A fantasy realised

I made myself laugh out loud the other day. There was no one around to hear me as COVID life is pretty solitary. It’s a given that social distancing is playing silly buggers with our mental health. It’s also a given that life as we knew it ain’t coming back any time soon. But what made me laugh is the thought that hundreds of thousands of people are sitting at home wishing they could be in the office! I bet they never thought they’d see the day.

Pre-COVID I didn’t have an office to go to, a shared space where I could gossip with my colleagues at the coffee dock. There was no canteen or cafeteria where I could banter with co-workers and speculate about who was seeing whom. There were no all-staff meetings (other than me talking to myself), no birthday cakes, no after-work drinks on a Friday. It’s just me, myself, and I.

Lately, for some strange reason, I’ve been fantasising about going to work, about getting dolled up and rushing out the door to be somewhere before 9 am. Mad isn’t it?

Then I ran into Jonny Bender and his mate Tristan Gillen, two enterprising young lads who reckoned they could make my fantasy come true – and for a very reasonable price. What was a gal to do?

The pair have known each other since their first year at the University of Bath in 2013 and have been roomies ever since. Southampton-born Tristan was studying Economics and Politics while Milton-Keynes-born Jonny Bender was studying Physics.

Since graduating, Tristan has been working on the Bristol and London start-up scene. He was one of the team that founded Ordoo, a mobile pre-order and payment app) and then went on to work with Startups.com, Breezy and the like in customer relationship management and automation. He went out on his own in 2019 with Growth Division. The agency is built on the concept of a distributed team. They bring in freelancers and contractors with specific skills to execute specific projects. A win-win, he says:

The  freelancer gets to live this digital nomadic lifestyle without ties and dependencies and the company only spends capital on highly skilled people and only when they need that specific skill.

And Tristan is walking the talk. For the last 2 years, he has been a digital nomad himself, working entirely from his laptop in various locations around the world including Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, and now Budapest. Yes, fed up with paying through the nose for a flat in London and being locked down with grey skies and puddled pavements, he set out for Budapest.

During this time, I’ve seen more people take to this way of living and working, and I’ve seen a continued eagerness from people who work a 9-5 in an office to try this way of life. For me, and many, it’s an ultimate freedom. To be earning while seeing the world and experiencing new things.

Jonny, who came to Budapest as a babe, knows the city inside out. Half-British, half-Hungarian, he never did get much use out of that Physics part of the degree other than a year at the National Oncology Institution. These days, though, physicists are taught coding so the move into software engineering isn’t as strange as I first thought. He also took his understanding of scientific method and research in general with him to the  R&D tax industry; most consultants in this space have some sort of scientific or engineering background.

Jonny is now a partner at Optimal Compliance, heading up their R&D tax credit operations. The company has an office in London, but as COVID forced everyone to work from home, he, too, decided to move (back) to Budapest.

His company, and many others like them, has realised people don’t need to be seated in the company office to make the business run effectively, but as Jonny says remote working doesn’t mean working from home:

Many people need to be in an office to work productively, they want to interact with people. So co-working spaces provide the perfect solution to that.

The two lads weren’t that long in Budapest when it struck them both that something was missing. They’ve spent many an evening dreaming all sorts of dreams, some viable, some plain mad. They, too, have their fantasises, and chief among them was a decent coworking space where they could work remotely and still have the illusion of going to work. They’d been working their way around the city’s cafés, alternating visits with spurts of working in their kitchen and their living room. But they were missing some sort of structure.

One of the unsung victims of COVID-19 is the whole work-life balance thing. It’s hard to switch off and go home when it means turning off your PC and leaving your box room to go downstairs or being forcibly removed from the kitchen table as it’s set around you. Practically everyone I know who has 9-5 office-type job tells me that they’re putting in longer hours and working harder. And they’re moving less. And meeting fewer people. And they’re hating it.

The lads decided that as they were unable to find a space they liked, they’d create their own. And they did. They found a top-floor flat on Eötvös utca just minutes’ walk from both Oktagon and Nyugati, with a balcony and a roof-top terrace and have turned it into CoWork Division. It’s ticked all their boxes. It has a fully kitted-out modern kitchen, shower (and bath) so those who cycle to work can freshen up when they get there), top-notch security, air-conditioned rooms, green indoor communal spaces with lots of natural light, and an outdoor working space with fab views across the city.  There’s also a bookable meeting room, a private office, and a call booth.

Photo by Dömötör Bence

Forget their boxes – it was ticking all of mine!

Added to that, the day rate includes unlimited speciality coffee (good coffee, too) and free beer on Friday (I’m working on getting them to add wine).  And you get to meet interesting people. And network. At 5500 ft a day, it’s a steal. They offer a money-back guarantee if you’re not satisfied and appreciative as they are of how easily the best laid plans can go awry, they offer free cancellation for booked space.

When I met them a month ago this was a dream, one of many bright ideas the pair have had. Four weeks later, it’s a reality.

COVID has brought an end to so many plans, to so many businesses, to so many good ideas. The world seems to have collectively heaved a sigh of compliant resignation, accepting this as our lot. But not these lads. They couldn’t find what they wanted so they built it themselves. No sitting back for them. No waiting for someone else to provide. No wondering what if?

I was completely taken by their energy, by their enthusiasm, and by their entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve seen more summers than the pair of them put together and yet they’ve taught me a lesson. Now is not the time to lie down, to give in, to succumb to the whatevers. Now is the time to make those dreams a reality. No one is going anywhere. Time is more malleable than ever. And people are beginning to appreciate what they’ve lost. It’s time to fill that void.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 October 2020

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