Key Learnings From The Flexible Workspace Industry In 2020 (Part 7)

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Robert Kropp shares key learnings and insights from flexible workspace operators, BE.Spoke (UK) and The Executive Centre (Asia Pacific).
  • Robert Kropp shares key learnings and insights from flexible workspace operators, BE.Spoke (UK) and The Executive Centre (Asia Pacific).  
  • Both operators explain how they adapted to the events of 2020 and transitioned their business models.  
  • Both brands are focusing on their clients’ needs, which ultimately requires a “blending of hospitality, service, and real estate” to enhance the workplace experience for occupiers.  

As the 7th part in an 8-part series on the evolution of the flexible workspace industry, I have been diving into key topics of learning, pivots, and opportunities that the changes over the last year have instilled with industry leaders, owners, operators, advisors, landlords, consultants and more. 

If you missed the other six articles in the series, check them out: 

In this article, I have discussions with BE.Spoke and The Executive Centre.  

TLDR Highlights: 

1.     Long Term Lease vs Flex 
2.     Integrate HR into the Workspace 
3.     Self-Delivery vs Space as a Service 
4.     Landlords Need to Be Customer Centric 
5.     Flexibility & Adaptability for Organizations 
6.     “Smarter with real estate” = Resilient Business 
7.     Using Key Learnings from the Pandemic for Future Changes 
8.     New Demand vs Current Products 
9.     The Importance of the Employee Experience 

Here is what we learned and what’s next: 

BE.Spoke based out of London, England

According to BE.Spoke, companies recognise that in order to attract and retain employees, employers and workspace providers need to “create healthy, dynamic, engaging, and creative spaces.” 

I had the pleasure of speaking with Jonathan Weinbrenn, the managing director of BE.Spoke

BE.Spoke was launched in 2017 by BE Offices as “a new division offering large corporate occupiers requiring flexible space an all-encompassing one-stop service.” 

Jonathan said that throughout much of 2020, many corporate heads froze decisions around real estate in the UK market. “Some deals went through, but the majority became stagnant.” 
 
By late 2020, things started to move in both long-term leases and flex space. Flex space is still the minority; however, he believes the “lines will continue to blur”. I would also have to agree based on what I have been hearing in countless conversations these past months. 

According to Jonathan, there are many larger companies and sophisticated businesses with real estate teams that are really good at self-delivery. However, in today’s world, many of these same organizations are having a change in mindset on how to deliver on the right work environment for employees. They are increasingly asking “how do we help people work better” as they seek to understand the needs of their staff more. 

Part of the solution is to integrate the “HR arm into their workspace” with a new focus on the “blending of hospitality, service, and real estate”. 

Key Learning: Jonathan believes that there is an overwhelming trend to create better space and better environments for people to work. 

Why? 

Employers “understand talent is (increasingly) limited and competitive… These employees have a choice where they work now.” In order to attract and retain employees, employers and workspace providers need to “create healthy, dynamic, engaging, and creative spaces.” 

Also, many of these employers are thinking “maybe we don’t need as much space. What we do know is it needs to be better.” Ultimately, “how do we reimagine, reorganize, refurbish, and change the use of space.” 

The challenge is that these changes “take time and investment”, which often times is more difficult to implement from inside of an organization looking to self-deliver. 

In the past, Jonathan continues saying that “staff have been primarily left out” of these conversations. Partially this was due to discussions being conceptual only and “remaining in senior leadership” circles. Today, many of these same organizations are “shocked at how quickly they are making changes like this”. 
 
Key Learning: As employers are making changes to how they utilize workspace, landlords are increasingly seeing the opportunity and need of providing flexible options to match the growing demand. 

As part of adopting greater flexible options and becoming more “customer centric”, Jonathan says that landlords will need to “listen more”, change the physical environment to match the needs of clients, and add an “element of hospitality.” 

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In some occasions landlords will be providing these new workspaces, models and experiences from their in-house teams; however, Jonathan said that he was shocked at the growth in demand from landlords for space-as-a-service solutions this past year. 

Future: Although much of the focus on this type of flexible workspace growth in the past has been in center cities, Jonathan expects to see even more attention outside of key tier 1 cities. He says that there is a belief “that people will come to HQs less, work from home, or work near home sometimes.” As a result, “landlords are excited to package” up new offerings and bring them to the neighborhoods. 

Future: The office world and overall “experience needs to change… If we can get people excited (engaged), it is important” for the growth of the industry that comes next. 

The Executive Centre, 150+ Locations in the APAC (Asia-Pacific) 

Flexibility became even more important during the pandemic, according to TEC, with virtual office plans becoming more popular. 

It was also fantastic to speak with Chelsea Perino, Managing Director, Global Marketing & Communications at The Executive Centre (TEC). 

While diving into the experience over the past year, Chelsea mentioned that she and TEC have been on a mission to explain the value of flexible workspace in order to continue to propel the industry forward. Originally the industry was always on the fringe, however, as 2020 continued to prove to us, “flexibility and adaptability is critical for (many) organizations”. 

As flexibility and adaptability became more important than ever, Chelsea said the two main costs of most organizations, personnel and real estate, took focus. “If you can be smarter with real estate, then you can be a resilient business.” 

As we all know, 2020 was a year of change. Operationally, since a large volume of TEC’s locations are in mainland China, they had “already been dealing with Covid before the rest of the world acknowledged it was a problem”. This experience gave early training on “what are the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and things we needed to do from a health / sanitation perspective to implement in spaces for the future.” 

From January to March 2020, Chelsea said that they were focused on how to get offices back open to “help businesses work if they could”. 

Key Learning: There was a “steep learning curve in the beginning”, however, their experiences were used as a “framework for the rest of their markets”. It is important, as many of my conversations have brought up, to use our experiences from the past and leverage the learnings and processes implemented into the future.  

Like other operators, they also focused significantly on transparency and sharing information with members often. 

Key Learning: Communication continues to be a key element for navigating the pandemic in a workspace perspective. TEC focuses on frequently providing important updates and “enough info (for members) to feel safe and run businesses” at every touch point whether in person or digitally. 

Once China opened in mid-March, the recovery and return to the office took 3 – 5 weeks after offices were open. In addition, “once back in the office, people stayed longer” than usual. 

For the rest of 2020 and into 2021, TEC was able to focus on new demand and how their products fit the needs of the market. 

TEC opened 14 new centers in 2020 and saw an increase in new customers from the fintech, prop-tech, and healthcare industries. 

Chelsea said that they discovered, as many others, that flexibility had become even more important for many. Coworking and virtual office plans became more popular. At the same time, many “people don’t necessarily want to work in an open space with others” so they had to see how their designs were supporting that change. 

Key Learning: As we are hearing internationally, one of the biggest shifts they are noticing from a demand perspective is that “large corps are looking at changing their leased space portfolio.” 

When deciding on renewing a lease, many corporates are asking “Do we need this lease for this many people? What do we do?” For many, they don’t know yet, however, there is a “happy medium” which could mean downsizing a portion of their real estate portfolio and putting it toward a more flexible offering. This “builds efficiency in a cap ex / expense perspective.” 

Key Learning: Chelsea also said that it was exciting to see so many larger organizations realizing they “can’t separate people, experience, real estate, finance, etc.” Flexibility and a focus on employee experience and wellness plays an important role here. 

Future: As part of adapting to member needs during 2020 and beyond, Chelsea expects a change in center design in some current and future locations. “All centers have amenities,” but due to the drastic increase in virtual calls, they are adding video conferencing rooms with “light to make sure you look like a human being”, “different backgrounds in the room”, improved sound quality, and even virtual meeting packages extended to members who need this. 

Future: Moving forward, Chelsea also said that they are focused on their members and what role space plays in their work/life experience. Ultimately “a human focus is becoming more important than ever before.” 

Looking Ahead 

Thank you to BE.Spoke and The Executive Centre for partaking in my series on key learnings from the flexible workspace industry during 2020 and beyond. 

Although these organizations are quite different in mission, size, model, and location, it was interesting to see what they have experienced, learned, done similarly and different, along with what they expect from the future during a time of such significant change. 

As more people and organizations than ever are looking at coworking, flex space, space-as-a-service, and other flexible workspace options as actual options, it is important for us to be agile, learn, and adapt to these changes. 

If you would like to chat about your workspace or organization’s experience this past year and outlook for the future, feel free to contact me directly. 

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