The tale of the shouting and cursing man who liked silence

“My Lord, that’s a world-class bouffant,” said the American investor who had come to meet our humble startup. We’d only got half way through the ritual jokey phase of introductions between moneymen and bootstrappers when an architect with a terrific thatch had burst upon us and yelled, “Will you all just shut up!” before scattering expletives like a grenade attack and then marching back to his seat nearby.

And our investor was right. The most astonishing thing was indeed the hair. The second most astonishing thing about this episode was not that the man who liked shouting also liked silence. No, the really crazy thing was that the shouting-and-cursing-man-who-liked-silence had come, for his silence, to one of the neighbourhood’s many startup co-working spaces.

Of all the many reasons to come to a shared working space, silence is not one. If you require hush and a cheapish desk, there are solutions for you but this is not it. To expect that a place full of hustlers will be quiet and industrious rather than noisy and industrious is to have mistaken style for substance. In the same vein, a doctor friend once lamented that the systems and processes in a brand new hospital in Whitechapel were working perfectly until sick patients turned up and got in the way.

Startup culture has invaded the business mainstream and with it comes the danger that people think that it is what they see – the aesthetic – where the magic lies. Nowhere is this a bigger danger than in the hip co-working spaces that are multiplying across this city and many others.

I therefore decided to dedicate myself to the task of investigating this matter, declaring that I would visit the world’s largest co-working space wherever on the planet it should happen to be and especially if it was somewhere hot and sunny. Alas, the place I sought was not to be found in the Caribbean or the Greek Islands but in Moorgate, a mere ten-minute walk from Old Street.

And so, moments later, I was standing outside a brand new steel and glass building occupied by WeWork, the global giant of shared working spaces. If my theory about ‘noisy and industrious’ was wrong and the s-a-c-m-w-l-s was right, then the instant I entered I would be caught in the crossfire of 3,000 people yelling, “Shut up, I’m trying to work!” at each other.

But of shouty silence there was none. When I crossed the threshold I became aware of an energetic hubbub: the noise of frenetic startuppers exchanging ideas, advice and coffee orders. And this noise is not a side effect of a well-designed space but its raison-d’être. The interplay of ideas – which can only be passionately done verbally – is what makes the shared space a success. In truth, the physical space itself doesn’t matter in any way at all.

En route to the biggest shared working space in the world I had passed a fabulous old building that is but a façade. Behind it the reality is all large floor plates, modern atria and exposed brickwork. In other words, when viewed from the outside the aesthetic is a con job, which goes to show you can’t know how people work inside a building by regarding its exterior. You need to get stuck in.

And getting stuck inside WeWork reveals that the inhabitants of 2016 have strayed far from the stereotype. Instead of 3,000 millennial Zuckerbergs in startup T-shirts, the place was a cross-section of worker bees from the ages of about 20 to 75 starting up all sorts of businesses from mobile games to VR to microbreweries. Perhaps most telling was the presence of lawyers, accountants, designers and venture capital firms, who knew that by parking themselves among scores of startups they would find people to whom they could be useful.

All this back scratching and co-dependency creates a micro-culture of shared mutual interest. And, since the culture and its cross-pollination of opportunity happens through the mechanic of passing conversations, this means shared working spaces will be noisy. Culture trumps design.

As the investor explained to the shouting man (in different words to these), if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.