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From dystopia to utopia: How UK co-working spaces are redefining the new normal

Proust wework coworking space

The pandemic suddenly forced millions of workers out of the offices to work from home. Before the pandemic, flexible-office companies like WeWork made up a growing sliver of real estate – 2.3% of leasable space in the US as of the first quarter of 2020, according to JLL research, and the sector has grown an average of 23% per year since 2010. 

Now, insiders predict a short-term pinch for the industry, as employees fear returning to people filled floors and as some of the small businesses that relied on these spaces have reduced their headcount. Addressing these concerns will be of paramount importance for co-working space providers. 

Addressing the elephant in the room 

Given the current situation, anyone is bound to think twice before deciding to work out of a co-working space. Addressing these concerns that weigh down on everyone’s mind will be critical for co-working space providers such as Spacemade and WeWork. How will the companies make sure that users are comfortable enough to return back to coworking spaces? 

To make this happen, Jonathan Rosenblatt, co-founder and co-CEO at Spacemade notes that establishing trust is of paramount importance. “Businesses don’t want to think about building compliance, air quality, sanitisers, extra cleaning and more, but they do want all of that to be taken care of. Thus, the trust rests with flexible workspace operators.”

Spacemade is a first-of-its-kind operational partner for landlords looking to provide a bespoke flexible workspace offer directly to their customers. The group has over 100,000 sq ft of flexible office space under operation in London, Leeds and Bristol. The business was founded by Jonny Rosenblatt and Dan Silverman. Recently, the startup also bagged £1 million funding to grow its flexible workspaces in the UK.

WeWork, the most controversial name in this space, failed to become public, last year and got battered hard. Industry experts believed that it was time for the co-working player to make peace with the sunset, but a year and a pandemic later, the office-sharing firm is still standing strong.

UKTN also had a chat with Mathieu Proust, General Manager from WeWork UK  and he emphasises how the company is working really hard to make sure their spaces are as safe as possible. The company has invested heavily in doubling up on sanitisation, installing HVAC systems for constant air filtration and regularly sanitising frequently used elements like door handles and lifts. 

Additionally, it even changed the layout for some of its offices to enable a roomier environment and to shape user’s behaviour within a space. WeWork also obtained third-party certification from Bureau Veritas, which ensures that they are actually living up to the high standards of sanitisation. 

Overall, establishing trust with consumers, having mitigations in place and delivering on promises of sanitising their spaces will be crucial for coworking spaces to thrive again. 

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Moving towards the ‘flexible’ new normal 

Both WeWork and Spacemade have numerous buildings available across London. While some of their spaces follow the modern dynamic workspaces landscape, others are ‘collaboration hubs.’ These hubs are geared towards enabling idea exchanges with no traditional desk or chairs layout and a lot of whiteboards. 

WeWork also recently launched All Access, which is its monthly membership. It is different from its standard subscription as one receives their badge, which grants access to any of the company’s buildings around the world. Essentially, it makes the entire city your campus. “One can open the app and decide if they don’t want to work in the same location as yesterday. If they have a client meeting in Victoria, for example, they can work in a location nearby,” Proust explains. 

WeWork’s Growth Campus

WeWork also recently announced an allocation of £15 million for subsiding rents for struggling SMEs. Additionally, in London and other cities, it will provide free mentoring and education opportunities to help SMEs recover. 

It is no surprise that the work from home scenario has changed our lives forever. However, it is something that will be difficult to support indefinitely because it hampers collaboration and in turn, innovation. For smaller and even medium-sized companies, collaboration serves as an important tool to fuel innovation. WeWork aims to deliver it through Growth Campus. 

Additionally, Growth Campus will also enable a new generation of entrepreneurs to come into the limelight. Proust calls them the ‘COVID generation of entrepreneurs,’ which is something WeWork wants to be a part of. “In the UK, specifically, we witnessed the rise of new entrepreneurs. Last year, new business formations stood at 13% and that’s why we created Growth Campus, to do our part and give something back to the SMEs and the entrepreneurial attitude,” Proust adds. 

WeWork will consider any company under the new program if their employee headcount is below 20 and if they have a vision to scale within the UK or internationally.

Spacemade
Image credits: Spacemade

Changes for co-working spaces in a post-pandemic world

Rosenblatt predicts that in a post-pandemic world, where almost everything is changing, the short-term outlook will be highly competitive. This is expected to create notably attractive pricing propositions for the customers. If this turns out to be true, it will be good news for end customers as it makes returning to the office even more attractive. 

Talking about mid-to-long term changes, he says there will be a pretty seismic shift to a more flexible and hybrid work approach as flexibility also means one can repurpose their office. “Flexibility is key and we see most businesses moving towards using space on demand with requirements such as different spaces for different uses throughout the week. This can be difficult for businesses to deliver without professional support from specialist co-working providers,” Rosenblatt adds. 

The future for coworking spaces

It can be difficult to accurately predict what’s going to happen next in any sector at the moment. However, Proust opines that the future for co-working spaces is all about flexibility. 

Proust notes, “Now that places are reopening, we’re going back to a new normal. But what is the new normal? This could look something like enabling members to choose how many days they want to work and what can we set up for them. Do they want an exciting office? And those are the kind of problems we are solving.”

Rosenblatt’s thoughts align similarly as well. He says, “The question we need to ask is; if you’re a team of 10, on the days that you’re in the office, would you rather have a small leased space with no amenity, or would you rather have access to thousands of sq ft of the hospitality-driven workspace where you can be surrounded by new people to interact with?”

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New coworking spaces in the works

For current and future plans, Both WeWork and Spacemade are opening more co-working spaces across London and the UK. SpaceMade recently launched a new space, Neighbourhood Works at London Fields a few weeks ago and many new spaces are said to be in the pipeline. 

As for WeWork, it recently opened up a new space in Shoreditch. It is also in the process of curating new workplaces all around the UK.