Interview: Christine Andrews

Christine Andrews, (Acme Works Coworking Space) for Coworking Toronto Collective
Christine Andrews, (Acme Works Coworking Space) for Coworking Toronto Collective
How would you define specifically a coworking workplace relative to shared office, public workspaces (community centres, libraries), mixed workspaces, maker spacers and business centre workplaces; also Incubator or accelerator models? Is a membership/partnership/cooperative model rather than a lease-type model core to the concept?

As a general rule, the key difference between coworking and other types of shared space comes down to community and shared values. Within a true coworking space the priority is placed on the people, not the physical space. There are coworking values that all authentic coworking spaces embrace and they are: Community, collaboration, accessibility, sustainability and openness. We believe that everyone’s creativity and productivity are enhanced by the other members within the community. Coworking owner/operators actively encourage and some curate their communities to attract members open to collaboration. Coworking space operators refer to those in their space as members not tenants, generally we do not have leases or rental agreements but Membership Agreements with very flexible terms. Authentic coworking spaces have shared areas accessible by all members, such as lounges, shared tables, open kitchens or hot desks, welcome daily drop-ins and offer monthly memberships.

Who are the current main users/members of coworking workplaces; what is the trend in terms of who will be the main users in the future (e.g. HOK/Cornet Global 2016 report suggests corporation employees are now a significant and growing percentage of users/members)?

Traditionally coworking spaces attracted a slightly younger demographic mid 20’s to 30’s generally with a male skew and many members were focused on the technology sector as freelancers or entrepreneurs/start-ups. However, economic and social forces are combining to create the most entrepreneurial generation ever. The 2016 Emergent Research Report on Small Business identifies that people nearing retirement, their children just entering the job market, women moving away from corporate jobs and immigrants will swell the small business/entrepreneurial sector in coming years. All of these segments of the workforce will find that coworking spaces meet their need for support, flexibility, productivity, collaboration and shared learning. In addition, the freelance economy is expanding and freelancers increasingly want to choose when, where and how they work, choose work they find interesting and fulfilling and overall want a better work life balance – coworking spaces meet these needs in a highly efficient manner. Lastly, we do see a move toward corporate employees moving into coworking spaces. Corporations are shifting away from a full-time workforce contained in large office complexes to contract workers not permanently housed at Corporate HQ. Some of these workers are working from home and they seek out coworking spaces to address their need for interaction and stimulation. In addition, many corporations have realized that inserting teams into coworking spaces can increase the productivity of these teams and it often places them closer to cutting edge and emerging products and technology.

Acme Works, Toronto.
Acme Works, Toronto.
What are the most important attributes of a successful coworking workplace; e.g. shared services, social interaction capability, flexible (varied and funky?) work areas, IT support, collaborative programming (seminars, etc.). What are emerging attributes…for example, cloud access; private work spaces, meeting rooms, mix of coworking and shared office arrangement?

The most successful coworking spaces are those that can keep their members happy and retain them. But the criteria vary based on what different member communities are seeking. Some spaces offer a lot of programming and interaction, other’s almost none, some offer IT support and others don’t. The key is for the owners/operators or managers to engage with their community to see what they want and provide it effectively. However, there are certain basics that must be met – spaces must be highly functional offering many ways to work – quiet space, ideation/interactive space, lounge space and meeting rooms. Stand up desks or alternative ways of physically working are increasingly important and it goes without saying that a rock solid network connection and infinite amounts of coffee are a must. GCUC say that spaces where members feel they can be their true authentic selves will always be successful and in my experience that is true. All members want to be able to easily find and connect with other members so on-line member directories, chatrooms, Slack or unique applications that allow members to connect are increasingly important. Also, globally the size of spaces is increasing with the number of very small spaces (10 or fewer members) declining dramatically while at the same time nearly one in five spaces boasts over 150 members (Deskmag).

Within the industry/sector what is the relationship between the type of coworking workplaces represented in Coworking Toronto and the large international firms like Regus, Servcorp and WeWork? Is it like IGA vs Loblaws or Home Hardware vs Home Depot? What is the significance of secondary coworking spaces promoted by hotels, coffee bistros, add-on coworker spaces by a private business, colleges and universities, community centres, libraries, maker spaces, etc.?

Right now we all coexist. However, to be clear Coworking Toronto does not consider Regus or ServCorp coworking –they are Executive Offices. In addition work space offered by hotels or coffee bistros are also not coworking as they are offering space and amenities for workers who are passing through. This doesn’t mean that workers sharing a space for a day or two won’t collaborate or share learning but generally they don’t consider themselves nor do they exhibit the characteristics of a community. There are many types of shared workspaces emerging – community centers and libraries offering a space for workers is a great example – but not all these spaces are coworking. However, as we see the rise of more corporates, smaller independent spaces will have greater opportunities to collaborate, pool and share resources. The type of workers seeking the amenities of these various different shared office models is going to continue to grow so we believe we can all coexist, learn from each other and in some cases work together.

Are members of Coworking Toronto collaborating with LiquidSpace or similar apps makers to use the Airbnb approach to attracting workers? Could this approach impact the length of memberships or even t he very concept of time defined membership?

Each member company of Coworking Toronto choose their products, services, software and applications separately and make the choice that is right for them. Some use Liquidspace, Share Desk, Happy Desk, Breather or Raaly (there are dozens) if it makes sense for them. In my experience these applications help spaces fill the corners and attract those members who might be passing through for a short(er) period of time and are looking for ease of booking and or price reductions. Deskmag data shows that members are moving toward shorter memberships but this is most likely a result of greater choice and more options and less a function of applications. The number one challenge facing all coworking spaces is attracting new members and applications and products that help with this will always be welcome.

Acme Works, Toronto.
Acme Works, Toronto.
The HOK study raises the issue of upcoming renewal of leases for many coworking workspaces indicating that many are based on five year leases negotiated at a time when lease costs were lower or for under-utilized space that is now in demand areas. Is this a concern for your members?

I believe the HOK data is correct; however, most of the members of Coworking Toronto either own their buildings outright or have signed leases relatively recently. That said we have seen member spaces in the past and spaces we are familiar with in other cities have to close for this exact reason. So it is definitely something we are all very aware of. Deskmag indicates that 21% of space operators cite Real Estate as a problem that affects them very often or rather often. I don’t have comparable data for Toronto but anecdotally that is probably an accurate number for us as well.

What is the growth potential of demand? HOK suggests overall it will stabilize around 2% -4% penetration of the office market and that saturation is now becoming an issue; Deskmag’s ongoing 2017 survey indicates significant growth in members from 2011 to 2017 but as the numbers rise, the actual growth rates of spaces and members are steadily declining 88%-22%; 104%-41% annually.

As our industry matures it is only natural that we will not sustain the same growth rate we have seen historically. However, two out of three spaces still intend to expand their floor space and 40% plan a new location (Deskmag). I believe this statistic lines up with the decline of smaller spaces. The profitable (and generally larger spaces) will survive. The smaller spaces that have struggled but stayed afloat to now may not survive. As we approach a more static industry situation there will be pressure on spaces to find new ways to attract and maintain their membership fostering a wave of innovation, improvement and perhaps increased collaboration and sharing, forming of networks and increased efficiencies.

What is the future of Coworking workspaces in Toronto/Canada over the next decade; what are the key trends?

The members of Coworking Toronto are optimistic about the future and confident that our spaces and our approach to work will continue to meet the need of the changing workforce and economy. Many of the trends identified above will continue to drive coworking; a move to larger spaces or multiple locations; an increase in members employed by companies and the changing face of the entrepreneurs who call our spaces home. New applications, software and products will emerge to help us run our spaces more effectively and efficiently. The industry will continue to expand, although more slowly, but it will look different. Trends out of Asia, India and Africa will influence the more mature coworking economies in North America and Europe. Independent networks and products that facilitate them will become increasingly popular as independent spaces align to provide an authentic alternative to corporate and real estate players.

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