The Year In Review: 12 Flexible Workspace Highlights From 2018

A quick summary of 2018 flexible workspace highlights: it wasn’t all about big money expansions and multi-billion valuations
  • A 5-minute wrap up of this year’s most notable industry happenings.
  • Though billions were invested in the industry this year, 2018 wasn’t all about big money expansions and multi-billion valuations.
  • As we head into 2019, we’re sure there’s a bright and growing future for the industry.

What a year! 2018 has produced another year of non-stop action in the world of flexible workspace, marked by a number of emerging trends, big name consolidations, industry growth and of course, constant learning and evolution.

In case you blinked, here’s a 5-minute wrap up of 2018’s most notable industry highlights.

1. It was another busy year of acquisitions and consolidation.

2018 saw plenty of consolidation between flexible workspace operators, suppliers, and brokers. On the operator side, IWG acquired New Zealand’s BizDojo, WeWork bought Shanghai-based Naked Hub, Mindspace strengthened its European portfolio by acquiring Dutch brand KleinKantoor, Industrious bought Chicago-based coworking brand Assemble, and German coworking brand rent24 marked its expansion into the UK by taking a majority stake in London provider, The Brew.

On the supplier side, Yardi acquired Phoenix Broadband Ltd and its Medusabusiness brand, while UK-based Stickman Technologies bought ip-Xchange.

2. 2018 was particularly notable for the flood of inward investment.

The past 12 months have been marked by intense interest from private equity firms and investors. Industrious raised $80 million in series C funding, while UK brokerage FlexiOffices benefitted from a management buyout backed by NVM Private Equity.

Among the biggest stories of the year, SoftBank pumped another $3 billion into WeWork, raising their valuation to over $40 billion; London Executive Offices (LEO) finally found a buyer in the form of an unnamed private investor; and 40-strong UK serviced office company Citibase was bought by Newable – a provider of finance and business advice.

However, not every deal concluded with cash on the table. After multiple attempts, IWG finally ended takeover talks in August with three private equity firms, claiming that “none of the interested parties is currently capable of delivering an executable transaction at a recommendable price.”

3. WeWork made more headlines, but 2018 belonged to Ucommune.

After a legal spat with WeWork, Chinese coworking provider UrWork was forced to change its name to Ucommune in 2017. But it hasn’t dented Ucommune’s resolve. The company dusted itself off and bolted out of the gates in 2018, sparking a string of acquisitions throughout the year and quickly cementing its position as the largest coworking provider in Asia.

Over the past 12 months, Ucommune has acquired numerous coworking rivals including Wedo, Workingdom, Woo Space, New Space and most recently, Fountown. It now operates over 200 locations in more than 37 global cities, all of which it has achieved within just 3 years. In November 2018 the company closed a $200 million Series D funding round and is now valued at $3 billion. Although it’s still a long way off WeWork’s vast $40+ billion valuation, Ucommune’s message is clear: Watch out WeWork – we’re coming.

4. Could London be de-throned in 2019?

London became the biggest flexible workspace market in 2018, helped in part by huge take-up from WeWork and IWG’s Spaces.

But after Ucommune’s furious flurry of coworking activity in 2018, it begs the question: could an Asian city steal the show in 2019? It certainly seems possible. As Emergent Research’s Steve King pointed out at the start of the year, China and India are “big growth markets” and Instant Offices also identified a surge in activity in the Asia Pac market, singling out Hong Kong and Bangalore as key growth cities.

Australia is also seeing its fair share of industry growth, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney. Expanding Australian coworking companies and the arrival of global brands are expected to double the number of flexible office spaces in Australia’s cities by 2021.

5. Corporate coworking isn’t just a trend – it’s here to stay.

In 2018 we’ve seen a huge wave of corporate activity on both the operator and the client side. Demand from large global firms for flexible, lifestyle-focused HQs with coworking-style amenities has triggered swift action from CRE companies and landlords.

According to JLL’s Dan Brown, “Major developers are looking to integrate flexible space into their assets. The most advanced and forward-thinking landlords and investors are embedding this new venture into their development. Some will want to do it themselves, some won’t; but this new type of operator will be able to offer more choice to corporates.”

This represents both opportunities and challenges for flexible workspace operators. Rising competition is the obvious threat, but it has also raised the profile of coworking and ushered in a multitude of new partnership opportunities between landlords and coworking operators.

6. Tech in the workplace: automated spaces, Virtual Reality, and WiFi from lightbulbs.

Unsurprisingly, 2018 saw a number of advances in technology and the workplace. Blockchain technologies took a major step forward this year, as we learned during an interview with Full Node. It’s a blockchain coworking space in Berlin that’s not only home to tech startups, but also uses blockchain technologies in its space.

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We also found out what it’s like to run a fully automated coworking space, peered into the future of work through a VR lens, and discovered that WiFi can come from lightbulbs.

7. Wellbeing at work.

Once again, wellbeing took centre stage this year in the world of work. In 2018 we were privileged to chat with Bill Jacobson of Workbar, to learn about the first ever coworking space to achieve the WELL Building Standard. We believe it’s set to be the first of many.

There are so many different ways in which the workplace can help to improve personal wellbeing – from the furniture you sit on, to the steps you take to the coffee machine, and perhaps most importantly, the support network around you. The workplace can, and should, provide a positive environment that relieves stress, alleviates loneliness, and promotes positive physical and mental health. More needs to be done – but positively, the right conversations are now happening.

8. Coworking franchises gained traction.

Franchising is gaining traction in the industry, spearheaded by flexible workspace franchise giants, Office Evolution and Serendipity Labs. Colorado-based Office Evolution was ranked 2nd in Entrepreneur’s 2018 Franchise 500 List, having grown from 8 locations in 2012 to 36 locations in 2018. The company is now targeting 125+ locations in 2019.

Serendipity Labs is also expanding through a network of franchise and managed locations, and currently has 125 locations in development around North America. Allwork.Space spoke with founder John Arenas to find out what it takes to manage a successful and rapidly growing coworking franchise network.

9. 2018 wasn’t all about big money expansions and multi-billion valuations.

We have certainly seen a great deal of investment ploughed into the flexible workspace industry over the past 12 months, but our industry isn’t all about cold hard cash. Coworking is a community-focused movement with people at its heart, and in 2018 this has been demonstrated many times over.

In London, a social enterprise launched a small coworking space to support a local homeless campaign, while another location is offering free space to startups that take on young apprentices. As an example of how larger workspace brands are giving back, WeWork is running a large-scale refugee programme, with plans to train and hire 1,500 refugees over the next five years.

2018 was also a significant milestone for All Good Work, the social impact programme for the flexible workspace industry. The organisation expanded into Silicon Valley and appointed a new Program Director for the area, Amy Feldman, to bring onboard workspace hosts and nonprofit residents from San José and the local area.

10. The future of work is about people and experiences.

As the worlds of CRE and coworking increasingly overlap, 2018 generated plenty of discussion around the future of work – and the future of our industry. Interestingly, various experts and commentators believe the workplace is taking an even greater focus on people, socialisation, and positive experiences – in other words, a healthy community – which suggests that our sector’s ‘future’ is coming full circle.

The workplace can encourage positive interactions and foster a lively and engaged community through design, as we learned from Perkins+Will’s Brigitte Preston, but the key to building workplaces that focus on inclusion, community and purpose is to have an ‘always in beta’ mindset. Keep learning, keep asking questions, keep developing.

11. Will our sector always be known as coworking?

Another topic on the future of work is how we actually refer to our industry. It is all flexible workspace, but not all flexible workspace is created equal. How do you differentiate an independent coworking space from a centre that offers shared space? Is it about amenities, or is community the main differentiator? If so, how do you measure it?

As language evolves, industry terminology moves with it, and it’s quite possible that the term ‘coworking’ will be phased out in the years to come. Some owners and operators believe that ‘coworking’ sums up their spaces perfectly well, but others – particularly larger brands and real estate firms introducing flexible space into their portfolios – believe it’s too restrictive.

One thing we do know is that change is inevitable. In the words of T.S. Eliot: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

12. Looking ahead: Seeking growth in a competitive industry.

As 2018 draws to a close, what will 2019 bring? Without a doubt, the New Year will be filled with fresh opportunities and challenges, perhaps none more so than the prospect of growing a workspace brand in an increasingly competitive market. Flexible workspace has revolutionized and transformed the way people view and use office space, and its impact on commercial real estate combined with its rocketing growth suggests continued opportunities in the coming year.

As we head into 2019, keep sending your stories and news announcements to the Allwork.Space Editors. Our industry’s future is bright, and we can’t wait to see what 2019 has in store. Happy New Year!