Coworking goes mainstream

Legal & General are not, by any means, slaves to here-today-gone-tomorrow fashion, muses David Thame. They take the long-term view for the sake of their mostly pensioner investors. So when a landlord and investor of Legal & General’s stamp decides to re-think their approach to workspace, you know it’s serious.

LGIM Real Assets (Legal & General) has been at work on the £20 million refurbishment of one of Birmingham’s best-known landmarks, the 113,000 sq ft Lewis Building. New tenants including Regus, the serviced office group, who took 32,000 sq ft and the Ministry of Justice, who took 62,000 sq ft.
So far, so good. What is striking about the Lewis Building is the enormous effort LGIM have gone to create a coworking atmosphere, including reconfiguring the building and a unique fit-out.
Simon Wilkes, Head of Business Space Development at Legal & General, explains that both the look and the configuration respond to a radically changed office market. ’Occupiers are now looking for more character from their office space. This building was originally a department store – the Harrods of the Midlands at the turn of the 19th century – and it had a wonderful, almost Manhattan feel to it. So we’ve tried to bring that feel back inside, wiping away a very general 1980s,’ he says.
LGIM also moved the entrance to create more impact. ‘You used to enter from a shopping arcade at the site, which meant you just couldn’t see the double-height reception area. Moving the entrance gives the building some grandeur,’ Simon continues. He says it reminds him of 37th Street in New York – and he could be right.
So how is this Gotham City rethink catering to the coworking ethic? The answer is that it borrows heavily from the lessons learned by New York-based coworking pioneer, WeWork, whose premises in London and Manchester have set a new standard for upbeat, cool shared workspace. The key point is that the workspace has to feel lively, used, busy and happy.
‘We wanted to try to incorporate some shared workspace for tenants,’ Simon reveals. ‘So there’s a coffee bar, a library area, a huge library table so that people can grab a coffee and sit and work…all kinds of things to activate the space, to stop it feeling sterile and joyless. It has to feel like they wanted to be there.’
The table is itself a work of art: made from timber reclaimed from a Danish wharf, it cost £12,000 – the lion’s share of a reception area furniture budget of around £50,000.
‘The point is that this kind of style isn’t niche any more. It’s universal. The occupiers who used to opt for dull standard vanilla office floorspace now expect something much cooler,’ says Simon. ‘Even accountants are forward-looking these days.’
The upside for the landlord is the (slightly defensive) prospect that they can hang onto their share of a shrinking tenant market (see pipeline feature, page 26). The slightly subtler bonus is that a busy happy cool-looking ground floor is a marvellous shop window for the office block itself – and the landlord’s reputation as customer-focused and up-to-date.
Architects EPR were behind the designs of the Lewis building, whilst contractor Willmott Dixon undertook the works. CBRE and GVA are the letting agents.
Exactly the same ideas are at the root of the funkiest of coworking providers, and none get funkier than Work.Life, the fast-growing UK-based challenger to WeWork.

 

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Work.Life, founded in 2014, is to open its first Manchester outlet this year, taking 12,500 sq ft at Boultbee’s 30 Brown Street. This is the first stage in a UK expansion programme, which will see it expand into Birmingham, Cambridge, Brighton, Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol during 2019.
Work.Life has created a niche for itself by taking ground floor space in new developments, helping landlords animate their buildings without disrupting investment values.
The idea is that, by creating an active street frontage and a hive of activity on the lower floors, Work.Life has positioned itself as a marketing tool for landlords looking to attract larger corporate tenants to the upper floors. Meanwhile, it’s making a nice little living catering to the mushrooming interest in coworking space.
Work.Life Co-Founder, David Kosky, explains: ‘It’s simply that people are more productive when they are happy.’
Work.Life budgets around £100 per sq ft for their floorspace – about 60% to pay for the floorspace and the remainder for the fit-out and associated costs.
Each fit-out is slightly different, but unlike WeWork, who calibrate, to within a centimetre, the position of each armchair and beer tap in an effort to get members to bump into one another,
Work.Life prefers to make productivity, not collaboration, the focus of its design effort.
‘We score on productivity and comfort, so we need space that works for the introverts who do not want to collaborate just now, just like for the extroverts. People don’t want to collaborate all the time. So we have booths to ensure visual privacy, and nice relaxing spaces with no power sockets so you have to leave your equipment outside,’ David explains.
Ian Aldous is Director at property consultant, Arcadis, a specialist in office design and, most recently, chair of judges at the British Council for Offices Northern Awards. He says the office market is embracing trends that have been evidence in the residential apartment market for a long time.
‘For office landlords and developers, coworking is about creating a neighbourhood feel, and it’s learned the lesson from apartment blocks, where it’s well known that if tenants have friends in the building, they are more likely to renew their lease. The same goes for businesses,’ Ian explains.
There’s also a lesson-learned from the retail sector, where online shopping has forced bricks-and-mortar retailers to place a new emphasis on creating memorable experiences that make it worth shoppers’ while to visit them. ‘It’s in part true, the shift to coworking is about providing staff with an experience,’ Ian considers. ‘It’s all part of the lifestyle changes we’re seeing. Just like shopping centres focus on their food and beverage offer to help attract customers, so office landlords are focusing on their food and beverage offer to attract tenants.’
Coworking is now mainstream. Whether it thrives and survives in that new mass-market world of office leasing remains to be seen.