- Ben Eckblad is the CEO and co-founder of GorillaSpace, an online marketplace for workspaces in Asia.
- In this Q&A, Ben discusses how Covid-19 is impacting businesses in Singapore and how attitudes toward the workplace are changing.
- Following “hyper growth” and a period of uncertainty, many businesses are now cautiously resuming workplace plans — with many turning to flexible space.
Ben Eckblad has worked in the real estate sector for over 20 years. He’s the CEO and co-founder of GorillaSpace, an online market for workspaces in Asia, headquartered in Singapore. We caught up with Ben recently to find out how Covid-19 is impacting businesses in Singapore and how attitudes toward the office are changing.
Allwork.Space: Before we delve into market trends and predictions, what’s the story behind the name GorillaSpace?
Ben Eckblad: We chose the name for two reasons. We think it’s catchy and easy to remember, but it’s also inspired by a well-known research project that took place in the 1970s to explain what we see and don’t see. The experiment involved two teams – one dressed in white and the other in black.
The audience was asked to watch the teams on a TV and count how many times they passed the basketball. While they were concentrating on that, somebody dressed as a gorilla enters the frame, beats their chest and walks off. At the end of the experiment the researchers asked members of the audience if they spotted it. Believe it or not, 70 per cent didn’t see it because they were so focused on the teams passing the ball.
It demonstrates how we can easily miss a lot of information when we’re focused on one thing. So, we like to say that GorillaSpace helps you see the entire market, including options that you may not have considered.
”A shop house is a traditional industrial solution and many have been converted into beautiful offices.”
GorillaSpace is the first workspace platform in Asia to serve up a wide range of different options. We’re focused on flexible space and within that we have coworking, serviced offices, and fitted spaces – offices that have been left behind by an outgoing tenant who hasn’t reinstated their lease. We also offer the Singapore-centric option of shophouses.
Allwork.Space: What are Singapore shophouses and how do they relate to office space?
A shop house is a traditional industrial solution and many have been converted into beautiful offices. We include those in our search results as a really good alternative to a Grade A CBD office. What’s interesting is that when people come to the site, they might be intent on renting a space in a shop house but after seeing the search results may fall in love with a traditional office space – and vice versa.
We’ve created 360° panoramas for all the spaces that we list. Because of Covid-19, it’s even more important now that people are able to preview spaces before they go and visit.
Allwork.Space: What drew you to the flexible workspace industry in Asia?
I’ve been in commercial real estate for over 20 years. I started my career in Hong Kong working with CY Leung & Co before it became DTZ (now part of Cushman & Wakefield). I also spent a lot of time in China and Taiwan covering the greater China region. Then I moved to Paris, continued with DTZ for a decade before coming back out to Asia to run the Cisco account for JLL. I ran Cisco’s entire APAC portfolio from Bangalore to Beijing to Brisbane, managing a team of 8+ people handling transactions and lease management.
It became clear over time that there was a segment of the SME market that just wasn’t getting a very good service for their requirements. Brokers didn’t have the tools to be able to service smaller requirements and generate smaller fees at scale.
That was the genesis of GorillaSpace. In essence, we’re using technology and communication to speed up the discovery of workspaces. Everything we’re doing is what I wanted to have as a tenant rep when I was helping my leasehold clients.
We’re also helping companies to fill their surplus office space, which is an especially prevalent need now as a lot of companies are looking to downsize their obligations. We’re the first platform in Asia to be built around the recommendation engine.
Allwork.Space: How does your workspace recommendation engine work?
When a user comes to the platform we take them through a series of clarifying questions – such as headcount, location preferences and work style preferences. As we take them through the process we’re building a model for their needs, after which the engine matches them with the known universe of possibilities in Singapore.
We’re very interested in the ‘vibe’ element. Coworking is a generic term for so many different types of solutions now: professional, cheap and cheerful and a combination of the two. There’s the right space for everybody and our recommendation engine creates a shortlist with good options within seconds.
Allwork.Space: How is the Singaporean flexible workspace market faring at the moment?
There has been hyper growth. Flexible spaces accounted for a huge part of the net take up in Singapore even though historically all the major markets around Asia were actually very tight and had low vacancy levels. The large global and midsize operators are growing and everyone seems to have been acquisition bent.
We’re seeing some consolidation: some operators are giving back space, and that’s happening at different speeds in different cities around Asia. The category of flexible space is here to stay: it’s not just for small startups anymore but is part of what a multinational looks for. CBRE recently published the results of a survey showing that flexible workspace will feature in the real estate strategies of 73 per cent of businesses moving forwards.
I think the dichotomy between ‘traditional’ and ‘flexible’ space will converge. We’re going to see more institutional landlords get into the game of helping existing tenants within their buildings by, for instance, reducing the lease terms. (We already have shorter lease terms in Asia than in the UK or North America.)
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The biggest flex space operators are fulfilling turnkey requirements by building out bespoke fit outs for members, so where’s the line? If a flex space will build your space for you, rentalise the CapEx and operate the space, what’s the difference between that and a so-called ‘traditional’ office space? The conversation is going to err towards the community side of things. In other words, it’s no longer going to be all about bums on seats and presenteeism.
Allwork.Space: How is Covid-19 affecting attitudes towards flexibility in Singapore?
Covid has accelerated the shift towards flexibility. Long-term traditional spaces will continue to have a role, but big companies are considering flexible space at least in the short-term. Some large Chinese companies are moving into Singapore. TikTok has just placed 200 employees in JustCo for one year. Is that a long term play? Maybe not, because traditionally Chinese companies like to own their space.
Allwork.Space: You’ve located a flexible workspace for some big names, including Google. How are corporations utilising this type of real estate?
Large consultancies have a continuous need for temporary spaces – they win a project and need to accommodate a group of people outside of their space to get the job done, usually for a finite period of time. So they come through our platform looking for ten, 20 headcount solutions, usually for six months or so.
We also see banks looking to accommodate innovation teams. They realise they can’t keep everybody inside the bank doing their day-to-day job and also think about innovation, so they put everyone outside for a period of time and run innovation programmes, using flexible space as a way to address that need.
At the moment, Fortune 500 companies are looking for short-term solutions because their companies are not back 100%.
In Singapore we’re now at 50%. For example, if you work 40 hours a week, 20 hours will be at the office. Businesses started off by rotating staff on a weekly basis, then realised that it doesn’t work because they need to print projects, speak with accounting, etc.
So they’ve gone from week-by-week to a day-by-day approach. Team A is in one day, team B the next, and so on. So we have a lot of individuals saying to us: ‘I’m only allowed to go into the office Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but I need to get stuff done and working from home isn’t working out.’ People just need a quiet place to work when they’re not in the office. We’re starting to call it the ‘third space’ – it’s not the office, it’s not home.
Personally, I think you’re going to come into the office to collaborate with your colleagues rather than do ‘head down’ work.
Allwork.Space: How are you managing your own team at GorillaSpace?
Ben: We’re balancing remote work with coworking as a team. Videoconferencing doesn’t replace face-to-face collaboration. We have the advantage of working with some great coworking partners and I want to expose the team to all the different types of partners out there to enable us to speak more intelligently when we’re helping clients.
“…transportation in other major cities in Asia can be an issue.”
Our clients that have been able to terminate their leases are taking smaller commitments in coworking. For example a team of 20 might take a private room for five but then buy meeting room credits so that different people can meet on an ad hoc basis.
Frankly, not everybody can come into the office; Singapore being a smaller city has got less of a transportation problem but transportation in other major cities in Asia can be an issue. Also, people may need to care for someone at home – whether it’s an older relative or child.
This shift has given the power back to the individual. It’s given them the autonomy to work flexibly in a way that’s most comfortable for them.
Allwork.Space: Are you receiving more enquiries during this period of uncertainty?
It’s definitely fluctuated in accordance with the information coming from the Government. When we were in lockdown very little happened because nobody knew what to do. We had a lot of questions around payment terms, so there was always a touchpoint with clients.
Then when the lockdown started to relax, companies started to think about office space again, but the ‘I like it, I buy it’ mentality has gone and people are considering things for longer. In the month of October we were back to Q1 numbers in terms of volume of transactions, but I don’t want to read too much into it as there’s still a big cloud out when it comes to what’s going to happen.
Allwork.Space: Pandemic aside, are you growing as a business?
Because of the pandemic and the fact that the countries we operate in are opening up at different rates, we’re consolidating our efforts on Singapore right now. I was talking to a client in Tokyo who said that all the trains are full again, so people are going back.
“We’re watching key markets in Asia closely as their economies open up…”
Japanese companies are still saying it’s okay to work from home, but the reality is that some people also want to return to the office. Homes in Asia tend to be smaller, so even if you’re allowed to work from home you might choose to come into the office because you can’t work productively or comfortably in your small flat.
We’re watching key markets in Asia closely as their economies open up: ones with a lot of potential like Hồ Chí Minh, Jakarta, Bangkok.
Because we’re a tech company we rely less on large sales teams; we look more for partnerships with brokers and focus on the marketing and matching engine side. It means that we’re able to go into a new market with a much smaller footprint. We are watching the acquisition of Truss in North America by Avison Young with interest.
I think we’re going to see more well-established real estate brokers looking for ways to help their customers think about flexible space as part of their overall strategy at scale.
Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen, but flexibility in every sense of the word is key and nothing’s off the table. Having worked in the industry for 20 years now, the property sector has been a little slow to onboard technology but Covid has accelerated more innovative approaches. It’s an exciting time to be in this industry.
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