“What good is sitting alone in your room?” sang Liza Minnelli. Accompanied by a laptop and dodgy Wifi she might have added.

The numbers of home workers rose in 2014 to 4.2 million and many of these are working on their own with little human contact, so it can be a comfort to wander out and enjoy the buzz of a cafe and the burbling of the Gaggia machine. Leaving aside the negative connotations of Starbucks, it did establish popularity with freelancers due to free WiFi back in 2011 – and because the staff didn’t seem to notice or care that you had spent four hours monopolising their best sofa. 

 A new Russian concept named Ziferblat, has taken things one step further. There are now two branches in the UK – one in London (near Old Street) and the one I’m familiar with, on Edge Street in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

The concept is simple – you pay for your time, not what you drink and eat. After being buzzed in, you head upstairs to the first floor reception desk. Once logged onto the system, you are free to make full use of the space, and when it’s time to leave, you pay for the time you’ve spent. Currently, payment is 5p per minute. For this, you can use the space as your own. Oh, and help yourself to as much coffee, tea, cakes, cereal and fruit as you wish – but just remember to wash up before you leave.

The Manchester Ziferblat space is a huge warehouse-sized room, light and airy, with a pleasing array of mismatched furniture. Tables and chairs are grouped hither and thither. Big squashy sofas, chintzy grandma-style armchairs, bleached pine worktables, there’s even a table and chair combo that looks like it came from a cheesy 1970s hotel. Board games are heaped on a shelf, there’s a piano (which no one was playing), and even a little balcony for smokers.

The kitchen is somewhat like a student set-up, and is kitted out with bread and cereals, a variety of spreads (Marmite etc), a toaster, Kilner jars stuffed with biscuits and Bombay mix. On a table are heaps of biscuits and – the piece de resistance – sliced cakes – lemon and walnut, which seem to be regularly restocked due to being regularly snaffled. A fruit bowl gets rather less attention. There’s a multitude of tea flavours, and a coffee machine dispenses the usual latte, espresso varieties. You can help yourself to as much as you want of anything, the only proviso being that you wash up your stuff at the end.

Ziferblat ManchesterThe purpose for my initial visit was to get some work done, but maybe because it was my first time, I found all the goings-on mightily distracting. Everything happening around me seemed utterly riveting – the people, the conversations (two nurses discussing their shifts). Jenga here (is that about to fall??), Monopoly there. And… just how many cakes has he piled onto his plate??

Distraction aside, I loved Ziferblat for its homely, cosy atmosphere. I ate 3 slices of cake, a Marmite sandwich, and drank two good cappuccinos (coffee is supplied by the Ancoats Coffee Co.). I was further tempted by their schedule of events posted on the wall, such as yoga, knitting, and even laptop sessions.

For some home workers, local “Laptop Sessions” are a lifeline. These have been in existence all over the country for several years, and offer a great way for solitary workers to get together and either work singly with the reassuring presence of others tapping away nearby, or with a supportive network.

Social media consultant Jonathan Pollinger co-founded weekly, free laptop sessions known as Laptop Friday with Belinda Wilson around five years ago, utilising supportive venues in their home town of Cheltenham. I asked Jonathan what people like about these get togethers.

“There are a number of benefits. We have many people locally working on their own, staring at four walls, and sometimes it can be hard to find motivation.Some laptop sessions just offer a co-working space without much interaction but we always make sure our events are welcoming, and we always introduce new people to the group. If people just want to come along and work on their own then that’s fine, but we also have a lot of networking and support – for instance if someone has a design for a new business card or a website and they want feedback.”

Local cafes have been keen to host the sessions too. “The best venue locally has been Smokey Joe’s cafe. There’s plenty of space to walk around, and they have their own separate area for the sessions, although anyone is welcome, it’s not exclusive to us.

Jonathan (in blue stripes) gives a talk at a recent laptop event

Recently, Jonathan has noticed a change in the composition of Laptop Friday sessions. “Although the sessions are pitched at home workers, there is a new trend emerging – we find more employees are being given time away from the office and they like to come to sessions. Hence the relevance of running a Friday morning session as this is when they are most likely to have time off.”

UPDATE January 2016. Jonathan has now relocated to Cardiff where he will be setting up laptop sessions, more info to follow. Please check with Smokey Joe’s cafe for updated information of Cheltenham sessions

In the capital, home workers are spoilt for choice. One inviting space which welcomes freelance workers is Ace Hotel in London’s Shoreditch. The vast lobby has been subtly carved into sections in order for the space to serve various functions. Except during daytimes it seems to serve one function really which involves sitting hunched over a laptop. Sofas and low tables are arranged round the space, and there’s a long, communal work table in the middle of the room. Concerned waiters bob about from time to time, fetching you drinks and snacks from the bar; there’s also a coffee shop to one side of the room which serves a healthy lunch of soup, sandwich and coffee for around £8.

Do you have a favourite spot where you like to work?

Ziferblat coffee

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