Business Centers and the Audacity of Innovation

All too infrequently we read an article that takes the concept of the modern serviced office center out on a thread towards something really different and interesting. Then, all too frequently, we get pulled back into reality with talk of mergers, rate reductions and other business-as-usual happenings.

The economic recession, along with our changing work styles and a younger emerging workforce has created a tidal wave of new ideas and experimentation in workstyles with the business center or coworking space at the center. Some ideas seem to be more readily adopted, others viewed as more extreme. But there are independent business centers and coworking spaces which are leading the charge and innovating the way we approach work and collaboration.

Here are a few examples of innovation strategy we’ve reported on this year, and hope to see more of. We’re sure you could add to this list:

Design Innovation: One of the most compelling trends is towards spaces which are designed 100% around accommodating the new ways we work. Our increasingly younger workforce demands a new level of flexibility, and the business center community is responding with more creative layouts and furnishings and better use of technology. That means more open central space, fewer walls, higher ceilings and more glass. Some examples are the very hip and creative California-based Wework and Los Angeles-based BLANKSPACES. Another example is Microsoft in Australia, which has created activity-based work spaces to serve a 100% mobile environment. Nobody has an assigned seat and no team has a dedicated area, meaning employees can sit anywhere – from standard desk space to a stool in a café-style bar. Real estate giant, Century 21, has created an open environment based common area dubbed the Activity Hub. With an emphasis on communication over cubicle, the Activity Hub is the highlight of the sales office. Lined with couches, a high granite top seating area, and a video wall communication board, the Activity Hub exudes production with its industrial architecture and lighting. Going hand in hand with the physical design is the notion of space on demand, and that includes meeting room space. Innovators like Liquid Space,, RJmetis and others are helping to close the automation gap between demand and supply.

Community Centered: It is one thing to encourage a sense of community within and outside the business center itself. It’s another thing, altogether to build the community from within. For some workspaces, community is so important that they will only accept new coworkers if they are deemed a good ‘fit’. The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is one such place. Applicants provide a summary of who they are, what they do and what their goals are, so CSI can decide whether or not their ethics and ethos will fit the rest of their coworking community. [email protected] in Tarrytown, New York, flows the community directly into its coworking spaces. They even collaborate with schools to offer internship programs for members and work experience for young people. They run a series of educational workshops covering various business topics. And they also run a program called ‘Unemployed Monday’ where individuals “in transition” can work at [email protected] for free, once a week.

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Green as a strategy and commitment: We are seeing more and more examples of green business centers, which are going beyond the basics to build truly sustainable communities. ROC’s ecoROC sustainable model is all about increasing efficiency. The idea, according to CEO, Cameron McElroy, is to facilitate efficiency, not only within ROC themselves, but with the businesses inside their centers. This starts with basics, such as recycling, efficient lighting, and environmentally friendly products.
The spaces inside Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation are unique in that they are virtually 90% re-cycled and re-imagined from discarded materials such as road signs and components from old abandoned buildings. This model fits with the mission of social conscience and social entrepreneurial spirit.

Truly Unique environments: Many coworking spaces and business centers are going off the charts with spaces that range from ultra luxurious to over-the-edge unique. Happy Hubs has created alternative office spaces which are more like luxury residences in exotic locations with five-star amenities that take work-life balance to a whole new level. Think onsite massage therapists, gourmet chefs and maid service. The Coop in Chicago, helps local artists get exposure by displaying their artwork on the walls of its airy loft building. But wait, there’s more! ESDIP in Berlin offers stand up comedians for a little comic relief. Then there is the “jungle room” at Agora Collective; a space filled to the max with plants. Finally there’s The Wye, also in Berlin, a five floor metropolis of micro-communities with a full trade show layout for idea hawking.

Niche targeted centers: The idea that we want to work among others with similar interests and needs is behind many centers which are successfully targeting niche clientele. It’s a concept that has taken hold and, by all indications, will continue to grow. So if you are a woman-owned business and want to share your experiences with other women-owned businesses you might consider Ohio-based ECDI Women’s Business Centers or San Diego’s Hera Hub. High tech areas such as London’s TechCity has become a center for technology firms and incubator-style coworking spaces such as Level39. Serviced office space catering to attorneys can be found at Manhattan’s Lawfirmsuites or Denver-based LawBank. To list all the specialized business centers and coworking spaces would require an entire article, but it has clearly become a successful niche within the industry.

There are many innovative concepts in the way we work that are being driven by business centers and coworking centers and we can expect them to continue into the foreseeable future. This is encouraging for the viability of independent centers in the shadow of industry giants such as Regus. We hope to continue to report on owners and operators who are taking on the challenge and risk of true innovation and making our industry stronger in their wake.

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