Building Inclusive Communities That Last: A Q&A With Workplace Strategist, Alex Ahom

What we need is sustainable change in the workplace. Regarding race and the civil rights movement, it’s not just a case of changing the law on how the police handle situations; what we need is to change our day to day behaviours at home, around other people, and in the office.
  • Alex Ahom works with coworking owners and commercial real estate operators to build inclusive workplace communities.
  • His focus is to empower people to make positive change and build strategies that improve the employee experience.
  • In a conversation with Allwork.Space, Alex discussed the impact of racism and prejudice in the workplace and how we can build a better and brighter future for everyone.

Alex Ahom founded Shhared, a coworking community in Hamburg, Germany. He is also an Advisor, a Director of a Coworking Association and an events Producer. As a consultant to the coworking sector and the wider commercial real estate industry, Alex’s mission is clear: to empower people to make positive change and build authentic, inclusive workplace communities for the benefit of everyone.

In recent weeks, the topic of inclusivity has come sharply into focus. Peaceful protests, marches and toppled statues are highlighting the deep chasms that still exist in society and that, far too often, are reflected in the workplace.

In a recent social media post, Alex commented:

We can’t hide behind hashtags forever. Racism and prejudice impacts everyone.

It is even mirrored in the workplace subtly. I’ve been part of some great teams in various industries where women, people of colour etc just don’t have a seat at the table. 

One way to combat this sickness is to get real about changing the office. We need to hire more talented and diverse people whilst investing in their future, education and training. 

The ball is in your court. Change the workplace — change society.

Allwork.Space chatted with Alex to find out how we — people, teams, communities and organisations — can make positive change and build a better and brighter future for everyone.

We also discussed his early coworking venture at Shhared, the challenges of running a workspace business alone, and the future of coworking in a post-Covid world. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Allwork.Space: Alex, tell us about your coworking journey. How and where did it all begin?

Alex Ahom: I moved to Hamburg from London in 2013 when I was working for Apple. I began looking into the local entrepreneurial scene and I realised that one of the biggest problems for startups in this area is not having access to the right support system. Too often it’s a case of, here’s a book, go and read it and if you need help, stand in line and we’ll give you 5 minutes to talk.

Some people need an arm around their shoulder. So I started hosting meetups and speaking about collaboration and community — this was way before it became fashionable! Now it’s normal to have work communities and people around you, especially in West London where I’m from, but it’s not like that everywhere. From there, the community grew and eventually I started a physical hub for our community, called Shhared, in 2014. We were one of the first coworking spaces in Northern Germany.

Allwork.Space: What was it like to be an early adopter of coworking in your local area? What do you value from the experience?

Here, there’s a different mindset about work. I started Shhared alone, with no contacts, no investors, no team, just me. Operationally and financially, it was very challenging. I’m very ambitious, I want to help and serve people, but I realised that as much as I had energy and passion to run the space, you can’t do everything alone. You need the right partners, the right collaborators, the right investors, and that has been a big problem in coworking for the last 8-10 years.

I ran Shhared for 5 and a half years until November 2019. The majority of small community spaces that are 500 sq m or less have financial problems. Around 87% are unprofitable — that’s not a good statistic for coworking. There are lots of big brands now and coworking has got a name for itself, and people believe it’s something it isn’t. A lot of brands are making money so it looks like a healthy industry, but the majority of spaces are very small and struggling. We have to find a way to make it work financially.

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Allwork.Space: Since you closed Shhared, you’ve been focusing on consulting and workplace strategy. Can you tell us more about that?

People have heard about the benefits of work flexibility, coworking, and remote work, and they want to know how to build that culture into their workplaces. They also come to me to learn about workplace wellness. I’ve been doing a lot of speaking at events about the importance of rest and recovery for creatives. I used to play football at a high level and it was always very important to set time aside for decompression.

In Germany, the employer is responsible for the wellbeing of their employees. During the coronavirus, people are working at home but they still need the right equipment — screens, lighting, chairs, keyboards. Employers must invest in that and also Internet security, which normally means sending an IT expert to the employee’s home. It’s a big upfront investment.

The solution is to use a coworking space where employees can work closer to home and they can be safely spread out. The infrastructure is already there so there’s no upfront cost.

I had a conversation recently, someone said to me that because of the coronavirus, nobody is going to want to work from coworking spaces. But people who work from home now realise that it’s distracting, noisy, and there’s no input from other people. This pause is giving people time to rethink their options. I think it will be a positive outcome for coworking.

Allwork.Space: Coming back to your comments about inclusivity and how we need to get real about changing the office, what do people and companies need to do?

There isn’t just one thing that companies need to do. We need to look at the workplace structure and think longer term. How can we build teams that are more diverse in every way; not just colour, but in other ways too? Why haven’t we noticed that our offices look one way? People go to marches on the weekends, but on Monday they go back to the same office and work in the same way. So what can we do?

We have to hold ourselves accountable, and we have to hold leadership accountable. The important change is to see things from different perspectives.

Allwork.Space: How can we create change that actually lasts?

There is a lot of short term thinking, but we need to think long term. Doing one post on #BlackOutTuesday isn’t enough. That was weeks ago. Some platforms said on the day that they were committed to change, but since then, all their posts look like the ones before. Their behaviour is the same as before.

What we need is sustainable change in the workplace. Regarding race and the civil rights movement, it’s not just a case of changing the law on how the police handle situations; what we need is to change our day to day behaviours at home, around other people, and in the office. This is where people make their means, interact with others, and have purpose in what they do. That’s a really important place.

We shouldn’t see 2020 as a bad year. It’s the year that everyone has finally woken up to what’s wrong with the workplace and society. This is an opportunity for change and a new chapter.

For more information about building collaborative and diverse teams, connect with Alex on LinkedIn or contact him via his website: alexahom.com.

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