The momentum of the “shared economy” only seems to be increasing; from taxi services to food delivery, 21st century life is moving towards more flexible ways of working, and office environments are included in this shift.
The traditional co-working image of budding entrepreneurs bouncing ideas off each other as they lounge on beanbags sipping cold-filtered Americanos is changing, as more and more organisations tap into the world of shared offices. Although still dominated by freelancers and tech start-ups, established corporate businesses are increasingly utilising co-working offices to improve flexibility, productivity and access to a diverse group of talented professionals. Notably both IBM and Microsoft use co-working spaces to encourage innovation.
Co-working spaces offer the opportunity to expand business networks and inspire the cross-pollination of ideas through day-to-day mingling, and formal members’ networking events. They also provide all the facilities you might expect from a traditional office, and come in different shapes, sizes and subscriptions, thus offering the opportunity to minimise costs without compromising on amenities. Many business ventures in their early stages need to keep costs down whilst the project grows, and more established companies may require increased accommodation unexpectedly or for a short period of time. The ability to sign up for a monthly, weekly or even daily office space subscription, rather than a traditional 12 month lease, is a tempting proposition.
Creative development through collaborative working also appeals to many young entrepreneurs, and is increasingly being embraced as a successful problem solving and knowledge sharing environment by large corporates, particularly as the work force shifts inevitably towards millennials who want to work interactively and flexibly. Co-working offices bring together a high concentration of bright people in one place, thus improving the likelihood of efficiently reaching that ‘eureka’ moment for your work problem. But it is important to be aware of the potential risks in these shared environments, particularly when it comes to protecting your creative output.
For all its possibilities, there are inevitably difficulties for individuals working in such environments. The appeal of co-working generally comes down to your personal working style. Some people need a quiet, personalised working environment with office routines to work best. Energetic discussions, which may not revolve around your work, may just be a disruptive distraction.
The lack of privacy may also be an issue. Although private meeting rooms are normally available, these often come at an extra cost, and if the underlying principle of co-working is kinetic discussion and creative collaboration with others, there is a risk that this will stray into confidential territory. So if you need to be discreet and keep information and ideas private, co-working may not be the best option.
Legal issues – protecting your IP
It is extremely important for both budding entrepreneurs and established companies that in the midst of creative brainstorming and vibrant discussions individuals have one eye on their intellectual property (“IP”) rights. Whether it’s deliberate or inadvertent, there’s always a danger of a co-office sharer overhearing or participating in one of your conversations and further down the line ‘borrowing’ or claiming ownership in (and a share of or profits from) your ideas.
For an IT company in a co-sharing office, copyright may be the most important IP right to consider, as it covers amongst other things: code, images, sounds, video and text. But there are various other IP rights which can apply to creative ideas, including trademarks, design rights and patents.
In a collective working space, likely surrounded by individuals from a variety of different companies, your intellectual property is more vulnerable. Within a traditional office environment, ideas can be shared freely between employees without hesitation, as generally the employer will own the copyright in its employees’ work. Conversely, in a collaborative space copyright will arise automatically on the creation of the work.
Friendly advice from someone at the next desk, or in the queue for a coffee, could turn into real creative input, and this could lead to that person claiming some sort of proprietorship over the idea. If lots of people have contributed various ideas to your project, you may find yourself with multiple claims over the copyright.
To avoid this, it is important to establish ownership from the outset. A simple agreement, detailing the basis on which the work is being done and who owns the IP rights, will be extremely useful. If IP ownership is then challenged, this document should help protect you by showing the understanding on which discussions took place and how the ideas were shared. Everyone understands the emotional energy and commitment poured into a project, and most will therefore appreciate the need for clear agreement on input and ownership of ideas from the outset.
Another aspect to bear in mind whilst developing your project in a shared space is maintaining confidentiality of sensitive details during discussions. Utilising the private meeting rooms on offer should help achieve this. However, if you just can’t contain your excitement chatting about your ideas in the shared space, consider entering into a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement with those around you, allowing you to share your ideas without putting the information at risk. There are also the added risks to physical and cyber security in a shared working space; it is worth having procedures in place to limit these potential threats and protect the confidentiality of your plans. For example, agreed practice on where laptops are kept overnight, or added security to encrypt confidential information on the shared Wi-Fi connection may be beneficial.
The amount of people occupying co-working spaces is set to increase in coming years. It is undeniably a more affordable alternative to traditional office space, and harbours a vibrant community of creative people. It is crucial however, that individuals, particularly those developing new projects or handling confidential data, are mindful of the perils of collaborative working in such open environments, and take steps to protect their IP.
Tom Lingard, Head of Intellectual Property, and Grace Merry, Trainee at Stevens & Bolton LLP