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Mix Roundtable: Coworking – how to stay ahead of the curve

Is now the time for coworking to re-emerge, superhero–like, and obliterate that commute, destroy those traditional working patterns, and completely annihilate the property market as we know it?

29/09/2021 8 min read
Amtico Flooring
UK, Europe and International

With more and more major businesses turning to coworking-style facilities within their own portfolios, what can the coworking occupier and designer do to ensure that, post-pandemic, the flexibility and freedom of their offering attracts people to their facilities, while ensuring a happy return for those already familiar with this style of working?

We’ve gathered at Amtico’s new London studio to take an in-depth look at this ever-evolving subject and ask a team of industry experts what the future holds when it comes to coworking.

We start by asking the end user on the panel how business is right now.

Chris: I’m currently making sure that we’re nice and full. We have five buildings in central London, of which 90% is private offices, so more of a serviced office provision, and this has been a bit of a challenge over the past year or so – it was certainly a tough year – but we’ve bounced back really nicely, which is very pleasing. It does feel as though we’ve turned a corner in terms of end user demand. The demand is now certainly there. It does depend upon the clients you are trying to attract though. If you are going for larger corporates – which are, in my opinion, the main bulk of what is currently moving in the market – then you have to understand that they’re not going to want to move every six months. They’re going to want to put down roots for 12-24 months at a minimum. And that works from a business point of view also – you know what you’re gong to be doing for the next 12-24 months in terms of business. Any further than that and you’re guessing. That’s why leases don’t really work.

Charlotta: To start with, coming out of lockdown, a lot of clients were quite cautious – a lot of things were put on hold. What they have now done, though, even though they don’t really know how the market is going to react, is to invest to make sure that their buildings are better so that they can attract people into those buildings. It’s such a competitive market, and they need to offer more to potential tenants – so they are looking at how they can refresh these buildings.

May: We’re seeing something similar. This is a very interesting one for me because our office is actually in a serviced office building – so I see it from both sides. It’s been interesting to see how our operator is dealing with us and how we’ve probably had the best service we’ve ever had over the pandemic – purely because they want to retain us. It has been a similar experience when it comes to working with clients, who feel they need to be able to provide a really special offering – something different.

Not only do occupiers need to improve their service levels, they also need to make their offering really special – going beyond a safe, secure environment. For example, we have never changed as many taps as we have during the pandemic as people move to touchless! People are thinking about clever ways to attract people back, via design and via specification – making sure that they are putting in things that people are now asking about, such as touchless tech and air purifiers. They want to show that they do care and they are doing something about it.

James: We’re seeing exactly the same patterns. We’re working with a couple of companies at the moment – and one of them has huge expansion plans over the next two years. What we are talking to them about is what their offering is – what is it that makes them different? It is a tough market. Do you try to flex your space and push yourself out of a saturated market – or do you dive just below that?

You’ve got to create a great vibe, you’ve got to get people through the door and you’ve got to offer something that is attractive. We’ve done quite a lot of studies on the quality of the private space – and that’s something that’s not always the best when it comes to coworking/flex space. The social side is great, the frontage is amazing, but once you get past that then it’s not always the best. We’re also talking to clients about the user experience. Could the brand be the differentiator? Could it be a concierge service? To take it to an extreme, could it be like a Premiership football club, where all the peripheral stuff in your life is taken care of while you are here in order to enable you to be the very best you can possibly be – a real service offering.

Another thing we’re looking at is the tech – the digital offering. That digital experience needs to be seamless – much better than your tech experience is at home.

Colin: I do think that the pandemic has forced flex operators to look at their offer – and it’s definitely exposed some of the weaknesses, particularly the club membership type offer, where you’re not fully in control of the space as the occupier. From that perspective, I think the ESG (environmental, social and governance) offer is really important for clients – it’s become the number one thing people are looking at when approaching flex space. James is right about the tech offering – we see a lot of occupiers now asking for flex space that will supplement what they have already, so things such as Zoom rooms and Teams rooms.

I think it’s all about choice now. The curtains have come down. Everyone has realised that there are a number of different ways that we can work. You don’t have to be sat at a desk in an office any more. Many homes – residential developments – are certainly not set up for people to be sat working all the time. This is now forcing residential developers to look at this, while landlords are also looking at their offer and occupiers are wondering how they can provide this choice for themselves.

James: This is now more a tenant-orientated market than a landlord-orientated market – and people are asking what extra can they get from their building. In a similar way to the coworking/flex offering, these residential schemes are looking to have a differentiator, a USP.

What does this mean for the property market? Are we going to see major occupiers reduce their real estate, and with easier, short-term leases will we see the return of thriving business centres rather than ghost towns?

Colin: It feels as though there is a real mixed bag out there at the moment. Some occupiers are facing lease breaks and being forced to act, others are sitting back and ‘waiting and seeing’ what happens over the next 12-18 months, while other businesses are doing all they can to encourage people to return to the workplace.

We have also seen some occupiers actually looking to increase space, post-pandemic, as they look to move away from a high-density approach to a more flexible, collaborative way of working.

And does this mean that some landlords have started toying with the idea of creating flex working models without really knowing what it is they need to provide and how to go about it?

Chris: If you ask them whether they’d open a hotel, they’d say no. The fact is that opening a serviced office facility is actually quite similar – it’s just that people are awake rather than asleep! I don’t think they understand the level of service you need to put in.

You look at all the headlines that say that the office is dead – the truth is that the bad office is dead. Similarly, people like the idea of working from home on Thursday and Friday, but already companies are saying that this isn’t going to happen. I think that the office is pretty safe – but it needs to be a better office, a better experience. It’s going to be a very interesting couple of years.

What people are after is corporate culture. If you think you can get that from working off an ironing boarding your front room, you’re missing the point. This is what people are finally getting their heads around – the understanding that staff is their biggest overhead and they have to keep the staff happy.

James: Culture is massive – you have to keep people happy. For example, we’re all now bored of Teams calls. If you have a whole day of back-to-back Teams calls, you may well feel as though that’s really efficient, but there’s no experience in it – none of the peripheral value you get from actually being there or being with people.

May: There are none of those connecting chats – no connecting on a human level, and that becomes exhausting.

Sam: Doesn’t it almost make it as though your business is a commodity? It becomes a transaction rather than an experience.

So, unsurprisingly, we’re all in agreement that people need to come together once again, into spaces that offer high service levels and a great experience. What about those focused working areas, for example?

Charlotta: There needs to be a real variety on offer throughout the space. There needs to be a mixture of quiet zones and collaborative areas. This is where working from home really does come in handy for some people – if you have a lot of work to get through in a day and you need quiet space, without interruption, then working from home can be a good thing. You may, of course, not be working like that all day, or may be in and out of meetings, and you don’t want to waste time travelling back and forth, therefore you do need that variety of spaces.

May: You absolutely need to offer that choice. You need to allow people to ask which task they are doing and where they want to do that task. This is, however, where the real challenges come. How do we link people working from home into those who are together in the office?

Colin: One thing we are seeing is more of the big occupiers offering coworking memberships as a benefit in the same way they would a gym membership, for example. There are people who live in one-bedroom flats or don’t want to travel all the way into the HQ, but instead want a great space and want people around them.

Chris: The way our spaces are being used is different now. Wednesdays and Thursdays are particularly rammed at the moment – which is all part of that cultural thing. I think that pattern will slowly shift, but it’s clear that people want this flexibility, this balance.

James: I think the gym analogy is a perfect one. People want to feel part of a community, part of the experience – even if they only go there once a week or once a month!

So with people eager to be a part of these flexible working communities, what will they find once they’re there? How will these spaces look and feel?

Sam: What we’re seeing are much more design-led spaces – operators are looking to create desirable spaces for people to come back into. We’re seeing more spend and we’re definitely seeing more of a demand for design-led products. They want to make their spaces more attractive and they’re also taking more time to consider what they need – there is a lot more consultation going on when it comes to product specification.
People are also looking for that home-from-home, domestic look – because they feel more comfortable with that.

James: I think there is real demand for ‘new’. Consumers are far more aware than they’ve ever been – and I feel that there’s such a great demand for something different and a demand for using cost-effective materials in clever, different ways.

May: And this all goes back to the user experience – this is what is driving it all. We need to bring people back to have this great experience.

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