James Cusack: Why we decided to share an office with a totally different charity

Sharing the proverbial water cooler affords us all the personal and professional opportunities to connect with others

We know that the future of work is hybrid, and flexibility is key to having a thriving, diverse and high-performing workforce.

It’s unlikely that we will see any organisation in our sector return to 100 per cent full-time office attendance.

At the same time, during the 24 months of the pandemic in which Autistica has not had an office, we’ve also heard from our people a clear desire to have an organisational “home base” away from frequently improvised home offices.

The mental health impacts of the pandemic are widely known by now.

Loneliness and isolation is a very real challenge for a lot of people. Having an opportunity to regularly leave the house and interact with other people face-to-face is important.

A challenge for many in the third sector is how to justify taking a new lease on an office space in central London – a location vital to our influencing and fundraising efforts – when we have been without those costs for almost two years.

The idea of sharing an office space first came up in conversation with Lea Milligan, chief executive of MQ Mental Health Research, in mid-2021.

Our two organisations had co-funded a research fellowship previously and supported each other with fundraising for it. The more we spoke about it, the more sense it seemed to make to both of us.

To start with, we could both see the obvious financial upsides.

Leasing two separate spaces, even if they were smaller than the space we now share, would still give us both the burden of extra costs like utilities, telephony and internet.

Sharing a larger space gives us an economy of scale that we are able to share on an equal basis. To turn to cliché, no matter how small that saving, every penny counts for small charities like ours.

It’s not simply the financial side of the agreement that benefits us, however. There are other, more hidden benefits.

Autistica and MQ operate in sufficiently distinct but related fields. Evidence shows us that autistic people have a much higher risk of mental health issues than non-autistic people.

Indeed, one of our six visionary and ambitious 2030 goals is to ensure all autistic people have access to proven treatments for anxiety.

This alignment with our organisational missions and our similar size means that there are lots of things we can learn from each other. Sharing a space means those opportunities will be far more plentiful.

When Steve Jobs was designing the new offices for Pixar Animation Studios he deliberately ensured that the cafés, breakout spaces and bathrooms were all centrally located to increase the chance of serendipitous conversations between different teams.

Even in our previous, solo office we saw the benefit of being able to chat between desks about key projects without needing to organise a formal meeting in the way we found ourselves doing in the pandemic.

The lack of in-person events over the past two years has led most notably to the loss of opportunities to connect with people in similar situations.

Sharing experiences, knowledge and tips has long been something the charity sector excels at, something that has been lost in the anonymity of virtual events.

This office-sharing agreement allows us all to have precisely those kinds of conversations with colleagues who have a different perspective to our own.

Sharing the proverbial water cooler affords us all the personal and professional opportunities to connect with others.

That level of connection takes the benefits of our sharing agreement far beyond being simply logistical. We’re all humans, after all.

James Cusack is chief executive of Autistica

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