“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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