Laura Kozelouzek knows a thing or two about the shared workspace industry. She founded Synergy Workplaces and grew it to 25 locations, she was an executive at HQ/Regus where she oversaw the company’s most profitable region, and in 2010 she launched Quest Workspaces, which she has grown to nine locations in South Florida and New York City.
Allwork chatted with Kozelouzek about the evolution of the shared workspace industry, the art of building community in a business center, and the importance of space operators clarifying who it is they serve.
Cat Johnson: You’ve been in the shared workspace business for a long time. What’s your perspective on the industry now, as we see a merging of business centers, coworking spaces and shared workspaces into one industry?
Laura Kozelouzek: Everything I was reading and hearing about coworking was a big mystery to me, so I spent a big portion of last year delving into it to figure out where it’s different and where the distinctions are.
You’ve got the old guard of the shared office space industry that has been around a long time. You hear people say it’s not focused on community in the way that coworking is, but our industry has adapted and changed as the way people work has changed—both culturally and in terms of transparency.
Twenty years ago, if you would have said it’s all about transparency and sharing, people weren’t as willing to do that—it was much more about their corporate identity and presenting a certain image. The drivers for what we do and what’s important to people have changed over time.
In our industry, it’s not so much the old way and the new way, it’s just evolved. If you really break it down and say that coworking, in terms of the purists and how they approach it versus some of the people who have been doing this awhile, there are elements that have always been there. In all these centers I’ve run over the years, community was always a big part of it—it was just being delivered in different ways, based on what people wanted at the time.
What did shared workspace community look like when you first started?
I trained hundreds of sales managers and I taught them that people make their decision on where to go based on emotions. They justify their decision based on the tangibles: the price, the location, but they’re going to go where they feel comfortable—where the vibe feels right, where the energy feels right, where they feel most connected to the people managing the space and the people working in the space.
I was using different words, but it was the same thing. Now there are buzzwords—like like-minded individuals and community—to describe it, but people have always benefitted from making connections and working with others.
Spaces take community to different levels. Some would argue that they’ve walked into a traditional business center and everyone’s door was shut and the space was dead. It’s like walking into restaurants that all have a different vibe—some are lively, some are formal and quiet. Everyone has a different way of running their space and a different audience they’re trying to attract. The notion that this is a brand new thought and concept, though, is a bit offensive to me.
One of the things I’ve heard you mention several times over the years is the strength and importance of the communities in Quest workspaces. I think business centers aren’t known for offering community—but rather amenities, and you shatter that stereotype.
I think people automatically assume that if people are working in their own private office and they’re not sitting side-by-side, that they’re not communicating. Nothing is further from the truth. I’ve talked with people who have worked in open-style seating plans who said they didn’t meet people.
You can’t assume that, whether you’re working from a private office or working from an open-plan system, that that’s going to automatically dictate the environment. It really comes down to who’s leading it—who’s facilitating the environment as the community manager.
One of the challenges for any operator, assuming you want to offer community as a benefit to your members or clients, is that, even with all your branding materials and stated values and marketing, it really comes down to the person facilitating the space.
In my 25 years of doing this with several companies, I’ve found that within one company you can walk into a center that’s alive and hopping and that has that buzz with people connecting, then you can walk into another location and it doesn’t have that same feel.
When we say this, we’re forgetting the fact that everyone has a different definition for what community is. For some people, it’s just coming to work in the same space. They don’t necessarily want to have as many connections, but they feel like they belong and they’re there for other reasons, as well. I don’t think we should just solely exist for community.
This is where coworking purists might push back and say if someone doesn’t want to engage and be an active part of the community, they wouldn’t be a good member. That’s an extreme end of the spectrum. The other extreme would be a business center where no one interacts. But it’s a big spectrum with a lot of overlap.
In our locations, we’ve started to include more open plans, but they remain primarily private offices. In terms of community, we have different groups that meet specifically around certain industries. In New York, there’s a group of half a dozen financial groups and firms that are all in the same sector and they’re sharing deals and resources on a constant basis. This model can work for professional services—not just creative industries. Attorneys can set up their own private firms within a space. It’s not just a social component—they’re doing real deals together and sharing real business.
The audience we attract is seasoned entrepreneurs and professionals who expect a certain level of service. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be siloed and shut their doors and never participate. Like I said before, community symbolizes different things to different people.
The point is, there’s no right way. It’s important that coworking operators be clear about what they want to accomplish, what their brand represents, what they provide and what the expectation is around community. Only then can people pick the right environment for them.
What tips can you offer shared workspace operators and their community managers on building community in a space that might have more of a business center feel than a coworking space?
I don’t think there’s a difference. The same approach and qualities in that individual, whether you call yourself coworking or a business center, are the same.
In terms of how they go about it, whoever is in that role has to be a social person. And they need to take it one step beyond that and be intuitive—meaning that they need to connect the dots. And they, themselves, need to be connected and a connector.
If you hire somebody who doesn’t have those personality traits, it’s going to be very difficult. If you hire someone who’s good at the operating piece, but doesn’t really love people, it’s going to be an uphill struggle.
For us, when we build community, it’s not just a matter of this being a fun, great place to work. We expect all of our center managers to be intimately familiar with our Questers—not just as people, but also in terms of their business. What are they working on and what are their challenges in building their business? By understanding that, we know what they need and we try to connect them with other Questers within the space. We try to help them build their business.
The right person can be tricky to find because they need to be professional and, in order for that space to come alive, they’ve got to be fun and high-energy. It’s that right mixture of being able to be super-social and creating that vibe, but in the back of their mind they’re thinking about what each member needs and how they can help facilitate that.
What else should we know, Laura? Anything you’d like to add?
What I like about what I’m seeing in the industry right now is that it is converging—it’s not us and them. We’re all offering the same thing, but in different ways. And that’s the way it should be.
You have to understand who you’re serving. The people who are going to be successful really understand who they serve and what they deliver. Then they do that really, really well.
There’s something to be learned from everybody. When you were talking about the purist coworking spaces and making that model sustainable, it’s important to know what the objective is. Start by getting really clear, then build your model around that.