Corporate Coworking And Niche Spaces Are The Future Of The Workspace Industry: A Q&A With Steve King

Steve King explains why niche spaces will continue to thrive even as larger coworking brands take on corporate clients.

What would five million people coworking in 30,000 shared workspaces around the world look like? Who will those workers be? What will the spaces look like? What will the workspace industry be called?

Those numbers are from the 2018-2022 Global Coworking Forecast, released in December by Emergent Research and the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC). Allwork.space spoke with Steve King, partner at Emergent Research, about the factors driving the workspace industry growth, why industry terminology will likely change, and how both large, corporate coworking brands and small, niche spaces will both be relevant in five years. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Allwork.space: Let’s do some future visioning. In the 2017 Coworking Forecast, you estimate that by 2022, five million people will be coworking. Corporations are moving into the coworking industry, cities are changing, the way people work continues to change. What do you think coworking spaces might actually look like in 2022?

Steve King: It’s important to caveat that five years isn’t very long. We’ve seen a lot of change, certainly, in the last five years. But as industries grow up and grow older, the pace of change slows. Coworking is now at the size and scale that, five years from now, it will look pretty similar to what it is today—barring some cataclysmic thing or some incredible wildcard. We’re not going to look hugely different at a high level because industrial shifts and changes, in terms of the structure of an industry, tend to slow down over time.

When you get under the hood of our forecast, you see a couple of things going on. Currently, we have very low use of coworking by large corporations, but clearly, that is accelerating. Already, I’d say that the forecast is probably a bit low relative to where I would put it today because we underestimated how quickly corporations would move. We thought they were moving pretty fast, but they appear to be moving even faster than we thought.

Allwork.Space: What factors are driving that acceleration that you didn’t see?

Part of it is, we’ve been surprised by how much noise there is about coworking in the real estate industry, just in the last two to three months. CBRE has jumped in with both feet and all the other people are following. A clear thing that’s going to happen over the next five years—and the rate at which it increases is speculative—is that we know corporations are going to send a lot more people into workspace as a service places.

I want to come back to language. With all the hybridization and merging, five years from now, I’m not sure coworking is going to be a very common word. Either that or it’s going to be the only word.

Allwork.Space: Tell me more about that. How do you think we’ll talk about this industry in five years?

Five years from now, our language will have changed. I don’t know if we’ll end up with the term “shared workspace,” “workspace as a service,” or “coworking,” but I think there will be the emergence of one main term. Terms like “executive offices” and “executive suites” appear to already be dying, in terms of terminology. There will be flavors of whatever we call it, coworking, or workspace as a service, but the terminology will shift.

We see this all the time in our work. When we first started studying the gig economy, it was called the digital workforce; then it was called the on-demand economy; then it was called the freelance economy; now it’s called the gig economy—and nobody likes any of these terms. Terminology shifts over time. I don’t know which term will win, but one of them is going to win.

Allwork.Space: And in these spaces, whatever they’re called, we know we’ll have freelancers and independent professionals and startups and remote workers and corporate members, which you foresee as the fastest growing segment. How will the movement of corporations into workspaces change the landscape of the industry?

When you look out five years, you start with a customer assessment and look at what corporations want. Large corporations want to work with professional corporations that are like them; they want professional-level amenities; they want size and scale so they can sign a contract with someone and put their people in 20 different cities around the world. So they’re going to work with WeWork and Industrious and the larger ones. Since we’re forecasting that segment to be the fastest growing segment, guess who benefits from all of that: the larger firms.

Many firms will choose grow because of that, so the consolidation we’ve already started to see will accelerate. Most industrial structures in the long-run end up with a relatively small number of large firms, not so many mid-size firms, and lots of little firms.

Allwork.Space: There’s the barbell model you’ve been forecasting for years.

That’s the barbell, and coworking is starting to look like it’s evolving toward the barbell. We think the drive by lots of corporations will help push the industry to a barbell-type structure. Startups will also see that they want to be co-located with larger corporations—there’s a lot of incentive to do that. They’ll find being in a space where they can interact with large corporations and other startups more attractive than being in a small, one-off coworking space.

At the high end, we see consolidation. In most industries, it comes down to three to five global giants. It’s way too early in coworking to evolve to that in five years—in the next 20 years that’s likely. In the next five years we’ll see continuing consolidation as different companies, both domestically and around the world, try to become large enough to have the scale to serve the market.

With scale comes scale efficiencies. I was in a meeting with a private equity firm in San Francisco and a real estate company. They told me WeWork can build out a space in half the time, at 70% of the money that they can, because WeWork has economies of scale. The company is trying to figure out how they’re going to compete with that.

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Allwork.Space: How do the small spaces fit into this landscape of scaled spaces and brands?

At the same time we’re seeing more consolidation at the high end, with the overall growth of coworking and the recognition of the value of coworking by all three segments, you’re going to start to see more and more niche spaces. You can think about craft brewing as the analogy: 80 percent of our market in the U.S. is two beer companies, but the craft brewers have gone from less than five percent of the market 10 years ago to about 20 percent of the market today, in terms of revenue. They’re competing at a niche level.

We see that already working with coworking. There are a lot of people who don’t want the big vanilla version. A lot of people don’t want to stay at Marriotts, they want to stay at a boutique hotel; they don’t want to eat at Morton’s, they want to eat at the local restaurant. We’re going to see the growing niches in coworking. We’ve already seen that with niche spaces of all kinds popping up, whether for architects or lawyers or musicians or women. Those niche spaces make enormous sense

The other group that will continue to thrive, because they’re niche spaces, are the spaces that effectively cultivate a local community. Office Nomads in Seattle is a great example. They’re in the Capitol Hill area, most of their members are neighbors, and they’re there because they want to be involved locally, in addition to their business. They’re driven by more than work needs.

Those spaces will continue to thrive if they’re well-run. It’s going to be hard for anybody to have a poorly run space and be successful whereas, in the past, a lot of the spaces were really poorly run.

Allwork.Space: It’s interesting to me that, in the large shared workspaces, if you have corporations moving in—especially if they’re taking up whole areas or even floor—that it starts to look a lot just like office rental.

I think that will happen. WeWork is making a big pitch to do exactly that. They’re trying to sell companies on the idea that you rent entire buildings that they manage and run. I think that business will work for them because corporations want to figure out ways to build more attractive workplaces but also cut their long-term lease.

Already, if you go into any new office building, you walk in and the first thing that hits you is that it looks like a coworking space, with the phone booths and bullpens, the whole nine yards. This is what the commercial real estate industry considers its sweet spot: to amenity up traditional businesses to make them look more like coworking spaces, and even offer coworking spaces within an office building for overflow and to make it cooler.

The issue with that is that, more and more, large companies are going to want to co-locate some of their people in places where they’re colliding with people who don’t work for their company. There’s the externality benefit of networking with people outside your own firm. I think both are going to happen.

IBM has a whole building, but they’re still planning on having some of their people in other coworking spaces. It will be done departmentally, and even individually, based on an assessment of the best place for a person to work—whether they should be out in the world interacting with non-employees, or spending most of their time interacting with employees. I think increasingly, this will be done on a case-by-case basis.

Allwork.Space: As you pointed out last time we talked, reducing loneliness is the new value proposition for coworking—and that’s different than wellness. Addressing loneliness is a very tangible thing that, when you’re in a coworking space, you’re not alone. Let’s jump ahead five years. Do you see this becoming a bigger deal in the coworking movement and perhaps embedding more into the corporate workspace industry as we move forward?

I definitely see it becoming a bigger deal. I’ve always felt that the coworking industry has struggled with the value proposition. When we first started looking at this, the value proposition was networking: being in a space where you would network with people for business reasons. A few years ago, we figured out that people like the social side just as much, if not more.

With the growth of remote work, there’s just going to be more focus on the downsides of it. There’s recognition now that remote work leads to loneliness. The studies are amazing, I think, in terms of the extent to which loneliness has negative health outcomes. I believe there will come a time in the next five to 10 years that corporate lawyers are going to say, “We need to make sure we’re not going to get sued over having people be too lonely, because it’s going to lead to health problems.”

Allwork.Space: So you see corporations addressing loneliness company-wide?

Corporations, who are hot on wellness anyway, are going to start saying they have no choice but to offer coworking memberships to their remote workers. Otherwise, they might get sued. And more than that, most corporations are trying to figure out how to increase wellness because it reduces their healthcare costs and it improves employee engagement.

Loneliness is going to get wrapped up into wellness and this will just be another driver for why corporations are going to be willing to pay for coworking spaces for their remote workers. As wellness becomes better known, that will also drive more independent workers to spend the money to become a members of a coworking space.