Coworking in Asia: A Whole New Way to Work By Peripatete


A recent New York Times article, “Co-Working on Vacation: A Desk in Paradise,” highlighted the benefits of living a more leisurely life while working remotely. Many in Bali have been reaping these benefits, with some calling Ubud home, for as little as a week, to as long as, well… for an indefinite duration. They’re a new breed; entrepreneurs, developers, designers, marketers, writers and creative thinkers – all here for the same reason: to work differently. Digitally. Nomadically. Remotely. They comprise a small sampling of a nascent but flourishing worldwide movement known as ‘coworking.’

According to Deskmag, the premier online magazine about coworking, its people and spaces, “a growing proportion of workers are now freelancers, contractors or small companies that have the opportunity to redefine the concept of the workspace for themselves.” A timeline on Deskmag’s site notes that the history of coworking goes back to the fall of 1995, when the first hackerspace, C-base, opened in Berlin. Four years later, Brian DeKoven launched the word “coworking” as a way to identify a method that would facilitate collaborative work and business meetings, coordinated by computers. More than fifteen years later, the coworking model continues to evolve around the world – even in Bali.

Amidst these rapid global developments, the First Asian Coworking UNconference (CUASIA) took place recently in Ubud. Unlike most conferences, an UNconference is organized and led by participants themselves. CUASIA 2015 brought together many enthusiasts of the coworking and innovation scene across Asia to discuss the changing face of work in the region. Over two days, 125 people – from Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, South Korea, the Philippines and as far away as Brazil and the US – gathered to share their experiences of creating innovative work spaces.

A regional pre-conference, held on the day preceding the official event, was held in bahasa Indonesia and attracted nearly sixty Indonesian digital entrepreneurs, startup devotees and wanna-be co-founders. The presence of many Indonesian business mavens reflected the flourishing coworking trend that has taken hold in the archipelago.

Dondi Hananto is one such changemaker. A serial entrepreneur, Hananto co-founded Comma, the first coworking space in Jakarta (the first Indonesian space, Hackerspace, opened in November 2010), as well as wujudkan.com, a crowdfunding website for creative Indonesian projects. He says that Comma, a majority of whose membership is comprised of Indonesians rather than digital nomads, started as “a fun way to tackle our own problems. We were a small team of entrepreneurs and couldn’t afford expensive Jakarta real estate.”

Hananto may be a pioneer in the Indonesian startup ecosystem, but he admits that coworking in a congested city is not for everyone. For this reason and others, spaces have been popping up all over the archipelago; in Surabaya, Bandung, Jogjakarta and, perhaps not surprisingly, in Bali as well.

Java native Faye Alund now lives in Bali; but not long ago, she worked in humanitarian aid organizations in various developing countries around the world. After years of fatigue and burnout, she changed gears. Now, while raising two children, she is on the brink of opening a coworking space, called Kumpul, in Sanur.

Cynthia Satrya also came home to Indonesia, but her impetus to return was different than Alund’s. A 50-year old wife and mother, Satrya was born in Jakarta, studied in the Netherlands and lived in the United States for many years. She and her husband Dian, of Indonesian heritage as well, decided to return in order to make a contribution to society.

“People my age, we’re successful but we don’t care about the young generation,” says Satrya, “It’s a problem in our society; sharing knowledge and working together. Even though the culture is based on gotong royong – the spirit of collaboration and mutual benefit, in reality, especially in Jakarta, nobody wants to do it. We’re competing against each other.”

Satrya’s venue, Coworkinc., is on the brink of opening in the Kemang area of Jakarta, an artsy neighborhood. “CoworkInc will be a platform for designers and the creative industries. It’s for anyone who is looking for an alternative other than going to the office.”

“The idea came to me when we first returned to Indonesia about a year ago,” says Satrya. “I have a mission to give back to the society because I know that a lot of the young Indonesian designers need a place, a platform, not only to launch their products, but also to be heard.” She sees her role as a facilitator: “They may have graduated from a good university in Indonesia, but they’re green – they don’t know how to be anyone else. They don’t know how to start their business; they don’t know how to hold a meeting and approach clients, sign a contract. I can help them figure it out.”

Not surprisingly, coworking spaces in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia – as a social hub or venue for business networking – are being launched by expats as well; a testament to the growing community of foreigners moving to the region in the search for greener pastures, better climate, new adventure or career opportunities.
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Steve Munroe and Peter Wall, both Canadians, launched Hubud (Bali’s first coworking space) in Ubud after searching for a way to work independently – minus the isolation that often comes with being a freelancer or entrepreneur. “Coworking is growing faster in Asia than any there region in the world,” says Munroe. “If you’re like us, you’re very busy with the things we are trying to accomplish in our own little parts of the world. But we wanted to create a sense of community amongst ourselves; connect with others who understand the passion behind the movement and the challenges that go along with it.”

Well beyond Indonesia’s borders, the composition of workers, entrepreneurs and creative thinkers who call Asia home is rapidly changing in this world of easy travel, remote working and aspirations to greater work-life balance. Why travel, sightsee and try to pack it all in over two weeks, when you can live as a digital nomad, working anywhere in the world? As a result, coworking spaces are popping up in some of the most unexpected places, tropical islands and locations that were once known only as tourism destinations.

Far from the madding crowds and traffic of Bangkok, you’ll find James Abbott, a 37-year old digital nomad from the UK, who has called Thailand home since 2009. Once employed as a diving instructor, he now runs the newly opened KoHUB on Koh Lanta – an island ringed by coral reefs, sparkling blue waters and spectacular sunsets.

But sunsets and diving have recently taken a back seat to launching and operating his space. “I have a work permit, I’m living there, very much ingrained in society – which is a nice fit,” says Abbott. “But it’s quite stressful. The last 2 or 3 months, I haven’t had the work-life balance that I was looking for.” Abbott admits that he wasn’t prepared for the frantic pace that he’s had to work at the past few months.” I’ve gone from being a digital nomad to a digital-going-nowhere.”

Not everyone has the luxury, as Abbott does, of pointing members in the direction of a beckoning stretch of sand within sight of his space. Some entrepreneurs – Hananto in Jakarta among them – open spaces in the middle of traffic-choked, skyscraper-filled cities. But even in high-rise office buildings, it helps to add a creative twist to the coworking concept.

Take the midtown space in Kuala Lumpur called Paper + Toast, the first one to open in that city. Incorporating food into the plan was a given, says Wardy Noor, Paper + Toast’s 35-year old director. “Being Malaysian, we need to eat. Everything revolves around eating. Even when we work or have conferences, there’s always food. For Malaysians, it’s all about food: Eat, eat, eat.”

A kitchen was integrated into the design – but only as a compliment to the working space. “Then, big corporate companies started to use our space for meetings and events,” says Noor. “They asked us to cater the event. So the kitchen expanded into catering. Now we have a central kitchen, with a staff of about 10, including two or three cooks, delivery people and administration. We also supply to other cafés. Corporates will ask us for finger foods and tapas for their product launches.” Although Noor never envisioned that catering would become such a success, the culinary spin-off has brought him closer to the dream of opening a second space.

But Noor is not alone. Coworking hubs innovate by providing accommodations, exercise and gaming rooms, a rooftop for watching sunsets. Others are zeroing in on niche markets.

Take Michaela Auchan. A New Zealand native, Auchan spent many years in Mumbai and now calls Singapore home – which is where, last summer, she set up Woolf Works, a “calm and relaxed” female-only club. Far from Singapore’s business district, Auchan stumbled upon a shop house, with good parking, a bakery and many restaurants nearby. “I wanted something a little different, in the suburbs, a beautiful quiet place to come and work really productively,” says Auchan. “The idea was to have a space for women to come and put themselves and their work first, without worrying about home and kids.”

The name of her space has a story of its own. “While I was thinking about how it would all come about, I picked up Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I’d studied a couple of years ago. This time I read it again in a new light and it fit in with the bigger picture of Woolf Works; how a coworking space for women could provide this room of one’s own.”

Whether you envision a cozy room or large cubicle-free space, many agree that coworking in Asia is still in its infancy. For some, the dream and reality have not yet converged. Hananto, of Jakarta’s Comma, says that more focus should be placed on the ideal of a shared space and community.

Twenty-year old Michael Chrisani’s experience is emblematic of the challenges facing those who run and join coworking spaces; too much isolation and segregation. The Jakarta native (who studied advertising in Australia) “got stuck in Ubud” while visiting his sister in 2014. After a short stint working at Hubud, he decided to strike out on his own, setting up a design and creative services company.

Chrisani wants to help local Indonesian businesses – such as a Balinese couple that runs a juice bar in Canggu – compete in the growing marketplace. He still comes to Hubud – but only for the internet. “It’s a great place, with great architecture,” says Michael, “but it’s missing the community part. People will often talk to someone only because they can help them out, rather than just anyone. I’d like to see more events where people are doing something together, not just renting out tables and chairs.”

That said, Munroe recognizes that “coworking is relatively new and we are all learning as we go.” For many, the benefits, networking and social opportunities that are generated in coworking spaces outweigh the downsides, attracting to this lifestyle ever more technomads and freelancers across Asia – and the globe. It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.

Thinking of joining the coworking movement? Choose from one of the coworking spaces popping up around Bali – or head overseas to learn more: The Global Coworking Unconference Conference is going to California, Australia and Canada. Africa will get its first dedicated conference on coworking, in Cape Town.

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