Welcome back to another Coworking Values Podcast folks! Where we try to update you with all things about the coworking community.
In this episode, we are having Alex Ahom of AlexAhom.com back! We did a podcast with him before, and it’s been a long time. He’s the founder of Shhared coworking space in Hamburg, Germany. Alex now manages his own future of work and workplace consulting. Alex will be sharing with us all about what it is like to close his coworking space due to the pandemic. The journey of him moving across countries, starting his coworking space, and what did it take to get over the fact that he has to close it. We are also going to be talking about Alex helping startups with inclusion and diversity. How they can make their business be more inclusive and diverse.
What did it take for you to get over the fact that you have to close your coworking space?
Well, for me, as I said that the transition into the space was, it was clear to me. I had to do it. And, as you said before, and I, and I’ve said before in public, and you know, I’ve done a bit of public speaking about this kind of stuff. You know, I’ve consulted to a few businesses of different kinds.
We want to start flexible workspaces. And, it was clear to me and obvious to me that I had to do it. And, it was difficult because I’m not an architect. I’m not, I’m not classically trained in those kinds of things. But I knew what I wanted to be a part of. And I knew what the community I want to be a part of.
I’m very active on social media. So I knew, I asked a lot of people, what would they want from their work experience? So I built the place really for people. With a common challenge and I did it alone. I didn’t have any investors. I didn’t have any co-founders. I didn’t have a golden egg or, or anything like that.
And so it was a lot of, a lot of hard work, a lot of sleepless nights. You know, it puts stress on the family for sure. Put stress on me, obviously. But I fail to say that, I put everything. I tried everything and I did everything for that, for that chatter. So when you come to a point when you realize that a new chapter’s coming, if you’ve done everything you can, then it also, there is a certain amount of peace.
There was a sort of certain amount of positivity and so it wasn’t, the closing down part was not as hard as one might think because I tried everything. And I said that to my kids, I’ve got three kids. I said to my kids, if you put everything into something, if you put a hundred percent of effort into something, if you fail or if, if you learn or if it doesn’t work the way you wanted to, you can hold your head up high.
And because, you know, you’ve tried everything. And, I think a lot of people know, especially in the European continent. You know, I’ve travelled a lot. We’ve travelled a lot, speaking about this kind of stories, you know, we’ve blogged and done these things before, and we’re still, you know, coworking flexible work.
It’s still in its infancy in this, in this way. So we were early pioneers, we were early actors. We are early actors. Um, but yeah, but in terms of the mental side of it the closing down part, wasn’t that difficult for me. I was proud of what I’ve achieved and what I’ve learned and all those people that I served and all those businesses that I helped.
And I’m happy with what I’ve learned and what I’ve done. And closing the doors doesn’t change that.
Zeljko Crnjaković 0:13
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Bernie J Mitchel 0:48
Hello ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this week’s episode of the Coworking Values podcast, brought to you by the European Coworking Assembly. So today, I’m really excited. I’ve pulled Alex out of retirement, who’s one of the original instigators of the rebirth of the Coworking Assembly. So, Alex, what are you known for, and what would you like to be known for?
Alex Ahom 1:08
Thanks for inviting me. Thanks for having me here out of retirement, I did not officially retire, but hopefully I’m not known for being a retiree.
Bernie J Mitchel 1:20
You should have a line like “don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years”.
Alex Ahom 1:26
I should work on my wrapping. I’ve had a coworking space for five years or so. A physical space around the community that I started from scratch. I moved to Germany from the UK and started that and grew into a community that found a home in my coworking space, and since then I do a bit of public speaking, consulting. I’m really into building communities, making sure they’re inclusive, making sure people are happy and fulfilled at work. And getting busier and busier.
Bernie J Mitchel 2:13
I saw a video the other day, it was a promotional video for Coworking Europe. And the moment I met you was at Coworking European in Italy, in 2015. They had just done something with a microphone and an interview with you. And then you turned around and I heard your accent, and I always said, another English guy at Coworking Europe. I am English but I live in Hamburg. I thought I’d found another kindred soul there. That was 2015 like 100 years ago. So, before we go on, we have a few articles folks and we’re going to discuss going back to the office and things like that. Moving to another city in another country is enough trauma and excitement. I always get the impression, and correct me if I’m wrong here, I think a lot of people that started coworking spaces, needed to find somewhere to work, couldn’t find it and then ended up doing their own thing. Is that an accurate assumption?
Alex Ahom 3:31
I moved to Germany after realizing, you know, London is definitely my home. I love it, but it’s also my comfort zone. And I’m ambitious. I always have been. My wife is also ambitious. She’s kind of more corporate, and it just became clear to both of us that maybe we needed to move to experience something different, and to grow our skill set. So, we had a lot of conversations and we decided to finally move to Hamburg. Long story short, but when I got here, I couldn’t transfer with Apple. And so, I started to kind of meet people in the freelance community. I started to meet people, entrepreneurs, solo entrepreneurs, just creative people as well. I’ve always been interested in the way people work and what they get out of it. I’ve always tried to get a lot, emotionally and socially out of work. And I just met people who were drained from work and depressed and stressed and unhappy with their boss, unhappy with their life, and really had no sense of purpose from their work and I just don’t like to hear that.
So, I realized quickly that there weren’t many people here trying to do anything about that, and I just very quickly realized that that’s something I need to do. And yeah, you’re right I didn’t have a job too, so to speak, and it was difficult in Germany and you know I don’t speak German. So, finding a job here was near impossible, especially something that I could put my heart and soul into which is again what I’m all about. So, I started to build this following, this community, this group of people who had a common purpose and a common goal, and fashion that into a community and that moved into a coworking space.
Bernie J Mitchel 5:50
Long time ago now. And then, when did you have to wind it down? Was it 2019?
Alex Ahom 5:58
Yeah, so the end of 2019. That was just before the start of the Corona, but just when we were hearing reports of a strange flu in Asia, and that was when I was closing.
Bernie J Mitchel 6:15
When I worked in work ups with Phil, so it wasn’t even business, and when he closed that, because it just wasn’t economically viable to run it. There’s this massive sense of what I would now call grief after speaking to people last year because there are people both of us know and love, who have had to close their spaces in 2020. As I said, some of those people closed their spaces because they wanted to do that for ages and now they can. And others had to fight to the death to try and keep it open. And for many different reasons. What was it like for you?
Alex Ahom 7:19
Well, for me, as I said it was clear to me, I had to do it. And as you said before and I’ve said before in public, and I’ve done a bit of public speaking about this kind of stuff. I’ve consulted to a few businesses in different kinds, who want to start flexible workspaces, and it was clear to me and obviously they had to do it. It was difficult because I’m not an architect. I’m not trained in those kinds of things. But I knew what I wanted to be a part of. And I knew what the community wanted to be a part of. I’m very active on social media so I knew. I asked a lot of people what they want from their work experience. So, I built the place for people with a common challenge. And I did it alone. I didn’t have any investors. I didn’t have any co-founders. I didn’t have a golden egg or anything like that. And so, it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of sleepless nights. Put a stress on me, obviously. But I say all that to say that I put everything. I tried everything and I did everything for that chapter. So, when you come to a point when you realize that a new test is coming. If you’ve done everything you can then there is a certain amount of peace.
There was a certain amount of positivity, and so the closing down part was not as hard as one might think, because I tried everything. And I said it to my kids, I’ve got three kids, I said to my kids if you put everything into something, if you put 100% effort into something. If you fail, or if you learn, or if it doesn’t work the way you want it to. You can hold your head up high because you know you’ve tried everything. And I think a lot of people know especially in the European continent, we’ve traveled a lot speaking about these kinds of stories. Coworking and flexible work is still in its infancy in this way. So, we were early pioneers. We were early actors. But yeah, in terms of the mental side of it. The closing down part wasn’t that difficult for me I was proud of what I’ve achieved and what I’ve learned and all those people that I served and all those businesses that I helped, I’m happy with what I’ve learned, and what I’ve done, and closing the doors doesn’t change that.
Bernie J Mitchel 10:19
I remember seeing you at Coworking European in Warsaw, and you looked a lot lighter. And there was an era of accomplishment about you. I’ve been in coworking since the Innovation Warehouse opened in London in 2010, and even Milan, it was like seven years ago now. That’s a long time in coworking, and then you probably found this yourself that last year, everyone suddenly started talking about remote work and coworking, and a bit of me, possibly arrogantly was like, I’ve been doing this for years, and I didn’t realize how many people didn’t know how to work online, work from home, work from anywhere, you know. A lot of people said, Alberto who’s on here next week from We Share in Coworking Spain. The COVID has accelerated the future of work by a decade. How do you feel about that?
Alex Ahom 11:44
As you said, we’ve been speaking about these things for a long time. And I remember some household name companies reaching out asking me about working from home, and working remotely, and working in coworking spaces. And I would give them a crash course and speak about it and give examples. But oftentimes in the end they would say this is something for the future. This is not right now because, how are we going to keep tabs on our staff, how are we going to motivate and engage people from arm’s length? We’ve just spent millions of dollars or euros on office blocks to let people work from home with some shoddy Wi-Fi, and what they were trying to say is they were afraid of change, and they didn’t know how to deal with it. And what’s happened through COVID for that part is, is that we’ve been thrust into change. And some people have been pushed unwillingly into this environment where they’ve had to work from home, or they’ve had to allow their staff to work from home, and all those people who said, I would but it just never worked. They’ve been proven wrong, and they’re now thinking wow what Bernie, Alex, Janine, and Joanna, and all these people were saying, they were right, it can work. It does work. So, it’s not a silver bullet and we’ll talk about that it’s not perfect, but this is evidence that the workplace was ripe for a change. The old normal wasn’t working for many people. And this is just another possible solution. And we have to embrace that and learn from what we’ve learned in the last year or so and keep on tweaking. Keep on adapting.
Bernie J Mitchel 13:44
There’s the article about Spotify, which we’ll put a link in the show notes, folks, but it lists a whole load of like Twitter sales force, Facebook, blah blah. But Spotify says it’s letting its employees work from anywhere, while still paying San Francisco and New York salaries. So, there’s a lot of heavy hitter names in there. And then also this week, the guy from Goldman Sachs said everyone’s got to come back to the office. I don’t know whether it’s because they’re a very traditional thing, and I read lots of comments on LinkedIn about, you should work from the office and people need to be where they are and there’s a couple of friends of mine that head up big teams and companies, and they’re good people, they’re nice parents and everything like that but they are like, if they can’t see their employees they are really upset. In a really old-fashion command and control kind of way. The other thing is Rowena who we podcasted with earlier on in the year or early on last year. She’s done a lot of work about remote work, and one of the things that surprised me, this is back last summer, is he thinks slack is a really cool company, but it’s not prepared to work remotely, even though it has, arguably a remote work product, but Microsoft just absolutely killed it last year, because they have always been a predominantly work from anywhere company, even though you think of them as this kind of, hello, we’re in corporate. But why is this? Is it the age of the company?
Alex Ahom 15:42
Yeah, culture is a big thing. There are some companies that the culture is a bit more flexible, a bit more open, transparent, curious. And those are the kind of characteristics you need in these uncertain times, you know since COVID has come in, it’s blown everyone into a spin. The Black Lives Matter has also had a big impact on the workplace as well and individuals, and we’re seeing now how companies are dealing with that. And like you said, there’s more traditional companies that are not ready to step into the next chapter, and we mentioned before that fear is a big part of it, fear of the unknown, fear of how do I control my staff, how do I motivate and inspire my staff from afar? Sometimes you need to trust your people, and you need to engage with them in a different way. I don’t know if it’s the age of these companies that there are some traditional companies or companies that have been around for ages that are doing a great job, like Microsoft as you said. And then there are some new ones that are also unsure. So, it’s not necessarily about the age of the business, it’s more about, as I said, the mindset and the culture, which can change. So, how did the Black Lives Matter affect how people work remotely or how companies deal with that? What effect did that George Floyd murder have on our work environment?
As a member of the black community, these kinds of things have been affecting us deeply for a long time. George Floyd is not the first person that has been murdered, unfortunately he’s not the last. These things have a big impact on us socially. And as you know, oftentimes I’ve had friends who are very sensitive to these things and when these things happen, it’s hard to go into work and be smiley and motivated and have the same output. And when that happened last summer, a lot of people started to feel very uneasy, and uncomfortable, and emotional about what they realized has been happening. So, it has an impact on us because we’re people at the end of the day, we’re not machines, we’re not just drones, on a factory line.
We have emotions and feelings. So, what I’m saying is that that was the catalyst for a lot of people to realize that they have their emotions, and their feelings have a big impact on our productivity and the way we’re working. Now, how does it impact the way we work at home, the Black Lives Matter movement, and these social elements. This stuff doesn’t impact all of us equally. There is not an equal playing field when it comes to these kinds of these, these incidents. There are certain communities that don’t have the tools and don’t have the resources to deal with these bumps in the road, these changes and these tragedies. And I think companies are now starting to stand up and say, we recognize that, we see that this group needs more support here, this group needs more investment here. We recognize you. We listened to you, we’re going to empower you, because we haven’t been doing good enough. So, the Black Lives Matter situation and more accurately, the anti-racism movement that is now a very important topic at work just as work from home, remote workers because as I said, some groups working from home have it better than other groups working from home, and it’s not just black or white, there are other groups as well.
Bernie J Mitchel 20:09
So, one of the clients you’ve worked with in the last year around diversity and inclusion in companies, what are the top three things they ask you?
Alex Ahom 20:27
One company did literally say to me, can you teach us how not to be racist, and I laughed and then he laughed and then I said what do you mean by that and he gave me a story where there was a bit of racism going on. It was a team of a few friends from university, and they didn’t realize that they had blind spots, they had prejudices, they didn’t realize their biases. I didn’t realize that at one point they were excluding and discriminating. And there was a situation at like a Christmas party or something. And it got out of hand. And from there, they knew there was a problem. And actually, it was my activity on, I think it was LinkedIn and doing podcasts and stuff that they kind of heard about me and he reached out and said, we want to stop being racist, but it was cool because he didn’t pull any punches, he didn’t mince his words. He called a spade a spade. People ask that. People say well we’ve heard a lot about unconscious bias. We’ve heard a lot about microaggressions, we don’t know so much, we’ve been learning, we’ve been reading books about this for ages but we’re still not there yet, can you help us? That kind of thing happens a lot.
Bernie J Mitchel 21:52
So, what’s unconscious bias? Again, I’m asking for a friend.
Alex Ahom 21:59
We all have biases. We all have thoughts that are unconscious, that we don’t necessarily control but they’re there. In some ways to protect us, but if we don’t protect ourselves from that mechanism, we, like that CEO, can find ourselves discriminating too much. So, really what we need to do is kind of check ourselves before we record ourselves. You see what I did there?
Bernie J Mitchel 22:32
Alex Ahom 22:36
But I’ll give you an example, in a hiring situation, and that’s one thing that I think companies need to do much better. A lot of companies are talking about, okay we don’t need racists anymore, we realize we’ve only got one black guy in our building or whatever, we need to do better. So, what they say is we need to do better with hiring, getting a diverse workforce. You know Coca Cola, a company that we all know. They famously said we want a workforce as diverse as our customers, so the customers that we sell to. And that’s a good way to look at it because they sell to everyone and they should also hire everyone. So, in any case, the hiring process for many companies is not equitable. I try to tell people who are hiring to make sure that they are checking their bias. One bias would be for example, you have an interview situation, the interviewer sits down and says oh I see you went to the same university as me, for example. And then they talk about the fraternity that they were in or the groups that they were in and they realize that they were doing the same thing, they’re interested in sports, drink the same beer, they do the same hobbies. And from then on, it’s a love fest, they love each other. You’re hired.
That happens a lot. You meet people that have similar interests. You like the same music, and then you kind of tick that box and you start to tick many other boxes. And so, your bias from one area can spill over to another, and that happens a lot in the hiring process. So, people who weren’t necessarily qualified or getting the jobs because they went to the same squash club, as the hiring manager or whatever. There’s confirmation bias. You might be in a group and the majority of the group is saying yes that’s a great idea and you want to question that, you want to say no, and everyone else is saying yes, so you just go along with those biases. So, there are many kinds of biases and unconscious bias. What I would encourage everyone to do is try to change those unconscious thoughts and beliefs into conscious behaviors and conscious thinking, and then slowly we can move away from making judgments when we see people that don’t look like us. We can steer ourselves away from that.
Bernie J Mitchel 25:22
You and me and a group of people have always been attending or helping run those inclusion and diversity site like unconference sessions, wherever it’s Coworking Europe. And it’s just very interesting how that’s evolved. I’ve been to a few of those and it’s just scary how I thought I knew quite a lot four years ago. And the further I get into it and the more I read, I realized how much I don’t know and it’s quite scary how much I’ve had to read to understand it to the level I do, and I still see there is loads more to go. I actually remember, like horrifically being in a class at university that I went to out of interest about institutional racism. Yeah, and this was in like the year 2000 or so, I think, and it was mainly black British people in there and they were talking about institutional racism. And I remember saying, I just don’t believe a person and a company could be that cruel. I had no idea, and to think how many people wander around or really well intentioned that just have no idea the consequences of their words, let alone their actions. Does that make sense?
Alex Ahom 27:17
Yeah, it makes perfect sense and I think we have to have these conversations. They are uncomfortable. Lots of people don’t like to have them but it’s important we have them because we then realize how other people feel, and empathy is a very big component of all of this, there’s a big gap and a distance between a lot of the groups, whether it be young and old, white or black which report all these different groups, there’s a big gap and an us versus them situation, and we have to eradicate that because we are all in this together and we can’t fix or solve racism, we can’t eradicate it. Black people can’t eradicate racism. It’s something that we all have to do. Prejudice against gay people or people with disabilities, we all have to be part of that conversation. As you said, reading alone is a start. A lot of people again reached out to me and said, if you got any books, I should read on how not to be racist and I’ve read ‘Why not speak to white people about racism’, a great book. What should I read next? And that’s a good question. But I’ve done a podcast recently on this. Where all of the burden of change cannot be on the one or two black people that people know. You can’t expect the black person in the office to lead the anti-racism push. So yeah, people can reach out to me for a book list, and I’ll give it if I have it to hand, but it’s problematic when we do that. It’s great that you’re reading all these books, but what really helps change is when you have conversations with people who aren’t like you, and they tell you their experiences, because it’s just a bit more real than reading a fancy book. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read but definitely have conversations and speak to people and hear their real-life stories.
Bernie J Mitchel 29:35
I totally agree with that because we were doing the whole, I didn’t invent it but, you know Ashley, Tasha, Ivana, and Joe, driving the Coworking Idea project which is inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility. It’s very active. Lots of people got behind it, lots of prominent people in the coworking industry got behind it. And he’s still going and it’s going to be every month. We felt like we’re just emailing people, telling them they should do something, and then Tash instigated. Let’s get some people on the call and go through this month’s exercise. And then, not only did they get the exercise done, so, it was one thing off the list, which was simply going over your social media website. And there’s a whole thing about founder bias so, if whatever demographic you are, your website and your social media will probably be like you. Mine is full of like, Seth Godin, Clay Shirky, and Moby, and yours is probably has lots of photos of Idris Elba. One thing is that we sent that email Monday just to see who would turn up and 10 people showed up, went through the exercise together and they like heavily invested in it. And it was a micro action, but my point is, I’ve gone off track here sorry, is that people just started talking about what we’re talking about now, and it’s not often you get that chance to have an open conversation about it. I think going to a big event on race or on inclusion is very intimidating. Very often there’s like, all those authors like and it’s like going through a rock concert and having an experience rather than going and listening to the music and learning the words. I’ve always loved Public Enemy in the early 90s to piss my parents off. And then as I got older I started listening to the lyrics, and it’s way more meaningful, it’s not even gangster rap in my opinion. It’s some social activism rap. We’ll put a link in the show notes to the Idea project, folks, and you can take part in that. It’s like a very small action you can take every month. Ideally with your coworking community. So, it’s for people who run coworking spaces and people in the coworking space. And every month, a different group leader challenge from around the world. And we have the Coworking Assembly First Friday call, I’ll put a link in the show notes for that on Friday the fifth of March, and there’ll be people from all around the coworking universe, coming to that just to sort of see how we can dig a bit, like Alex says, turn it into like an actionable thing you can do in your own life, rather than reading another book and liking a post on Twitter because it’s nice to do that but doesn’t really change the world.
Alex Ahom 33:15
I completely agree and they say diversity is a fact, and inclusion isn’t, and we have to do something. When it comes to the office, workspaces wherever it may be, diversity is really about the number of people, different kinds of people you have, but including them is the most important thing, and that’s the part that’s a burpee. You have to do something to include people and definitely going to big events is intimidating even for, for people who are totally dialed in it and invested. You really have to speak to your friends and family about it and your close colleagues and those kinds of things and listen to the experiences. But also as I said to check these biases. I spoke to a team recently who was speaking about what was a few months back now but it was before the end of the year and they were planning their Christmas party, and I’m not preachy, I just asked the question that, and I love Christmas like the next person, and I grew up with that tradition.
I just asked her, do you think that everyone has grown up with the tradition of Christmas, and if you have a Christmas party and you call it a Christmas party, do you think everyone in the office would appreciate that and would feel welcomed? And that was all I asked, for really, I wanted to kind of plant the seed. And we had a great conversation, and in the end, she realized that they had done a push recently to hire more people from different communities and there are a number of Muslim people that have joined and a number of a couple of Jewish people as well who didn’t celebrate Christmas. Basically, they had been said that they didn’t celebrate Christmas it wasn’t really a thing for them, but what was happening was they were inviting people who didn’t celebrate Christmas, didn’t want to be a part of those celebrations. And when they would decline, they would kind of say, well they don’t really want to get to know the team, what’s wrong with them? They’re against us. And I think if they just were a bit more understanding and conscious, these people wanted to integrate in their new job, but they don’t celebrate Christmas, and they don’t want a pork sandwich and a pint of beer. So, we have to be a bit mindful and ask each of these things.
Bernie J Mitchel 35:56
I’m going to put a link in the show notes to the Cobot event Code of Conduct in which highlighted that because I know that one of the things I really appreciate about that, was the alcohol thing. When I was younger, I was a very enthusiastic drinker. And then I just stopped drinking because I’m much less of a decade. When I’m just drinking sparkling water than 15 cases of WKD. Where can we find you online?
Alex Ahom 37:54
Alex Ahom on LinkedIn.
Bernie J Mitchel 38:15
We’ll put a link to your blog in there too.
Alex Ahom 38:18
Yes. I’ve done a few blogs for some cool companies over the years, and I’d love to do more with different kinds of companies who are committed to this stuff, so these days I really focus on the future of work, so the work from home, work from anywhere, flexible work, building a better workspace and work community side of things. And also, the diversity inclusion stuff as well, so, those are the two areas that I’m active in and always looking to do a new project on that.
Bernie J Mitchel 38:57
Ladies and gentlemen, go to coworkingassembly.eu and hang around for a little bit of time and a nice little thing will pop up and say, join our email list. We email out every week about the events that are going on around the European coworking community. We got the Coworking Symposium coming up. The first Friday of every month we’ll be endorsing the Idea project. There’s Coworking Spain coming up this Sunday in Coworking Germany. And also, we have all the stuff we do in London, which is very London centric, but if you want to come along and pick up a few tips not from me but live from people who know what they’re doing, you’re very welcome there. Have fun, stay safe and be careful. It is a jungle out there.