Same. Same. Same. If you were to be led, blindfolded, into an outpost of most of the world’s big serviced and coworking office providers, and asked to guess which city you were in, could you honestly say? Whether it is IWG (the Regus brand) or the more hipster-themed offerings of challengers like WeWork, the chances of distinguishing London from Paris, or Manchester from Mayfair, would be small. Until you looked out of the window.
In the cases of both IWG and WeWork, their successful business formula is based on a carefully engineered standard fit-out style, which has been applied to new outlets. And it’s totally depressing.
This is the claim of The Office Group Co-Founder and London office market guru, Charlie Green, as he surveys the competition to his growing chain of 31 London hubs, along with bases in Leeds and Bristol. According to Charlie, his is a crusade against vanilla. The Office Group pioneered the concept of the shared workspace in Britain. TOG launched in 2003, riding the pre-credit crunch tech boom with the aim of creating beautifully designed buildings with a wide variety of spaces. Each building has its own unique identity, but all have a range of facilities and vibrant communal areas to foster an open, collaborative working culture.
Today, TOG has over 15,000 members and is home to a dazzling range of the capital’s makers-and-doers, ranging from app creators and advertising agencies to financiers and foodies. Last summer’s majority buyout of the £500 million business, by US private equity giant, Blackstone, heralds a new phase of growth.
‘We started 15 years ago to challenge the very corporate, very vanilla world of service offices,’ says Charlie. ‘Back then it was so very uninspiring. There was a complete lack of consideration for design, and the obvious consequence of that is that tenants moved in but they didn’t want to stay. We thought we could produce office space that was much more considered.’
The Office Group rejected the cookie-cutter approach and it is Charlie’s proud boast that every one of their 33 offices is entirely different. ‘We always wanted to distinguish ourselves from traditional landlords and to focus on individual design. It means that each of our hubs is new, and the formula is fresh each time,’ he says.
The key to successful interior design is a close look at the exterior envelope, says Charlie. ‘Every building is different. You have to respond to that. And you also have to respond to the local market because the fact is that life in Mayfair is very different from life in Shoreditch, and your interior design has to reflect that,’ he considers.
The Office Group theory is that a standard design template – templates are branded ‘dangerous’ by Charlie – violates the two basic laws of property. Those laws say developers should, above all, think about the market context and the location. ‘Making each building different is really just following the traditional tenets of the real estate business,’ he insists.
We started 15 years ago to challenge the very corporate, very vanilla world of service offices… We thought we could produce office space that was much more considered. (Olly Olsen and Charlie Green)
The latest addition to the portfolio – the 100,000 sq ft Tintagel House at London’s Albert Embankment – is now winning tenants in its local Vauxhall market. The building has a peculiar history: until 2011 it was the (largely discrete) base for much of the Metropolitan Police, and the fifth floor was the home of the secret counter-intelligence units tasked with tracking and infiltrating green protest groups. The new design has banished that shady past.
‘Tintagel House isn’t an established business location, and the area has a strong residential catchment,’ says Charlie, referring to the mighty Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station apartments schemes now under construction. Stanton Williams and Universal Design Studio have turned the 12-storey block into flexible office space – complete with a floating canopy roof and speakeasy-style club.
‘The idea at Vauxhall was to create something beautiful and more thought-through than you would otherwise see in Vauxhall, so we’ve put in a café with a full commercial kitchen that is open to the public – for all the people who live around there – and there’s a garden open to the river, an art gallery, and a shop with a co-retail offer, which basically means there’s an opportunity for pop-up shops,’ says Charlie. There is also a roof garden, a library and a members’ bar. Quite a list!
Upstairs are the private offices with incredible natural light and a complete mix of sizes. On the top floor are meeting rooms and an apartment with a sunken bath.
‘We wouldn’t normally have put that lot into Vauxhall and we’ve spent a lot more than we would in a more traditional location, because we felt we had to make an impact in this location,’ Charlie says of the £15 million refurbishment, which included adding another 17,000 sq ft of new floorspace.
Universal Design Studio were responsible for the interiors and were inspired by the Tintagel’s ‘secret life’ as the police HQ. Seriously police-themed materials such as brushed stainless steel were chosen in reference to the building’s history of innovation – particularly its role as the home of the first-ever police computer. Terrazzo and plush furnishings soften the harsher law-and-order materials, paying homage to the space’s mid-century look.
The phrase ‘mid-century’ gives Green pause for thought. Take a look around rival coworking spaces and you might think mid-century design was the only design option available – Charlie has done this and does not want to fall into a clichéd trap.
‘I’m not sure about mid-century design,’ he confides. ‘If it’s done properly and the context justifies it, then fine – but I don’t want it to become a cliché. Every one of our buildings is different. You can’t be predictable.’
Some rivals in the coworking sector would – by now – be raising their eyebrows, because being predictable is exactly what they want to be. How can a brand acquire a reliable reputation without being predictable? So just as every Premier Inn hotel works (and looks) much the same, so every coworking and serviced office location should be predictable. The exceptions will be where physical constraints make this impossible or the tenant mix seems to demand something else.
Whilst WeWork offices are not identikit – there are variations from place to place – WeWork is nonetheless keen on using data analysis to drive design. WeWork obsessively collect data about use-patterns: the beer pump will be moved if it is not a successful focus for occupiers, furniture will be moved or replaced if it promotes contact and coworking between members.
Charlie says The Office Group is also watching the data – but by no means obsessively. ‘We like to see which meeting rooms are better used than others – and we try to learn from that – but I have to say we adopt a more human, intuitive approach to our office buildings. Pure data might work for others, but it doesn’t work for us,’ he says.
The Office Group’s approach is not cheap – a product, perhaps, of the strong bull market in London’s office sector over the past five years. Some in the property industry wonder if it could survive a tougher market. With Blackstone’s deep pockets – and a 15,000 strong membership base of loyal occupiers – the odds are that they certainly can.