When the spiralling number of redundancies hit the headlines at the height of the recession, thousands of ousted workers decided to work for themselves. This left many companies with lines of empty desks and freelancers on the lookout for cheap office space. Spotting a gap in the market, new services popped up hoping to bring the two together.
Today, freelancers have a huge range of options, from sharing desk space with other self-employed workers to "hot-desking"' by renting a desk by the day. Websites such as Rentadesk.co.uk, Officeshare.co.uk and Deskspacegenie.co.uk are making the advertising, booking and locating of desk space much easier. Desk Space Genie founders Ciaron Dunne and Philip Wilkinson launched their service in March 2009 with just 50 desks but today, their website provides an online marketplace featuring more than 7,000.
"We first had the idea when we were letting out own spare desks in out Cambridge office. We had real trouble because there was nowhere that listed spaces online so we decided to do it ourselves," says Mr Dunne.
Most of these sites are free both for freelancers and the companies advertising their spaces, although at Desk Space Genie they can pay for a premium listing and there are plans in place to commercialise the site in April. Other sites, including Officeshare.co.uk, allow for free listings, but then charge a single payment of one month's rental fee for any successful agreements.
The desk-sharing phenomenon has proved popular with the creative industry, with design companies letting their spaces and creative freelancers taking them up. Typical "deskers" include web designers and journalists for whom remote working is feasible as little more is needed than a good broadband connection and a professional environment.
In most instances, contracts are flexible, usually in the form of a rolling monthly contract, although Desk Space Genie is expecting daily lets to boom in the future. "Hot-desking by the day or even the hour is getting more popular, so I think it's going to one of the big growth areas," says Mr Dunne. We could even see some of the larger corporate companies getting involved, such as BT, which encourages flexible working for its employees at home.
Renting a spare desk in a shared office, rather than paying for a more traditional desk space, has several benefits. The average cost for a spare desk in London on Desk Space Genie is £348 a month, which includes rates, heating, lighting, power and broadband. In comparison, a fully serviced office costs between £400 and £800 a month and a conventional office space costs between £1,600 and £3,000 per month for a four-person office, equating to roughly £400 to £750 a month per desk. Add on to this business rates, heating and lighting and the potential savings are impressive.
Deskers also benefit from a professional address, the company of other workers, a greater potential for networking and a tax break.
There are some potential drawbacks, however. Rented desks may not come with a fixed phone line as part of the deal. Freelancers may also be expected to provide their own computer, fax machine and printer. Reliability is another issue as many companies let spare desks on a temporary basis only, so if that company begins to expand, anyone renting the desks could lose their space.
Deskers have little control over their surroundings. The big incentive with self-employment is that you make all the rules, but by renting out the office space of another company you will have no control over the people you work with or any office rules.
However, one potential solution to this is to use a company that manages the co-working space themselves. Rentadesk, for example, manages office space in Soho, London, with prices for hot-desking at £20 per day, plus VAT, which includes wireless broadband and an informal meeting area with optional services such as printing, photocopying and faxing extra.
"Our spaces are inhabited exclusively by freelancers and small businesses so that they do not need to 'fit in' as part of a larger company," says Bleddyn Williams, a director of Rentadesk.
Share a space: There's no need to feel isolated
Anthony Eskinazi, 26, from north London, founder of parking space rental service ParkatMyHouse.com, started using Desk Space Genie last July. "I worked from home for two years, but I found it pretty soul-destroying. Renting a desk space was perfect as there are only two of us in the company," he says.
He now shares an office space in Soho with his colleague and eight workers from other web-based companies. They pay £310, plus VAT, on a rolling monthly contract. Although they use their own computers and phones, the price includes desks and chairs, storage, kitchen and a meeting room.
"We get to share a space in a larger environment where we have colleagues to lunch with and collaborate on ideas with, so we don't feel isolated," he says.