Liz Elam has a unique vantage point in the shared workspace industry. As the executive producer of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC), and founder of Link Coworking in Austin, Texas, Elam travels the world learning about coworking and the evolution of the industry.
She recently published the Coworking Megatrends for 2018, a blog post full of insights into the shared workspace industry. Key megatrends Elam points out include the consolidation of workspace brands, WeWork’s pivot away from small businesses and startups, and the increasing importance of wellness in the workspace. Allwork.space spoke with Elam about these megatrends and what the future holds for shared workspaces large and small.
Allwork.Space: One of the points you make in your post is that corporations are entering the market in a big way. What are some of the ways they’re entering? By utilizing existing spaces? By creating shared workspaces?
Liz Elam: All of the above. Definitely by partnering with companies like Knotel, Servcorp, Convene and all these folks who are renting companies a floor rather than 20 desks.
The economy is so great and companies are hiring like crazy—they just need people to get busy. If you’re putting 100 or 200 people onto a floor, think about what a tiny percentage that rent is compared to those salaries. We should be really valuing what we’re selling to these people. They’re paying these people six figures to produce stuff, but they’re not paying that in rent. We’re probably less than 10 percent of what they’re spending on employees per month.
Also, lots of companies are exploring coworking for themselves. There are several banks that have entered into coworking and just set up free spaces. The first one to ever do that was HSB, but they were too early and got out. They were followed by State Farm and Coca-Cola. Now, not only is the HR department looking at coworking, but also the real estate department is looking at coworking.
Allwork.Space: We talk about coworking as being the future of work, but it’s starting to look like coworking is part of a larger shift in how people live and play, which is really interesting. More brands are adding coliving, coffee shops, retail and we’re seeing commercial real estate, hotels and malls embrace coworking. What do you think our cities and even suburban spaces may look like in three or five years?
What we’re seeing is giant, master-planned communities. Developers are putting in food halls and giant coworking spaces, and apartments, and yoga studios, and maybe a clinic. I think our cities are going to end up being a bunch of neighborhoods of 150 acres with everything on it that you need, so you never need to leave your community. Future cities are a bunch of future communities.
Allwork.Space: The complaint I hear about these intentional, pop-up communities is that they’re really fabulous, but they don’t take into consideration how a community would actually use a space.
I totally agree. They often feel very inauthentic.
Allwork.Space: It will be interesting to see the ones that can successfully engage communities in the design.
I saw an interesting one in Singapore. It was giant project. The first floor was all pop-up shops, with retail and restaurants. There were no walls, but very clear alleyways through it. People had made their own interesting activations, but there were very few walls and no hard walls.
Several floors above that, there was a coworking space and they had peppered food and retail throughout. So the floors weren’t separated by food or retail, everything was mixed in. But they hadn’t mixed in the coworking. The coworking was off in its own segment. It would have been nice if there were some pop-ups of coworking throughout, not just on the third floor in the corner.
Allwork.Space: Let’s talk about WeWork. The WeWork acquisition of Meetup has some small coworking space operators who have been using Meetup for years in a bit of a panic. What fears from independent space operators about WeWork do you think are valid and how would you advise operators concerned about surviving the WeWork explosion?
WeWork is now doing everything. When you start doing everything, it becomes very distracting. You’re no longer focused on your original thing. I think buying Meetup was kind of brilliant on their part. But, if you think they’ve co-opted something and it’s not the same thing, then make it.
I don’t think their plan is to stop Meetup, I think their plan is to get as many meetings and eyes on WeWork as possible, which is super smart. Why would they kill it?
At GCUC this coming year (2018), we’re going to have a really frank discussion that we’re now in a different time period and you can’t do this without approaching it as a business. It’s not easy, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. This is hard and you’d better have your act together. When WeWork does start to hurt you—and they will—you’ve got to be able to survive it. You just need to survive because members will come back, and they’ll come back in droves because you offer a more meaningful and smaller community.
Community is great on a large level, but people aren’t going to really know your name at WeWork. But they are going to know your name at Orange Coworking, and they are going to know your name at NextSpace. We have a very clear advantage, but you’ve got to survive to be in the game.
Allwork.Space: It’s interesting to see people who know nothing about coworking but who own real estate opening coworking spaces. You point out that there’s a shortage of knowledgeable, experienced people who can step in and run these spaces. What does that mean, big picture, for the industry and coworking movement?
There are more opportunities for operators. We need more consultants that have actually run spaces and know how to do it. The ones that know how now have a ton of business opportunities.
That’s a good indicator that it’s a solid industry that’s moving forward. I had one client comment that in any other industry, if you look for a consultant, there are 500 to choose from. This client had found one.
Allwork.Space: Have you received any surprising feedback or responses to your post?
I predicted that WeWork is going to get rid of brokers, because why would they pay them? They don’t need them anymore. That is massive. I’m surprised more brokers didn’t see that because that article has been posted and shared all over.
That is going to be majorly disruptive. Something I’ve heard brokers say in Austin is that they don’t want to put clients in WeWork because they lose touch with them. But I guarantee you, if you put 10 people from Tesla into WeWork, WeWork is going to start romancing Tesla behind your back and sign a corporate agreement and cut you out.
The brokers are getting checks from WeWork but there’s starting to be a dissention. WeWork is doing an event a day for a brokerage somewhere in the world. But you watch, that will stop and they will take it over. Or they’ll just start WeWork brokerage.
Allwork.Space: Any responses to the section about prioritizing health and wellness in the workspace?
Everybody agrees with me on health. Health is the new black. That is the new buzzword because that is where this is going. Clients come in and show me everything and I ask them where the focus on health is. If you’re not focused on health, you are not going to be in business in a few years. People need that.
Think about where you spend your day—it’s at the workplace. That place needs to have good air and good light. It needs to be making me healthier, not unhealthier. And, it’s not just about they physical space, just checking the box on a nap room or a yoga studio, it’s also about what space operators are doing to make sure nobody is actively thinking about committing suicide in your space.
The reason we left health as the kicker at the end of the article is because we really felt that’s the most important part of the article. If you’re not thinking about health and the future, then you’ll miss heading in the right direction.