Hotels, Buzzwords, And Pessimism: 6 Highlights From Coworking London Conference 2019

The main takeaway from last week’s eOffice 2019 Coworking London Conference: flexible space, coworking, space-as-a service -- whatever you want to call it, our industry is growing and it’s here to stay.
eOffice’s 2019 Coworking London Conference gathered leaders from the coworking, commercial property, real estate consultancy, and brokerage industries. Click To Tweet The event analysed the state of the market and identified emerging trends that will shape the future of the industry. Click To Tweet Though the flexible workspace industry has experienced significant growth over the past few years, the industry is still far from replacing the conventional office. Click To Tweet

What is the state of the flexible workspace market in the UK? Is flexibility enough? What do coworking occupiers really want from their workplace?

These were the key questions that dominated eOffice’s 2019 Coworking London Conference. Click To TweetFeaturing a diverse range of speakers from the worlds of coworking, commercial property, real estate consultancies, and brokerage services, the event analysed the state of the current market to identify some of the emerging trends that are set to shape the evolution of the industry and its role in the future of work.

Allwork.Space attended Day One of the conference held at two London locations, Primalbase and The Clubhouse. Here are the main takeaways from the event:

1. What Does the Term ‘Coworking’ Mean?

“Coworking used to be a buzzword,” said Caleb Parker of Bold. “Now it’s the leading word.”

The term has come to dominate the industry and is often used as an all-encompassing reference to office space that offers flexibility, whether or not that includes the social and community aspects of coworking spaces.

If workspace operators are using ‘coworking’ to market spaces that loosely resemble the collaborative, inclusive culture that coworking has come to represent, then it follows that clients and members will do the same.

Lucy Watts from Instant Offices noted that the popularity of coworking is evident in online search trends. For example ‘coworking’ as a search term has overtaken the more traditional ‘serviced office’ in online searches; another term with a high level of searches is ‘WeWork’.

But ironically, while WeWork has helped publicise our industry, the company barely uses the term ‘coworking’ at all. Instead it is the media that refers to it as a coworking company; the brand itself prefers more generic terms such as ‘spaces’, ‘private offices’, ‘office space’ and ‘workspaces’.

It’s evident that the term ‘coworking’ has many different meanings depending on who you speak to. While those of us inside the industry understand its meanings and origins, its ambiguity is a problem for prospective workspace occupiers. It’s our job to educate those people on the benefits of our industry — but that’s a challenge when the industry itself cannot agree on the same meanings and definitions.


2. 95% of the Office Market is NOT Flexible

Jonathan Weinnbrenn of BEspoke is a self-confessed pessimist. While the rapid growth of the flexible space sector is undeniable, he questioned whether the industry is getting carried away with its own success.

“Don’t get caught in a trap – we’re not taking over yet. 5% of the office market in London is flexible, but that means 95% of it isn’t. Conventional office space is not dead.”

Case in point, Oliver Knight of Landsec cited Deutsche Bank’s 25-year lease agreement at 21 Moorfields in London as just one example demonstrating the ongoing need for longer term requirements. However, Knight went on to discuss the recent launch of Landsec’s flexible workspace product — Myo, announced in January 2019 — another in a growing pool of commercial property companies that are now entering the flexible space industry.

Myo caters to businesses with a minimum team of 10 and license lengths from 1 – 3 years. 

But as Knight noted, clients do not necessarily approach Landsec with flexibility as a top requirement. Rather, it’s about reducing pain points and making the process of finding, fitting out, connecting, and branding an office space more straightforward for the occupier.

So while this brand still sits under the ‘flexible space’ umbrella, once again that may not be what prospective occupiers are searching for. Could this mean another potential shift in language? Given the changes we’ve already seen within a decade, it’s more than likely.

Mark Bott of Colliers may have the answer. He often refers to flexible space simply as ‘outsourced office space’, which may be an appropriate catch-all definition for corporate requirements. 

3. Spaces Still Have a Problem with Noise and Air Quality

 Referencing Savills’ ‘What Workers Want’ research, Cal Lee of Workthere noted that 88% of survey respondents ranked a comfortable work area as their most important requirement. This makes sense, given that workers spend so much time in the workplace. 

Digging into the elements that make up a comfortable work area, Lee noted that the biggest satisfaction gaps — where quality falls well below expectations — are air quality, noise levels, and having a quiet place to work.

Suggested Reading: “3 Invisible Elements that Greatly Impact Workplace Productivity

Workplaces that implement open, cavernous spaces with attractive wooden floors and glass panelling win on aesthetics; but the compromise is excessive noise and reduced air quality.

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These elements tie into greater demand for wellbeing in the workplace. Given that 88% of people value comfort over everything else in their workplace, the stark reality is that those spaces that can’t provide a comfortable, healthy work environment will lose out in the long run. 

4. Space is Just the Base

Aneta Popiel from HubHub by HB Reavis made a valid point when she claimed that “workspace is just the base”, and it’s the people and support services that keep people coming back.

Similar in approach to an accelerator, HubHub was launched in Slovakia by HB Reavis in 2016. It focuses on bringing people together — businesses, potential partners, collaborators, VCs and investors — to “maximise opportunities between our people and the wider ecosystem.”

Popiel described their offering as “the software to the real estate hardware” — HubHub’s space-as-a-service providing the software, and the bricks and mortar providing the hardware shell.

“We didn’t want to compete on coworking alone. Fitout and beautiful offices with amenities, services and cleaning is a base, it’s a given. These things are expected.

“It’s the people, services and experiences that create value.”

5. Watch Out for Hotels

Aneta Popiel’s claim that people, services and experiences create the real value in a space became all the more evident in a later panel featuring Lynn Fraser, Sales Director of nationwide UK hotel brand, Village Hotels.

Village Hotels ventured into the flexible space market 18 months ago with the launch of VWorks. It’s a shared space concept that opens up the hotel’s bars and common areas to people who want to work during the day, which is typically when the space is quiet or empty.

Hotels already have the infrastructure in place to accommodate working people, including comfortable places to sit, charging points, food and drinks, WiFi, meeting rooms, gyms, parking, and of course excellent service.

Having been in hospitality for many years, Fraser noted a number of changes that has happened within hospitality service.

“Hotel staff used to be ‘seen but not heard’, but now we’re more likely to ask ‘How did your pitch go yesterday?’ It’s much more personal and it’s all about engagement.”

Another way hotels are merging with flexible space is through third-party platforms, such as Saleem Arif’s brand Spacemize.

If you’re familiar with Spacious, the app that connects mobile workers with workspace in restaurants that otherwise sit empty during the day, Spacemize is a similar version focusing on hotels.

Arif, who co-founded Spacemize in 2018 alongside Zain Dhareeja and Saeed Al Ghurair, notes that they currently have 20 hotel partners with the opportunity for “rapid scalability” thanks to a fast venue onboarding process.

It’s also helped by deliberately low membership options, priced at just £99 per month or £12.99 per day. Again, this is possible thanks to the existing infrastructure of hotels and their opportunity to upsell lunches, snacks, leisure or spa amenities, and rooms.

Given the prevalence of hotels, they are particularly attractive for entrepreneurs and freelancers that value location and ease of access over longer-term workspace memberships, which is another source of competition for coworking spaces.

6. The Industry is Growing, Fast

David Garson of Office Freedom made the startling revelation that according to their data, a new flexible space opens in London every 5 days.

This goes some way towards demonstrating Central London’s fierce competition and over-concentration in some areas. The plus side is that UK regions are benefiting with a rush of new spaces opening in key cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, and Bristol.

According to Elaine Rossall from JLL, flexible space has grown on average 24% each year between 2014 – 2018 across the UK. Manchester grew the most, with a massive 347% growth between 2013 – 2018, boosted largely by the arrival of WeWork and its first location outside London.

So what now for the capital?

London is still seeing huge investment in flexible space. Mark Bott from Colliers noted that as of January 2019, flexible space operators occupied 11.5 million sq ft across the city, with a further 3 million sq ft set to be delivered by the end of 2020.

Since 2009, all London submarkets have seen their flexible space double or even triple, driven by operators taking larger buildings and expanding their floorplates. WeWork dominates that list, with approx 3 million sq ft under management — but the market is also very fragmented. Bott revealed that there are hundreds of operators in London alone, but only the top 15 have expanded by over 100,000 sq ft in the last 5 years.

“Flexible space is sought after,” he said. “It’s not just for short term requirements, but it’s seen as a viable mid to long-term solution for companies of all sizes.”

And of course we’re still seeing new entrants to the market. Even the Crown Estate is in the game, as traditional landlords realise that they can move from being the ‘rent collector’ to developing a direct relationship with their occupiers, which leads to a longer term and more valuable partnership as the client’s business grows.

Final Thoughts 

Elaine Rossall noted that “flex is here to stay”, but it is constantly evolving.

We have already seen massive change in the provision, style, and even terminology of flexible space over the past 10 years. What’s next? Certainly more corporate involvement, as David Garson from Office Freedom noted that by the end of 2019 it is estimated that 35% of demand will come from large and corporate companies.

A number of speakers and panellists agreed that the future will be increasingly fragmented, as landlords expand their flexible space, hotels develop their own initiatives, operators provide managed space, and existing operators merge and consolidate the market.

All in all, there’s no doubt about it. Flexible space, coworking, space-as-a service — whatever you want to call it, our industry is growing and it’s here to stay.

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