future.”

The aim is to make Tessinerplatz a place where the future way of working can be rehearsed. Photo Simon Tanner

Forecasts predict that by 2025, half of all employees in the service sector will no longer have a permanent job at least two days a week. “Coworking spaces,” says Giorgio Engeli, Head of Real Estate Portfolio Management at Swiss Life and contact for VillageOffice, “will increasingly adapt to corporate needs.”

“A place that enhances the quality of life in the neighbourhood.”

Leila Hauri

For a real estate investor, coworking could also become an attractive segment in the future, says Giorgio Engeli. Because investors in Switzerland have also closely observed the spectacular rise of the New York coworking start-up WeWork. For less than ten years now, the company has been operating office communities according to a certain, always same concept – and after just a few years was valued at several billion dollars on the stock exchange.

In its collaboration with VillageOffice, Swiss Life has found a partner that is organised as a cooperative and does not focus on profit. “We tried out a lot on the Living Room, which has now become the Coworking Lounge Tessinerplatz,” says Jenny Schäpper-Uster. Because the needs of working in the future first have to be tested. Here, too, in line with VillageOffice’s common-society approach to taking the workplace to where people live. In this case to their own neighbourhood.

This agile approach fully corresponds to the approach of the Engagement Migros development fund, says Leila Hauri, the project manager responsible for it. “We are convinced that with the Living Room as a prototype and the participative community approach, the decisive foundations have been laid for not simply opening up a new coworking space with Tessinerplatz, but for creating a lively place that brings people together and increases the quality of life in the neighbourhood.”