This story was originally published by Public Radio International.
From taxi drivers to tech innovators, the Indian freelance economy has exploded in recent years. An estimated 15 million freelancers currently operate in the country, making India second only to the United States in terms of independent workers. As Indians break out of traditional employment, they’re breaking out of traditional workplaces, too — and in their stead, creative coworking spaces are thriving.
Gone are the days when "coworking" meant simply sharing an office; now India’s work environments are being reinvented to suit a digital, globally minded age. A new wave of entrepreneurs and freelancers has created a market for places to work with each other, not just next to each other.
From eco-friendly and artist-led South Delhi spot The Studio to the homey feel of Bombay Connect on the Mumbai seaside, India’s coworking spaces today are as diverse as the characters that use them. Some spaces are filled with artists, writers and activists; others are home to social entrepreneurs, web developers and graphic designers.
They can choose between funky lampshades and graffiti-inspired wall art, or sprawl amid bean bags and beaded curtains. Membership fees typically vary from around 2,000 to 8,000 INR — roughly $30 to $120 — per month, which is much more affordable than renting traditional office space.
“More and more people are working from cafes instead of offices in today’s world, especially millennials. This observation led us to create a cafe that would encourage people to work socially, a place where there wasn’t awkwardness over having no food or drink left on your table,” said Riyaaz Amlani, the acclaimed restaurateur who founded Social, India’s biggest coworking brand. His hip chain currently consists of nine cafe-bar workspaces in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru; he’s ultimately aiming for 150 across the country, including in university cities like Pune and Ahmedabad where demand is growing.
In India, where offices traditionally carry a reputation for chaos and bureaucracy, the coworking scene stands out. In welcome contrast, collaborative workspaces foster a culture of ease and efficiency.
“The coworking concept is so much more productive than everybody sitting in their own cubicles.” Amlani says. “Communication is quicker, everybody knows what’s going on, people are on the same page. It’s a social environment so there’s no unnecessary formality. Work feels like a mission and a sport when you are part of a coworking community.”
That sense of community is a crucial part of the distinctive culture found at coworking spaces in India. When evening comes, Social’s workspaces turn into bars, offering coworkers the chance to kick back over drinks as they finish their day.
Coworkers are expected to share work as well as play, which explains why some venues are picky about their members. Six months ago, entrepreneur and investor Ritesh Malik founded the Innov8 coworking space in Delhi, and received more than 1,000 applications for membership on the day of its launch. Today, despite its 150-person capacity, the space is home to just 112 coworkers.
“They are the best minds in the city. We don’t care if we have empty seats — we just want the best people to work with each other and create value,” Malik told PRI. “India is in big need of coworking spaces, and Indians appreciate ideas that are outside of the box.”
Those chosen to be Innov8 members get a lot more than split rent and WiFi bills. Resembling a slick hotel — complete with roof terrace and nap room — the project bills itself as an incubator for new ideas and enterprises, a sort of homegrown Google Campus. (Google plans to start work this year on a campus in the Indian tech hub of Hyderabad, its first outside the US.)
Through networking events, mentoring programs and talks from industry leaders, many of India’s coworking spaces aim to play a vital role in helping startups and entrepreneurs succeed.
Collaborations are frequent, and already bearing fruit. Food Talk India, a “social food community” that publishes reviews and organizes events, was founded by Anjali Batra and her partner at the Hauz Khas Village (HKV) Social workspace in Delhi. The social emphasis of her company meant the collaboration at the heart of coworking was a natural fit.
“Our company started as a secret Facebook group with just 50 food lovers as members. We came together to talk about food and exchange recommendations, and within six months we had grown to 18,000 people,” Batra said.
“The coworking scene gives you access to lots of people with different ideas and skills, especially from the creative and tech fields. The advantage of that is having anything and everything you need available through someone around you. For example, we met our graphic designer at HKV Social and we’ve been working with her for over a year now.”
Batra also notes that coworking is attracting a broader demographic than it did a few years ago. “Spaces with restaurants and cafes are very different from the early venues — those were very tech-driven, very serious in format and people had to have a strong IT background to participate,” she said.
For the many expats based in India, working alongside local people every day is an important way to understand cultural differences. Being able to ask very specific advice about the country's business norms helps these coworkers navigate opportunities armed with local insight.
“India has a unique mentality, and sometimes it’s difficult to explain this to Western clients if work is delayed or done differently, for example. So I like to cowork with Indians because I can ask for suggestions and get local opinions on things,” said Sarune Baubaite, a French national who runs an online travel agency called Nomaday Travel.
Amongst those doing business in India’s cities, there’s little doubt that the culture of coworking will continue to thrive, hand-in-hand with India’s evolving workforce and enterprise scene.
“Entrepreneurship is really picking up in India. Three years ago, I didn’t know a single person thinking about starting their own business. Today, almost half of my local friends are entrepreneurs,” said Batra. “There’s an adaptable market for startups in India right now. It’s not a gamble anymore. Entrepreneurship is something that’s appreciated.”