As summer descends with a vengeance on the northern hemisphere, you may be fantasising about the promise of “working from anywhere”. A colleague’s PowerPoint presentation would go down better by the poolside, washed down with a mojito. For most office grunts such fantasies remain just that—“anywhere” boils down to the discomfort of the sweaty kitchen table, a noisy café or the office hot desk.
That has not stopped venues offering to combine the liberty of the home office (minus the offspring and the dirty dishes) with the climate control of the corporate hq (minus the boss looking over your shoulder). “Third spaces”, neither office nor home, are not a new idea. Soho House, a chain of fashionable clubs, pioneered 30 years ago the concept of work while mingling with other professionals in an elegant setting. Now hotels are getting in on the action. Your columnist, a guest Bartleby, tried out two recent London offerings.
She first headed to Birch, a hotel in a Georgian manor on 55 acres of Hertfordshire just north of the city. The venue invites you to “come work miracles” at its Hub co-working area, “set strategies” in spaces “ready to fit 5 or 50” or “connect and create” with classes in pottery, sourdough baking, “foraging with our farmer” and other structured activities. Men, women and gender-fluid people in their 20s and early 30s hunch over laptops and glasses of red wine on the terrace. Some digital nomads pay a monthly membership fee and enjoy special discounts to stay in the property and work remotely, but you can, like Bartleby, come as an overnight guest.
Her second destination was the Shangri-La hotel in the Shard, which now offers stays from 10am to 6pm. The pass grants access to a room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on central London, and to Western Europe’s highest infinity pool. It is aimed at those wishing to work and relax by offering a “change of scenery to inspire and invigorate”.
Both Birch and the Shangri-La have their virtues. Birch’s Wi-Fi was excellent and the workspaces had enough sockets to avoid undignified tussles for the last place to plug in your chargers. The “Gentle Flow” stretch class in which Bartleby enrolled, in the spirit of going native, was perfectly pleasant (notwithstanding the instructor’s insistence on starting with an astrological update and reciting a poem at the end). So were laps in the Shangri-La’s infinity pool and the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from her room on the 38th floor.
Yet problems soon became apparent. The first is price. An overnight stay at Birch sets you—or, if you are lucky like Bartleby, your employer—back £160 ($192). The Shangri-La charges £350 for a standard room. Cities have plenty of cheaper “third spaces” these days; a co-working space costs a fraction of that.
The second problem is: how productive can workers be with all the distractions that are designed to make work not feel like work? The spectacular view from the Shard is less conducive to dreaming up a sales pitch (or a column) than it is to daydreaming. At Birch, boardgames occupy every horizontal surface, ready to draw out the procrastinator in you. And once you are done stretching, that sourdough-baking class is a recipe to keep putting work on the back burner.
Third, if you resist the temptation to temporise and get down to business, you may as well be at home or the office. The kibbutz-like camaraderie which Birch (and other places like it cropping up everywhere) try so hard to evoke is, ironically, the very thing you miss by staying away from your office mates. While you are updating that spreadsheet or answering emails, luxury hotels’ creature comforts scarcely register. As with most material indulgences, a sense of vacuity descends once the novelty of the marble floors and stacks of fluffy towels wears off.
The millennials and Gen-zs meandering around Birch suggest that demand for its hip offerings exists. And hoteliers are wise to work their assets in new ways as they cope with changes to their industry: business travel is, after all, unlikely to return to pre-pandemic patterns for a while, if ever.
Just do not expect white-collar types to flock to hotels en masse for a hard day’s work. Most of the Shangri-La’s daytime residents seemed to be couples seeking privacy, not executives keen to inspire and invigorate their pitches. As for Bartleby, you will find her at The Economist’s London head office or, failing that, her kitchen table.
Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
How to navigate workplace awkwardness (Jul 14th)
Reading corporate culture from the outside (Jul 9th)
Beach reads for business folk (Jul 2nd)